According to conventional wisdom, the 25-month gap since Manny Pacquiao’s last fight should work against him Saturday night when he faces Yordenis Ugas, a Cuban fighter from Las Vegas, for the World Boxing Association welterweight title.
Pacquiao, 42, could return to the ring two years slower and more frail than when he outclassed Keith Thurman in July 2019 to become the oldest welterweight champion in men’s boxing history. Ugas is three inches taller and seven years younger than Pacquiao, and could make Pacquiao pay if the older fighter’s speed has dulled during his two-year absence.
But Pacquiao, one of the greatest boxers from the late 2000s to the mid-2010s, said the time off gave him a chance to recharge. He said he trained as intensely as ever, but he focused more on recovery between sessions and between fights as he reaches middle age. He insists that the public see a refreshed fighter on Saturday.
“I’ve been boxing for 30 years, from amateur to professional, non-stop,” Pacquiao, 62-7-2, said in an interview. “My body has had two years to rest. Time to heal and recover.”
Saturday’s fight comes 20 years and two months after Pacquiao, then a 122lb dynamo, made his American debut on the undercard of Oscar De La Hoya’s title fight against Javier Castillejo. With matted blonde bangs and knickers emblazoned with a “No Fear” logo — current hair and fashion picks for 2001 — Pacquiao blew out incumbent champion Lehlo Ledwaba in six lopsided rounds. HBO’s play-by-play announcer Jim Lampley struggled to pronounce Pacquiao’s name. That fight happened so long ago, Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson were still fighting, and Floyd Mayweather Jr. was a junior lightweight nicknamed Pretty Boy instead of Money.
The stamina even surprises Pacquiao.
“I can’t imagine still being here after 20 years,” said Pacquiao, who turned pro in 1995 in his home country of the Philippines.
Most of Pacquiao’s contemporaries are either retired, like Lewis, or fighting in novelties, as Tyson did against Roy Jones and Mayweather against YouTube star Logan Paul. Only Pacquiao remains active and seeks elite opponents.
Pacquiao had signed to fight Errol Spence for the World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation welterweight titles. But a routine pre-fight eye exam — required in Nevada, but not all states — revealed a torn retina in Spence’s right eye, forcing the 31-year-old out of combat and Pacquiao’s trainer Freddie Roach to get a to draw up a new game plan in the short term.
“It’s minor adjustments, but it’s not that big of a deal,” Roach said in an interview.
By boxing industry standards, an opponent changes 10 days before the season’s biggest fight card qualifies as low-grade drama. The other mega event of the summer, a third meeting between heavyweights Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder, was postponed to October following a coronavirus outbreak at Fury’s training camp.
Last week, the WBA, which is confirming Saturday’s title fight, suspended a judge named Gloria Martinez Rizzo after her controversial scorecard in a fight between American Mykal Fox and Venezuelan Gabriel Maestre and after it was revealed she had written racist Twitter posts.
Against that backdrop, saving Saturday’s main event seemed relatively easy. Ugas, who holds the WBA title that the organization withdrew from Pacquiao last year for his inactivity, was scheduled to face Cristian Maidana in the co-feature match, but was promoted to the main event when Spence withdrew.
Until now, Ugas’ biggest claims to fame have been his friendship with Yankees assistant pitcher Aroldis Chapman and his bad luck with boxing judges. In 2019, he lost a decision to Shawn Porter in a title fight that many observers believed he won.
Like Pacquiao, Ugas fights from a left-handed stance, and like Spence, he’s an aggressive body puncher who isn’t afraid to exchange punches. He thrives more on timing than sheer speed, leading Roach to dismiss him as too slow to bother Pacquiao.
“He can hit a little,” Roach said. “But he’s an ordinary fighter.”
For his part, Ugas said he and his trainer, fellow Cuban expatriate Ismael Salas, have an antidote to Pacquiao’s quick feet and rapid-fire salvos.
“You have to make a lot of adjustments and I have a lot of confidence in my training, my camp, my team and what we do,” Ugas, who is 26-4, said in an interview. “If they underestimate me, they have a problem.”
A win would make Pacquiao the only fighter to win title fights in four different decades, but it may not mean he’s retiring. Roach has said he will retire if Pacquiao does, but both believe Pacquiao can still compete in a welterweight division with Spence, World Boxing Organization champion Terence Crawford and next-generation stars like Vergil Ortiz Jr. and Jaron Ennis.
“I’m here, adding to my legacy in boxing,” said Pacquiao. “I will continue to inspire people and make the fans happy. My goal is to become the best of all time.”