The drumbeat for last night’s welterweight championship fight between Manny Pacquiao (62-8-2, 39 knockouts) and Yordenis Ugas (27-4, 12 knockouts) was loud and dramatic.
Less than two weeks before the title tilt, Pacquiao’s original opponent, Errol Spence Jr., was forced to pull out of the bout because of a torn retina. Enter the 35-year-old Cuban refugee, Yordenis Ugas as a replacement.
Pacquiao was nonplussed about having to switch from training to fight a southpaw to doing battle with the orthodox Ugas.
He was, however, not so nonchalant about something else.
In the winter of 2021, the WBA stripped Pacquiao of his 147-pound title, gifting it to none other than Ugas. Irked by the WBA, Pacquiao found fresh motivation for last night’s fight, grousing, “I didn’t like that someone took my belt without challenging me in the ring. Both of us are champions, but we’ll see who has the belt after Saturday.”
Well, now we know. The underdog Ugas retained his title in a thrilling fray before a packed house at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
At the opening bell, Pacquiao attacked Ugas, jumping in against his much taller opponent with trademark fast flurries. For the first half of the bout, Pacquiao was the aggressor and landed the more impactful punches.
However, last night, there was a striking difference from Pacquiao’s customary ring repertoire. He was off his bobble-head type upper body movement as well as his flash-dance footwork and lateral motion. He stood statue-like in the pocket before a cagey opponent with a longer reach and rapier jab.
Pacquiao is renowned for his explosive straight left, but by mid-fight, Ugas was snapping wide rights behind his double jabs. In boxing, offense is a defensive tool. As Ugas began to find his rhythm and let his hands go, Pacquiao’s timing was thrown off and he seemed to think thrice about firing the punches that have laid many a famous opponent low. When Pacquiao did break the perimeter, he was off balance and his punches lacked their usual accuracy and power.
Still, this slower version of the PacMan fans have come to adore was relentless in his effort to close the gap and deliver a bomb that would change the direction of the fight that was slipping away from him.
The final verdict, a unanimous decision for Ugas, was a fair one. One judge scored the contest 115-113 and the other two, 116-112.
Ecstatic as he was, the first words out of Ugas’s mouth after his hand was raised were, “I just want to thank Manny Pacquiao for giving me this opportunity in the ring tonight.”
Cut, bruised, and exhausted, Pacquiao explained that the reason we didn’t see his hallmark movement was that were that his legs were stiff.
Before he could even catch his breath, Pacquiao was pasted with the question, “Are you going to retire now.”
“I don’t know,” he responded, “I need to rest and think about it.”
For years, Freddie Roach has promised that the minute he saw Manny slipping he would tell him to retire. Manny is magic, a psychological and physical outlier who, I was once informed, could get his heart rate up past 200 for a couple of minutes at a time. But Father Time is undefeated, and although the middle-aged PacMan can still slip punches, you don’t have to be Freddie Roach to see what was on display tonight: he has not slipped the aging process.
In his recently published ground-breaking Damage, Tris Dixon documents the long-term effects that follow from eating thousands of brain-swirling blows. The eight-time weight division world champion turns 43 in December and is a veteran of 72 contests, many of them hammer-and-tong battles.
Most experts and honest boxing people agree that it usually takes about a decade for the punches absorbed to unleash their poison. A superman without a cape, Pacquiao has a touch of grandiosity and a potential for hubris—seen in his succumbing to the temptation to glove up again.
Yet, unlike so many of his boxing brethren, Emmanuel Dapidran Pacquiao has not only earned a place in the firmament of fistiana, he has a life outside the squared circle. Pacquiao has been a senator in the Philippines since 2016 and is widely believed to be planning to run for president in 2022. (He also has courted controversy outside the ring, and was dropped by Nike in 2016 because he said an interview that gay people are “worse than animals.”)
The 98-pound kid who began his professional career 27 years ago remains a money magnet for promoters. One can only hope that the fighter who willed himself a legendary career possesses the power to resist the siren call of “just one more fight.”