Manny Pacquiao falls short against Yordenis Ugas as age finally catches up to Filipino legend

Yordenis Ugas defeated Manny Pacquiao in Las Vegas

If this was to be the last great act of Manny Pacquaio’s astonishing career, defeat will do nothing to detract from a legacy that has illuminated boxing like few others. From a starved teenager working on construction sites in Manila to a sporting deity whose spell over Las Vegas remains supreme, the 42-year-old’s impossible fairytale finally succumbed to the reality of age and the skill of Yordenis Ugas on Sunday morning.

Few careers are typically met with as brutal endings as in boxing, but there was no disappointment or disgrace in the manner of Pacquiao’s defeat. After two years out of the ring and a late change of opponent, he showed vestiges of his majestic speed and proved his heart and desire are undiminished over the course of 12 gruelling rounds. But on this occasion, fate refused to bow to the Filipino’s iron will. For every flurry he unleashed, Ugas responded with unerring assurance, flicking a piston-like jab and following it up with looping right hands. Determined to the death, Pacquiao pushed resolutely but never came close to finding the decisive breakthrough and, although the contest remained close, Ugas was the deserved winner on all three judges’ scorecards.

A world champion in eight weight classes across four different decades, Pacquiao’s greatness has long defied ordinary measures. He has bridged and conquered worlds, taken on all comers, and always done so in a manner befitting of his iconic status. A senator since 2010, with the possibility of a presidential campaign in the Philippines looming next year, only he has the power to decide whether he will ever fight again. He has earned that right and, even in defeat, there could be no hiding his smile in the ring, the sense of pure joy he’s taken and returned in spades over the course of 26 glorious years. He is a born fighter, and even age cannot rob him of that. “I don’t know (if I’ll box again),” he said in the ring immediately afterwards. “Let me relax and think about it.”

For Ugas, though, this momentous victory was no less a fantasy. A decorated amateur, who won bronze at the 2008 Olympics, he was jailed six times after failed attempts to defect from Cuba and start a professional career. Separated from his family for over nine years after finally reaching Florida, he has shown barely imaginable resilience to rebuild after two early defeats and become a recognised world champion.

A clear underdog heading into this bout, accepting the challenge at 11 days’ notice after Errol Spence – Pacquiao’s original opponent – withdrew due to an eye injury, the signs of Ugas’s superiority were immediately evident. Egged on by a partisan crowd, Pacquiao might have burst into a volley of punches at the sound of the opening bell, but soon Ugas was able to establish distance with his wicked jab. And as much as Pacquiao’s volume threatened, his punches were unusually wayward, and that jab remained a metronome that dictated the tempo and direction of the contest.

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Yordenis Ugas celebrates in the ring

Pacquiao quickly became frustrated as he failed to pin down his slippery opponent, who jinked and dove through the fire before delivering telling counters of his own. By the fifth round, when Pacquiao finally connected meaningfully, Ugas had already taken a clear lead and that rally ultimately did little to stem the Cuban’s assault on history.

It was a pattern that refused to yield to Pacquiao’s intentions, even when Ugas’s volume slowed in the second half of the fight. It is the crippling betrayal of a boxer’s body when the mind sees what the body cannot obey. There can be no doubt that in Pacquiao’s prime, this challenge would have been far from insurmountable, but that should come as no disservice to Ugas’s performance. His movement was terrific, corkscrewing his body at grimacing angles to avoid Pacquiao’s flurries, and not a single punch was thrown without purpose. His right hook was particularly dangerous and there was rarely a moment when the fight seemed outside his control.

There was to be no valiant all-or-nothing finale. Ugas commanded the 12th round throughout, landing a hard one-two that rocked Pacquiao onto his heels, and he raised his arms at the final bell as history beckoned. He has been on the wrong end of close decisions in the past, but there was to be no derailing of his destiny this time, with the judges’ scorecards reading 115-113, 116-112 and 116-112.

It will go down as the greatest moment of Ugas’s career but may well ultimately be remembered as the night when the sport bid goodbye to one of its true greats. The crowd in Las Vegas cheered Pacquiao on deliriously right up until the end and the reverence for one of the finest boxing has ever known remained in the ring long after he’d left it behind.

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