Ismael Salas remembers the first time Yordenis Ugas caught his eye.
Just three weeks after Ugas started training with Salas, he had a sparring session with Gabriel Rosado, one of boxing’s top action fighters. Until that moment six years ago, Salas had never seen Ugas, who was in the midst of an uneventful pro career. Ugas turned the first impression into one of the best sparring sessions Salas had ever seen.
“It was a title match fight instead of a sparring with Rosado,” Salas told ESPN.
Salas immediately knew what he had in Ugas. But for years, the rest of the boxing world didn’t. And even after an upset win that sent future Hall of Famer Manny Pacquiao into retirement and made Ugas the WBA champion, he is still having to prove to people he’s one of the world’s best welterweights. The 35-year-old Cuban is a considerable underdog this weekend against Errol Spence Jr., one of boxing’s top pound-for-pound fighters and a unified welterweight champion.
Ugas is perfectly happy to be in this position. After all, it’s one that he knows well by now.
“People can say whatever they want to say because I’m used to people underestimating me in my life,” Ugas told ESPN through a translator. “That’s nothing new to me. So I really don’t care if I’m the favorite or I’m the underdog. In the end, it’s up to me to prove that I can be a champion, a winner inside the ring.”
With a win against Spence on Saturday night (Showtime PPV, 9 p.m. ET) at AT&T Stadium, which is just miles from Spence’s home in the Dallas area, Ugas (27-4, 12 KOs) will unify three of the four title belts and play the ultimate spoiler in the 147-pound division.
For years, people considered Spence (27-0, 21 KOs) and Terence “Bud” Crawford (38-0, 29 KOs) as the two best welterweights in the world. Talk of a potential fight between the two undefeated fighters — one that still hasn’t happened — has been one of boxing’s biggest storylines. Ugas could upend that entire narrative with one win.
If that happens, it will be just another example of Ugas capitalizing on his chances.
Last year, Spence was the one originally scheduled to face Pacquiao, a fight that could have transformed Spence into a bigger star among casual sports fans. Instead, Spence was forced to withdraw because of a detached retina he sustained in sparring.
Eleven days before Ugas was scheduled to fight on the undercard against Fabian Maidana, he was promoted to the main event to face one of boxing’s all-time greatest fighters. And Ugas and Salas were ready.
“The one who’s a loser is the one who doesn’t like to take the chance and get the opportunity,” Salas said.
For this weekend’s fight, Ugas is an even bigger underdog. As of Tuesday, Ugas was +400 on the Caesars Sportsbook, which means a bettor who places a $100 bet on Ugas to win would get $400.
Still, Ugas is extremely confident in his chances to prove his status as an elite fighter. That belief stems from his work with Salas during training camp.
“He brings to the fights what he works on in training and uses it so well,” said Felix Trinidad, a 2014 inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. “He brings that preparation into the ring just like I used to. It makes me believe in him, and I know that he’s going to do well.”
Salas, who has trained Ugas for the past 13 fights, believes Spence is the best welterweight in the world. But that doesn’t mean they don’t believe they have an opening for an upset. Specifically, Salas believes they can use Spence’s aggression in their favor. They also don’t know if Spence is still the same fighter he was before he was injured in a serious car accident in 2019.
The durability that Spence showed in his decision over Shawn Porter in 2019, who beat Ugas via split decision that same year, wasn’t evident in Spence’s win over Danny Garcia in 2020.
Perhaps it was ring rust, Salas said. Or maybe it was a lack of confidence.
“But he was not the same guy anymore,” Salas said.
Those comments can be viewed as disparaging ones from a camp that doesn’t engage in trash talk. But they could also be words from a trainer who believes that he and his fighter are ready to show the skeptics a performance they’re not ready for.
At the very least, it should be exciting. Ugas has never been known for shying away from combat. And isn’t one to back down from a challenge, either.
“He’s totally the underdog,” Salas said. “But for Ugas, it’s no problem. He’s a guy, whatever comes in front of him, when the bell is rung, he will take care of it.”