TWELVE months ago, the idea that Yordenis Ugás would become a defining opponent and test for Errol Spence Jnr would have been farfetched to say the least. Back then, all we wanted was for Spence to fight Terence Crawford – or, failing that, Manny Pacquiao. Back then, Ugás had registered a few notable wins but was best known for losing a close 12-round decision against Shawn Porter in 2019. Back then, he was considered a banana skin to avoid, not someone with a target on his back.

Then along came Manny Pacquiao and everything changed. For Ugás, 27-4 (12), Pacquiao would represent the ticket to the big time he had always craved and their fight last year offered the Cuban the opportunity to become something more than just a banana skin to avoid. He knew that if he beat Pacquiao, even a version in his forties, he would become somebody. Doors would open for him; his earning potential would skyrocket.

This Ugás understood the moment he upset Pacquiao last August to both finish the legendary Filipino’s career and enhance his own in ways he could only previously imagine. Suddenly, a low-key career fought in the shadows became something more and something greater. Suddenly, as a belt-holder in a division featuring too many of them, Ugás was given permission to clear his throat, open his mouth, and make the case that he and not Errol Spence, nor Terence Crawford, was the best 147-pound fighter in the world.

Better than that, Ugás could be sure he would now get the opportunity to prove it – which, in basic terms, meant he could be sure he would be well-compensated for beating Pacquiao going forward. Belt in hand, and profile raised, he had, in the blink of an eye, become an attractive proposition for the likes of Spence and Crawford and, in essence, a wanted man. It was therefore no shock at all when Ugás was booked for yet another major welterweight clash this Saturday (April 16) at the AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas.

Interestingly, No.3-ranked Ugás’ impending date with numero uno Spence was to some degree facilitated by Spence not turning up for his own fight against Pacquiao last August. That withdrawal, due to an eye injury, left Pacquiao in need of an opponent and Ugás, at the time deemed capable but beatable, happened to find himself selected as Spence’s replacement. It proved a disastrous mistake on the part of Pacquaio but a launchpad for Ugás, who, on Saturday, gets the chance to spring a second upset within the space of eight months.

Easier said than done, Spence, a man in his athletic prime, was just eight years old at the time of Pacquaio’s first title triumph. As Pacquaio then reached his peak, Spence was slowly learning how to jab, and by the time Spence turned pro in 2012, Pacquiao was succumbing to Juan Manuel Márquez in the fourth fight of an incredible rivalry.

Errol Spence

In other words, whereas Pacquiao was perhaps there for the taking last year, the prospect of fighting Spence, at 32, is an altogether different one for Ugás. All Pacquiao and Spence have in common, in fact, is their stance: southpaw. That and an impressive ability to keep winning.

Indeed, since beating Sheffield’s Kell Brook to lift the IBF title in 2017, in Brook’s home city, Spence has recorded five successful defences of the belt and shown in each of these defences different and often surprising facets to his game. He has boxed when he has needed to box, he has brawled when he has needed to brawl, and rarely has he ever looked troubled or even so much as confused or frustrated.

Spence has been looking this way – comfortable – against mostly world-class opposition as well. Carlos Ocampo, whom he crushed inside a round, was an easy one, and Lamont Peterson was past his best by the time they fought, yet Mikey Garcia-Shawn Porter-Danny Garcia represents a solid enough run of title defences and opponents en route to this, his sixth defence.

In the case of Porter and the Garcias (unrelated), Spence fought skilled opponents whose physical disadvantages were as much of an issue for them as anything Spence actually did to them. For among the many things Spence does well, what really separates him from the rest is his ability to utilise his size, considerable for a welterweight, and make the most of his physical strength. He uses all this as a supplement to his textbook fundamentals and thus it becomes the X-factor, or difference-maker, in fights in which his skills could potentially meet their equal.

With Ugás, a skilful boxer in his own right, expect Spence to be at his rugged, bullish best. Expect him to use his edge in freshness to set a pace he doubts Ugás can match and to then exert his strength whenever the pair find themselves tied up or fighting inside. Even when at a distance, expect Spence, boasting a longer reach by three inches, to try to punish Ugás with his fast back-hand whenever Ugás gets sloppy or overreaches with shots of his own.

Unlike a lot of Cubans, Ugás isn’t someone afraid to get busy and leave himself vulnerable in the ring. Often, in fact, he has been known to set the tempo in fights, throw more punches than his opponent, and take the fight to them. This was no better exemplified than in his defeat against Porter in 2019, a fight in which plenty would have been surprised to see Ugás pushing forward and going after Porter, a man usually aggressive. It was also evident against Pacquiao, when Ugás disarmed the favourite by coming out the gate quickly and lobbing numerous right hands his way.
A different sort of Cuban, Ugás has all but eradicated the amateur quirks that took him to a World Championship gold medal in 2005 and Olympic bronze in 2008. He has maintained the technical aspects of that style, and the foundations established during that time, but has done away with the point-scoring mentality and, at 35, fights as though the only option is to win by knockout.

That’s maybe strange to say given only 12 of his 27 pro wins have come inside schedule, yet, for Ugás, it’s more a matter of mentality than anything else. Which is to say, though not the biggest puncher at welterweight, Ugás’ desire to take fights out of the hands of the judges, or at least win rounds decisively, makes him a fighter not only fun to watch but one difficult to fight. High energy, he punches when opponents would rather rest and he has a good grasp of range, typically sticking at mid-range and knowing exactly when and when not to advance. He is, in these moments, comfortable, composed. He uses every bit of his experience to remain cool in the heat of battle.

Against Spence, this approach will be vital. It could also be something negated, however, by Spence’s own ability to stand in range and fire, as well as the Texan’s longer arms and general skillset. For while Ugás had joy against Pacquiao – a former flyweight, remember – by virtue of being the bigger and longer man, these kinds of advantages disappear when sharing the ring with Spence. In fact, depending on how Spence chooses to play it, there is every chance Ugás will be the one getting pushed back and manhandled on Saturday night, especially if his punch power fails to either put a dent in Spence or simply gain his respect. Should that happen, it could be a long night for Ugás. Should that happen, it’s more likely it will be him, and not Spence, who is outworked.

Mind you, in terms of momentum, few have as much as Yordenis Ugás right now and few need it as much as Errol Spence. Though neither has been particularly active of late – owing to a global pandemic, of course – Ugás’ last few years have been considerably less dramatic than Spence’s and his trajectory has been upwards for some time now. There has, from his perspective, been no crisis at all, let alone any fear of his career either stalling or falling apart altogether.

Manny Pacquiao
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Spence, on the other hand, has been less fortunate. Putting aside his ring form, which has remained excellent, Spence has had to deal with eye injuries, inactivity, and, in October 2019, a near-fatal car crash that left him in an intensive care unit. Lucky to come out alive, with only facial lacerations and no broken bones, Spence spent six days in hospital and was charged with a DWI (Driving While Intoxicated) by the Dallas Police Department. It was, in hindsight, not only a reminder of how prone to bouts of stupidity even the most gifted athletes can be but also a reminder that a career, even a seemingly perfect one, can be all over in a second if it is taken for granted.

Spence, fortunately, got away relatively unscathed. His body was relatively unscathed and his 27-0 (21) career, which resumed on December 2020 against Danny Garcia, was relatively unscathed, too. Yet, despite all this good fortune, one can’t help but wonder what the past three years will have done for his overall abilities, both in a physical capacity and in his capacity to really make a mark on the sport as a whole. After all, while he has only recently turned 32, Spence doesn’t have a great deal of time to waste and, moreover, still carries the look and feel of a newish champion about to build something great rather than a great champion in the middle of something great. This won’t have been helped by his injuries and inactivity, nor, for that matter, will it be helped by a defeat against Ugás on Saturday night.

There may, in truth, never be an ideal time to fight Errol Spence. He could just be that good. However, if one can assume his career will later be separated into the before-crash period and the after-crash period there could be something to be said for fighting him now, particularly with him being side-lined for the entirety of 2021 – the year in which Ugás rose to prominence. At least now, with momentum behind Ugás and uncertainty still surrounding Spence, there is the sense that an uneven playing field – taking into account physical attributes, talent, and past form – has been levelled somewhat.

Whatever happens on the night, we can be certain that in an ideal world Spence would have liked to have boxed and defended his title with greater regularity of late and we can be just as certain Ugás, his next opponent, has never been better or more confident than he is today. We can almost be certain, too, that in light of their styles Saturday’s fight should be action-packed and entertaining to watch.

Less certain, of course, is the outcome, yet the hunch, led by age and his all-round ability, is that Spence will prove to be much too good for Ugás when it comes down to it. It’s hard to see him stopping Ugás – a man never before stopped – but it’s not hard to imagine his physicality and sharpness from the southpaw stance delivering Spence a fairly wide decision after 12 rounds.

Topping a decent Texas undercard is a diluted WBA welterweight title fight between Russian Radzhab Butaev, 14-0 (11) and Lithuanian Eimantas Stanionis, 13-0 (9), with not one but two unbeaten records on the line. For context, Butaev is ranked seventh in the world but Stanionis is outside the Top 10. There are also 10-round fights between the undefeated Cody Crowley, 20-0 (9), and Josesito Lopez, 38-8 (21), at welterweight and Isaac Cruz, 22-2-1 (15), and Yuriorkis Gamboa, 30-4 (18), at lightweight.

The Verdict Another very good (but not quite great) matchup in the talent-laden welterweight division.