After capturing the bronze medal in the lightweight division at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China for his native Cuba, Yordenis Ugas realized that to make it in professional boxing, he had to flee his homeland.
“In order to progress as a fighter, I had to do it,” Ugas said. “It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. I am an only child and I was leaving my mother and father in Cuba.”
So in 2010, the two-time Cuban national champion, former world amateur champion and Pan American Games gold medal winner got on a raft and fled his home of Santiago, Cuba for the United States, first landing in Texas, then moving to Miami and finally North Bergen.
“In order to become a world champion, it’s something I had to do,” said the 27-year-old Ugas, who has called North Bergen his home for the last year. “I didn’t see sharks when I was on the raft, but I did see dolphins jumping out of the water.”
After arriving in North Bergen, Ugas realized that a long-time hero of his was also a North Bergen resident, namely U.S. Senator Robert Menendez.
Like Ugas, Menendez is of Cuban heritage and Menendez’s family had to flee Cuba for refuge in the United States. So they definitely had something in common.
However, it’s rare to see a professional athlete have a politician as a role model and hero.
“I love politics,” said Ugas, who is an avid reader of political books and is currently reading President Barack Obama’s biography. “Senator Menendez is a guy who I have followed for a long time. It would be a dream to meet him. In Cuba, you don’t have the freedom to speak your mind, but Senator Menendez always speaks his mind. He fascinates me.”
So last week, with help from Menendez’s press people, the senator went to Ugas’ training facility in Passaic to meet the boxer face to face.
“I’m super emotional about meeting him,” Ugas said. “I really can’t believe it. I never thought I could get a chance to experience this.”
Ugas presented Menendez with a boxing robe and a set of boxing gloves. The robe had Ugas’ name emblazoned on the back. Menendez put the robe and gloves on to pose for pictures.
“I wanted to see Yordenis before he fights again,” said Menendez.
Ugas will have his first real test as a professional next Saturday, Aug. 17, when he fights John Williams at the Revel Resort and Casino in Atlantic City in an eight-round light welterweight bout.
Menendez said that he was interested in Ugas’ plight.
“I admire his courage,” Sen. Menendez said. “When you’re in a dictatorship, it’s tough to overcome the fear to flee. Getting away is not easy to seek political asylum. It’s a testament of the human spirit so he can be able to fulfill his potential and talent in sports and in boxing. He’s a testament of that human spirit. He realized that being from Cuba, it’s something he couldn’t change, but he could find another path to freedom. I look forward to his success.”
Ugas said that he just had one goal.
“I wanted to be a free man and I want to be a champion,” Ugas said.
“He took a shot to be a free man,” Menendez said. “We have something very similar. He fights in a ring and I fight for people every day. I fight for freedom across the world. I’m thrilled that someone who wants to be a champion took the chance to come here. It invigorates me.”
Ugas said that he was overjoyed to get the chance to meet the Senator.
“I’ve won a lot of bouts all over the world,” said Ugas, who won more than 400 fights as an amateur before turning professional in 2010. “But this is one of my proudest moments, meeting Senator Menendez. I hope I can fulfill my goal and meeting him gives me hope.”
Menendez was happy to give the young man inspiration.
“This is the ultimate story about being from Cuba,” Menendez said. “This is the reality of being a Cuban. I’ve read about Yordenis and saw some of his championships and his Olympic fights on tape. I can sense he’s a champion as a person and he’s going to be a champion in the ring. But above all, he wants to be a free man.”
Ugas said that he first thought about fleeing Cuba after the 2008 Olympic Games, but really didn’t have the opportunity until 2010.
“A lot of dreams come and go and die in Cuba that way,” Ugas said. “Senator Menendez is a Cuban and he fights all the time for the little guy. Well, that’s me. I’m the little guy. That’s what I’m striving for.”
Ugas has been living in North Bergen under the watchful eye of trainer Butch Sanchez, a Hoboken native. Sanchez has trained four world champions during his career, the latest being former IBF world light flyweight champion Carlos Tamara, who also resided in North Bergen.
Ugas lives in North Bergen with another up-and-coming fighter Jonathan Maicelo, the Peruvian native who will also fight on the card with Ugas in Atlantic City. Maicelo, a lightweight, has a 19-1 pro record. Ugas is now 14-1.
It’s wild that the two fighters, one a Cuban and the other a Peruvian, live together.
“I may have to beat him up if he steals my food,” laughed Maicelo, who is a matinee idol in Peru and has competed in the Peruvian version of “Dancing with the Stars.”
Sanchez believes that Ugas has all the makings to become a champion.
“He has all the talent in the world,” Sanchez said. “He has already beaten everyone in that weight class in the amateur ranks. He has a great body attack and he’s so strong for his size. He has such a big upper body. He’s more than ready.”
And he got major encouragement from the most famous Cuban-American in politics.
“I’m a way better fighter now,” Ugas said. “I’m physically and mentally strong. I’m ready for a good fight. And of course, I’m going to win. I’m not going to stop until I’m a world champ. Nothing can stop me.”
As long as he has a United States senator in his corner, anything can happen. It’s all part of the American dream.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com