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October 4, 2021

Pacquiao vs. Ugas: Fight Report

by Matt O'Brien

An edited version of this article was published on on 22nd August, 2021:

The well had to run dry sooner or later. Finally, for Manny Pacquiao, it did. The Filipino great made all the right noises and looked the part in the gym in the lead up to his latest PPV headline event, but under the lights where it mattered the body could no longer go where the mind willed it to be.

Pacquiao was rightly lauded when he originally signed to take on arguably the most dangerous opponent available, undefeated IBF/WBC welterweight champion, Errol Spence Jnr. Spence’s withdrawal due to a torn retina two weeks ago made way for Yordenis Ugas to step in, a top welterweight in his own right and still a tremendous challenge for the 42-year-old legend. Ugas was already scheduled to fight on the same card, and the two had a minor score to settle thanks to the WBA’s absurd sanctioning policies that somehow left both of them holding versions of the same title. (Pacquiao won the WBA’s “super” title from Keith Thurman in 2019, but had been relegated to “champion in recess” due to inactivity; meanwhile Ugas had been upgraded from WBA “regular” to “super” champion, without ever having fought for that title in the ring. No, it does not make any sense.)

Rumours swirled during fight week that Ugas had sustained an injury to his left bicep. Indeed, swelling to Ugas’s arm seen in earlier photos was still apparent at the weigh-in, leading to speculation that he could be seriously handicapped going into his biggest ever fight. If there was ever a genuine problem with his arm though, it played absolutely no part in the contest itself, as the Cuban made the most of his big opportunity and boxed beautifully to take a clear and unanimous points win.

The fight actually started very well for Pacquiao, who had one of his best rounds of the night in the opening session, seizing the tempo, moving forward, and letting go with some of his trademark flurries. Even so, it was already clear that Ugas, far from being compromised by injury, had come to win and would at least pose Pacquiao some serious problems.

In the second, looking cool and composed, Ugas established an effective jab that hit the target cleanly and often, while Pacquiao’s fell short or hit gloves. Pacquiao upped his punch rate again in the third, his most successful round of the fight according to the CompuBox punch stats (apparently out-landing Ugas 21 to 11). The Filipino icon was certainly busier and fought aggressively, but these stats seemed suspiciously generous to him, as Ugas was doing much of the cleaner work. Still, Pacquiao was rewarded with a 10-9 round on all three scorecards – the last round he would win unanimously.

The fifth was another good, busy round for Pacquiao, with flashes of the old rapid-fire bursts, but from the sixth onwards it was really all Ugas. The Cuban stuck to a solid game plan, jabbing often behind a tight defence, landing a clever looping right hand around the guard, and whipping in occasional hooks to the body. When Pacquiao did attempt to flurry he was mostly hitting arms and air, while Ugas’s less flamboyant but steady boxing was doing all of the scoring, and he swept rounds six to eight on all three official cards.

In the final third of the fight there was a brief resurgence in Pacquiao’s effort, but he just could never land his vaunted left power hand with any consistency or notable effect. Time and again, Ugas would anticipate the incoming attacks, block the punches, and come back with a quick counter jab or right hand before the Pacman had chance to move out of range again. Halfway through the tenth, as Pacquaio chased and appeared to be gathering some steam, chants of “Manny, Manny!” began to echo around the arena, momentarily evoking his great victories of the past. Ugas responded by whacking him with yet another clean right hand, snapping back the old champion’s head, and with it the crowd’s wave of enthusiasm.

Pacquiao needed a miracle going into the final stanza, but it turned out to be one of Ugas’s most dominant of the fight, as he out-landed and out-fought the eight-division champ. Both men raised their arms aloft at the end, but for Pacquiao it was a hollow gesture, more out of hope and habit than a serious claim to victory. If there was an element of suspense before the unanimous verdict was announced, it was only because fight fans have learned to become hardened cynics when it comes to trusting the judges to do their jobs properly. Thankfully, Pacquiao’s reputation did not secure him even a sympathy vote on this night, and boxing was spared another potential controversy.

Two judges awarded the fight to Ugas by margins of eight rounds to four, while the third judge gave it by seven rounds to five. Even these scores felt slightly generous to the Filipino: the punch stats showed Ugas landed more shots in 10 out of the 12 rounds, but crucially, he connected with a higher percentage of his punches in every single round and more than doubled Pacquiao’s accuracy rate in 10 out of 12 rounds. In other words, Pacquaio was simply nowhere near accurate enough to earn a decision here.

But while he was soundly beaten, he was by no means humiliated and was spared the kind of beating that is so often meted out to faded greats at the end of their careers – the kind that Pacquiao himself dished out to an aging Oscar De La Hoya 13 years ago. In that fight, De La Hoya was beaten to a standstill and forced to quit on his stool – just as De La Hoya had fought the once great Julio Cesar Chavez to a standstill, and made him quit on his stool. In a sense, for Pacquiao at least, perhaps it was fortuitous that Errol Spence was forced out of this fight, because it is easy to envisage a similar outcome, had he been faced with an even younger, more vicious puncher.

It is tempting to try to capture Pacquiao’s showing in terms of the old, once great performer unable to “hit the notes” or “remember the lines”. But really, the metaphor is unnecessary, since the most apt comparison is not with an artist from outside of his own discipline, but from within it. He simply looked like other old fighters do, and fought the way old fighters do: legs slightly laden, reactions slowed, timing off, spark gone. At times he looked weary, out of ideas, and easy to hit. Pacquaio admitted afterwards that he suffered from leg cramps that hampered his movement and was unable to “adjust” to Ugas’s style – a very honest assessment. He just lacked the tactical nous and physical tools to impose himself and stop the Cuban from doing what he was doing.

Credit must also be given to Ugas here too, though. He boxed a disciplined, smart fight, but he did not shy away from exchanges and dug his heels in when needed to battle back and derail any momentum the Pacman tried to gain. Even then, and at his advanced age, Pacquiao was still competitive and fought hard to the final bell. Wearing a crimson splashed face, cut on both sides, he was a warrior to the end.

What happens now? Well, for Ugas, after losing a narrow decision to Shawn Porter in 2019, he has rightly earned himself a place at the top table amongst the best welterweights in the world. A unification fight with either Errol Spence, when he returns from eye surgery, or the winner of a mooted fight between Terence Crawford and Shawn Porter, is surely well deserved.

For Pacquiao, if it turns out that this was his last showing, and the Thurman win was the Filipino legend’s last great victory, that is still a remarkable final chapter in a career littered with great moments. His achievements are, without hyperbole, unparalleled in the modern era. If he never fights again, it will not be the last time we enjoy seeing him in the ring: there are simply too many great nights to revisit. They are the ones that will define his legacy, and they will be replayed again and again by those lucky enough to have witnessed a truly momentous career.

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