As an amateur boxer, Yordenis Ugas was one of the best in the world. He won five national titles for the powerhouse Cuban national team and claimed an Olympic bronze medal in 2008.
When he defected and turned professional in 2010, he was a top prospect with all the requisite experience, ring smarts and skills to eventually win a world title.
Even after he suffered an eight-round split-decision loss to Johnny Garcia in 2012, he was still highly regarded and won his next four fights in a row. But when he lost back-to-back fights to junior welterweights Emanuel Robles, by split decision, and unanimously to Amir Imam in 2014, most gave up on him.
But Ugas did not give up on himself. He took nearly two years off, returned as a welterweight in August 2016 and hasn't looked back.
A streak of eight wins in a row, including against quality opponents such as Jamal James, Thomas Dulorme and Ray Robinson, have him on the cusp of living up to the promise he showed when he entered the pro ranks.
"Hundred percent this is the biggest fight of my career. This is my first chance at a world title fight. Since the age of nine years old I've been boxing and this is what I've always dreamt of. Boxing is my life. It's everything for me. It's always been." Yordenis Ugas
He finally nailed down his elusive title shot in September, when he easily outboxed Cesar Miguel Barrionuevo by virtual shutout in an elimination bout. In the main event that night, Shawn Porter outpointed Danny Garcia to win a welterweight world title for the second time.
And now, Porter is ready to make his first defense, and it will come against his mandatory challenger, Ugas, in the main event of a Premier Boxing Champions card on Saturday (Fox, 8 p.m. ET main card, Fox Sports 1, 6:30 p.m. ET preliminaries) at the Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California.
From where Ugas was in 2014 following those back-to-back losses to where he is now is not lost on him.
"I always knew in my heart that I could fight at this level and be at the highest level. I needed a little break away from boxing," Ugas said through a translator. "I needed a change of scenery, a change of coaches and a better way to stay focused. And those other losses, they were majorities and splits. I did feel I won some of those fights, but I still needed a change. And now I've got the change and feel perfect.
"Moving to Las Vegas [from Miami] and working with [trainer] Ismael Salas, I kind of just went back to being the old Ugas that I always was. It was just boxing only and let everything else play its role. So I think a lot has to do just with changing the scenery and getting good input in his boxing career. When you think positive and do positive things, positive outcomes occur, and that's what I've been doing lately."
"He's after something that I have and I'm trying to keep something away from him." Shawn Porter
Ugas had turned professional as a welterweight before moving down to junior welterweight in 2012. He was struggling with the weight when he lost the two bouts in a row. So when he returned, he also decided to go back to welterweight, and it proved to be the right decision.
"Obviously, in boxing, weight is fundamental, and when you struggle with weight, sometimes you want to be the bigger, stronger guy height-wise but, you don't think about how it can affect your body during the fight," he said. "Obviously, the 140-pound limit really affected my body. I'm pretty big for 147, let alone 140. But that's in the past. Now, obviously, when I step to 147, I'm undefeated. I feel good. I feel strong."
Ugas (23-3, 11 KOs), 32, said he took time to think about what he wanted to do after suffering the consecutive defeats and decided he loved boxing too much to give up. With a win on Saturday, he can become a major player in one of boxing's most star-studded divisions, where fighters such as Manny Pacquiao, Errol Spence Jr., Keith Thurman, Terence Crawford, Garcia and Porter reside.
"Mentally, after those two losses, I just took a step back, and just in my mind I just kept telling myself, don't worry. Your chance is going to come. Your chance is going to come," Ugas said of those trying times. "With the good change of team and change of atmosphere, I'm at the weight I need to be. I feel ready to go, and I'm excited for this opportunity."
Porter (29-2-1, 17 KOs), 31, of Las Vegas, has been among the best in the division for several years and faced major names, including Thurman, Garcia, Andre Berto, Kell Brook and Adrien Broner. But although it has been quite some time since he had to struggle to make big purses or get major fights, he said he can appreciate where Ugas has come from.
"Oh, definitely. Honestly, man, Yordenis and I, we aren't enemies by any means. We don't dislike each other. He's after something that I have, and I'm trying to keep something away from him," Porter said. "At the end of the day, our backgrounds are quite similar. Our struggles in life are a little similar. Our adversities have brought us to the point that we're at right now.
"So, 100 percent I understand Yordenis. I understand where he's from. And at the same time, this is a sport. What we do is we fight to win. And I understand he's going to come in here and do that, and I'm looking forward to it, man. Honestly, I really am."
Porter, who moved his camp from his usual place in Las Vegas to Washington, D.C., where he sparred regularly with former titlist Lamont Peterson, said he has studied Ugas fight videos back to his amateur days and is prepared for a serious fight.
"I appreciate Yordenis for stepping up and being the next guy in line," Porter said. "I understand what that is. I understand what that feels like. I'm look forward to the challenge, and I'm looking forward to defending this belt with honor and keeping it around my neck and around my waist."
For Ugas, the fight is the culmination of a long road from Cuba to a world title opportunity with some difficult bumps along the way. But Ugas said he is in a good place, still has a love of and passion for boxing, and can't wait to get into the ring for the biggest fight of his life.
"Hundred percent this is the biggest fight of my career. This is my first chance at a world title fight. Since the age of nine years old I've been boxing, and this is what I've always dreamt of," Ugas said. "Boxing is my life. It's everything for me. It's always been. I just love being at the fights personally, just to watch the fights and attend them and be part of this world.
"On [Saturday] you're going to get a great fight, an exciting fight, a war, a great world champion and someone looking to be a world champion. So I've got a destiny that I've got to fulfill, and [Saturday] is my opportunity to do that."
Welterweights Abel Ramos (23-3-2, 18 KOs), 27, of Casa Grande, Arizona, and Francisco "Chia" Santana (25-6-1, 12 KOs), 32, of Santa Barbara, California, square off in the 10-round co-feature, and blue-chip heavyweight prospect Efe Ajagba (8-0, 7 KOs), 24, a 2016 Nigerian Olympian fighting out of Houston, steps up in class against Amir Mansour (23-3-1, 16 KOs), 46, of Wilmington, Delaware, in the eight-round opener.