It seems like I'm doing too many of these things this year, and they're all fighters I genuinely loved to watch. The late Diego Corrales passed away in May. In June, Corrales rival Jose Luis Castillo had his career basically ended by Ricky Hatton, though Castillo has yet to retire and will likely continue to fight. And it was just two weeks ago that Arturo Gatti had his gloves cut off for the final time, knocked out by Alfonso Gomez on his home turf.
Last night, we saw the final fight in the storied career of Tijuana's Erik "El Terrible" Morales. Like Corrales, Castillo, and Gatti, Morales was one of his generation's toughest fighters. Two great rivalries highlighted his 14-year professional career, which started as a super bantamweight against Jose Orejel in Tijuana, and ended as a lightweight in Chicago against David Diaz.
But Barrera and Pacquiao weren't the whole story. Morales lost two of three bouts in both trilogies, fights which likely did shorten his career to some degree, but as long as Morales is healthy and happy, I see no reason to regret those six bouts.
Morales won his first major championship in 1997, beating serious tough guy Daniel Zaragoza for the WBC super bantamweight title, wearing him down effectively en route to an 11th round knockout. As he defended the belt for the next three years, it was like a crash course. It had to happen. And it was the most intense rivalry you'll ever see in boxing.
Some -- hell, most -- boxing rivalries are played up either by or for the media. Promoters stick their greedy noses in and demand press conference antics, disrespectful comments, and any other possible trick to get their shenanigans on SportsCenter and sell a pay-per-view or a few more tickets. Generally, it feels phony, particularly if you've seen it enough.
Occasionally you get a rivalry where there's a lot of respect on both sides. Gatti/Ward ended with those two guys becoming great friends. Vazquez/Marquez is on its way to becoming a trilogy, and like Gatti/Ward, it seems as though both men actually relish in the great challenge of fighting their opponent.
Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera had a feud that didn't fit the template of either scenario. Morales and Barrera hated each other. They still do. Outwardly, there was no respect, though obviously it would have been impossible for them to not believe the other man to be a great fighter. There was nothing but vile, venom, and a genuine dislike of each other. These were not two men who were going to go get a beer together. And they never really had a hope in hell of becoming friends.
Morales grew up in poverty in Tijuana. Barrera famously comes from an upper class family in Mexico City, and was a law student at one time. The backgrounds were different, and both guys -- let's be honest -- could be a little prickly, to say the least. In fact, both guys can be flat-out assholes. And with each other, they were. Every step of the way.
Morales-Barrera I took place in February of 2000, unifying the WBC and WBO super bantamweight titles. It was a war, and if you weren't on your feet in the fifth round of that epic, something's wrong with you. The exchanges that round were furious, dramatic, and had me speechless. I didn't really know how to react, other than to stand in awe of the determination both showed to floor the other man. The rest of the fight was basically the same. As soon as you thought Morales or Barrera were in serious trouble, they would come back swinging with all they had. From the opening bell of round one until the final, frantic back-and-forth of the twelfth frame, they took it to one another.
It was the RING Magazine Fight of the Year, and rightfully so. Larry Merchant would later say, "This fight was so fierce that I felt humble by watching it."
Morales won a controversial unanimous decision that night, and the public demanded a rematch. Two years later, we got it, with both now at featherweight. The second fight was far more tactical, with Barrera's superior technical skills controlling a lot of the fight, but "El Terrible" landing harder blows. After the first fight, many felt Barrera had actually won. This time, with Barrera winning a tight decision, it seemed Morales had a majority of the public vote.
Two guys that hate each other, two controversial decisions. There had to be a third bout.
Two years and one more weight class later, Morales-Barrera III was upon us. Could it have been any better? Another tight fight, another 12 rounds of action. The 12th round of their third fight was some of the most spirited action you'll ever see. They brought everything they had for those three minutes. And that 12th round started with a touch of gloves -- unheard of for Morales and Barrera beforehand.
Barrera won another close fight, 115-113, 115-114, 114-114. It was the 2004 Fight of the Year (RING Magazine).
Most of boxing's trilogies wind up with one clear winner. Though Marco Antonio Barrera beat Morales twice, there are still some -- Morales among them -- that think Erik was the better fighter. But, of course, the story didn't end there. Barrera tried to congratulate Morales for three great fights. Morales responded by firing a bottle of water at him.
Though many feel that Barrera tried to squash the beef between the two, it was made clear by Morales that they will not be shaking hands any time in the near future.
Four months after fighting Barrera for the final time, Erik Morales signed on to fight Manny Pacquiao, who was riding a hot streak with a dominant win over Barrera in 2003 and an exciting draw with Juan Manuel Marquez. Morales out-boxed and outsmarted the faster, stronger Pacquiao, in what some feel was his greatest victory. Using his jab and a straight right to great effect, Morales was able to wear Pacquiao out, even though Pacquiao rocked him a few times over the course of the fight. The 12th round was vintage Morales -- he was ahead, most felt that way, and he could've taken it easy and stayed away from Pacquiao's power. Instead, he went right at Pacquiao's power, and slugged with the slugger. He stayed on his feet, and he won the fight.
Following an upset loss (and the worst loss of his career, in my estimation) to Zahir Raheem, Morales signed on to fight Pacquiao again. This time, Morales' guts got him in a lot of trouble. Again opting to brawl with Pacquiao, the improved "Pac-Man," steadily becoming a better and better fighter under the guidance of Freddie Roach, was able to viciously attack Morales' body, and had him reeling by the sixth round. With his legs wobbling and everything but his spirit failing him, Morales went down in the 10th, suffering the first KO loss of his career.
With three straight losses, Morales could have fought a cupcake or two and gotten his confidence and his game back, or maybe even switched things up stylistically, and come back to give Pacquiao a different look.
Instead, they fought again 10 months later. Over those ten months, Pacquiao had obliterated another Mexican warrior, Oscar Larios. Morales chose not to fight. The weigh-ins gave it away: Morales looked gaunt and tired. Pacquiao looked strong. And it only took a little over two rounds for Manny Pacquiao to knock Erik Morales out. "El Terrible" tried again to fight his opponent's style; he couldn't come close to keeping up.
Unlike with Barrera, however, this time Erik Morales went to the center of the ring and raised his rival's hand.
I'll never forget the look on Morales' face as he was put down for the final time. He looked lost, like he just couldn't figure out an answer for the puzzle. He was done, and he knew it. After the fight, his comments echoed those ideas. "Maybe it's time I should no longer be doing this. ... Maybe this is the way to end it. It's a beautiful night, and there's a lot of good people here. ... It was always a pleasure to give the public great fights."
Morales tried to move up to lightweight last night, and by all reports, the man fought his heart out. He was ready, he was in shape, and he came with the best he could. But it wasn't enough. Unheralded David Diaz won a close unanimous decision, and Morales tipped his cap and exited the ring for the last time.
But I doubt this is the last we'll see or hear from Erik Morales in boxing. He has recently started up his own promotional company to help young Mexican fighters get started. Given all he's done over the years and their good relationship, I wouldn't be surprised to see Morales form some kind of working agreement with Bob Arum.
He was a tremendous fighter who never gave up, and though he lost five of his last six fights, he lost all of them to credible fighters. He never took a gimme opponent once he was at the top. Erik Morales loved a challenge.
Bad Left Hook heartily salutes the career of Erik "El Terrible" Morales. Farewell, Erik, and thank you.