By Lyle Fitzsimmons
Anyone who saw this coming five years ago, take a bow.
Back then, in the late spring of 2014, Yordenis Ugas was coming off a second straight loss – and third in seven fights – and teetering on the brink of “good fighter, but not quite on the top level” status.
To say he’s righted the ship since would be something of an understatement.
What followed was more than two years on the shelf, a wholesale change in geography and entourage, and a rise in weight to a division – welterweight – where his 5-foot-9 physique was more comfortable.
Eight wins and four stoppages later, he’s got an opportunity for an accomplishment the 2014 version only dreamed of.
“I changed divisions and I feel a lot stronger with seven more pounds on my body,” he told Boxing Scene. “I changed the location of where I live to really focus on boxing 100 percent.
“I changed my team completely – management, trainers, everybody – and now I feel like I’m in a good place since my comeback. Mentally, physically. I put all that in the past and the only thing that matters is Saturday night.”
That’s when the 32-year-old Cuban heads to Carson, Calif. for the first title shot of an eight-year career, against defending WBC 147-pound champ Shawn Porter atop a three-bout Premier Boxing Champions show to be broadcast live on Fox beginning at 8 p.m. ET.
It's Porter’s first defense of a belt he picked up by beating Danny Garcia last September in Brooklyn.
For Ugas, it’ll be the first appearance since he pitched a near shutout against Cesar Barrionuevo on the same card, and he’s already begun counting down the hours.
“Obviously now the whole camp’s done. We’re a few days away from the fight,” he said. “I’m 100 percent prepared physically and mentally. Now it’s just staying sharp, cutting the last few pounds and just ready to fight, waiting for that bell to ring.
“You try to keep your mind on other things so the time passes, because you just want that bell to ring, but obviously this is only thing that I care about in my life right now. It’s the most important thing in my life and my first opportunity at a world title, so this is all I’m thinking about and this is all I want. I’m really just counting the days.”
Ugas enters as the WBC’s sixth-ranked contender, thanks in large part to defeats of former title challenger Thomas Dulorme (UD 10) and the aforementioned Barrionuevo, who’d entered with seven knockouts in 10 consecutive victories.
He’s listed 14th in the division by the Independent World Boxing Rankings, which include all fighters in a weight class regardless of their placement by sanctioning bodies. Meanwhile, Porter is positioned at No. 4, training only Terence Crawford, Errol Spence Jr. and Manny Pacquiao.
Ring Magazine has Porter fourth in the division, too, but has Ugas six spots up at No. 8.
“(Porter is) a strong fighter. He tries to make fights ugly, but more importantly what people don’t look at sometimes is he knows how to box. He’s a really good boxer,” Ugas said.
“He did it in the Garcia fight and against some other guys. He throws you off. When he’s shoulder to shoulder sometimes he smothers his own work, but when he’s on the outside he’s a little more dangerous so I’ve got to be prepared for everything he brings.”
And not overwhelmed or overstuffed by the significance of the moment.
“We’ve got a game plan and you want to stick to the game plan. But obviously you’ve got to be open-minded and know that maybe that might not work and you’ve got to be able to adjust and go to another game plan,” he said. “I’ve got to go out there and I’ve got to go fight, every single second, every single minute of this fight to out there and become the new champion.
“That’s the way I’ve got to think. There are a lot of big names and I know they’re all looking to fight each other. The only way to get in that mix is to beat one of those names, and Porter is one of those names. That’s my main focus right now, beating Shawn Porter and making myself one of those household names in the 147-pound division.”
* * * * * * * * * *
This week’s legit title-fight schedule:
WBA light heavyweight title – Verona, New York
Dmitry Bivol (champion/No. 5 IWBR) vs. Joe Smith Jr. (No. 8 WBA/No. 9 IWBR)
Bivol (15-0, 11 KO): Fifth title defense; Two decision wins after five straight KO/TKO
Smith (24-2, 20 KO): First title fight; Four straight wins by KO/TKO (12 total rounds)
Fitzbitz says: Bivol hasn’t continued the momentum he’d gathered a year ago, but he’s still got enough all-around skill to handle a rugged but limited challenger. Could be a good one. Bivol in 10 (85/15)
WBC welterweight title – Carson, California
Shawn Porter (champion/No. 4 IWBR) vs. Yordenis Ugas (No. 6 WBC/No. 14 IWBR)
Porter (29-2-1, 17 KO): First title defense; Lost lone fight at Carson venue in 2014 (MD 12 Kell Brook)
Ugas (23-3, 11 KO): First title fight; Nine straight wins within welterweight limit (9-0, 4 KO)
Fitzbitz says: Ugas has skills and it’s not as if he doesn’t belong on this level, but Porter showed more in the win against Garcia than he had since his initial IBF title run. It continues. Porter by decision (90/10)
WBO junior welterweight title – Verona, New York
Maurice Hooker (champion/No. 4 IWBR) vs. Mikkel LesPierre (No. 10 WBO/Unranked IWBR)
Hooker (25-0-3, 17 KO): Second title defense; Won two previous fights in New York (2-0, 0 KO)
LesPierre (21-0-1, 10 KO): First title fight; First fight scheduled for more than 10 rounds
Fitzbitz says: The champion has succeeded in his brief exposure to high-level opposition, though this weekend’s opponent may not exactly qualify. Expect a convincing victory. Hooker by decision (90/10)
Last week's picks: 1-0 (WIN: Saludar)
2019 picks record: 15-3 (83.3 percent)
Overall picks record: 1,027-346 (74.7 percent)
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full-fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA "world championships" are only included if no "super champion" exists in the weight class.
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.