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Erik Morales: A Champion's Champion, Bogus Title or Not

Erik Morales became Mexico's first four-division world titlist on Saturday night. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Erik Morales became Mexico's first four-division world titlist on Saturday night. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
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Scott Christ is the managing editor of Bad Left Hook and has been covering boxing for SB Nation since 2006.

Much -- but perhaps not enough -- has been made of Erik Morales becoming the first Mexican fighter in history to win a world title in four weight classes on Saturday night. That fight, like the rest of the terrific pay-per-view undercard, has faded into the background as the world has focused on the controversy of the Mayweather vs Ortiz main event.

But it was a special moment, even if there was also deserved criticism, and even if it's hard for some to take the achievement seriously.

I said after the fight in the immediate recap that no matter what you think of the title, it meant a lot to Erik Morales and Mexican boxing fans, and I truly believe that. Morales, now 35, wasn't supposed to get here. Back in 2006, "El Terrible" looked washed up as a top fighter. After defeating Manny Pacquiao in a 2005 thriller, Morales was stunned in an upset loss to Zahir Raheem six months later with a Pacquiao rematch waiting for him in January 2006.

Though he lost, Morales vs Pacquiao II went ahead. This time, the younger, quickly-improving Pacquiao stopped Morales in ten rounds. And ten months after that, when they met for a third and final time, Pacquiao got Morales out in the third, as the Mexican warrior was unable to cope with the speed and power of his Filipino rival.

It was a memorable sight: Erik Morales, seated on the canvas, shaking his head, "No." He wanted no more. He didn't need anyone else to tell him that he was no longer at Pacquiao's level.

It could have all been over then, but it wasn't.

After taking a break from the sport, the former 122, 126, and 130 pound titlist moved up to lightweight to face vulnerable beltholder David Diaz. Their August 2007 fight was distributed by HBO, but wasn't really promoted by the network, and also went up against the second fight between Israel Vazquez and Rafael Marquez, which was live on Showtime. Given that Vazquez vs Marquez II was the diehard fight fan's sort of fight, and it was free, Diaz vs Morales (which was only a diehard fan's fight) flew under the radar.

The two put on a great fight, as both battled their hearts out in front of an appreciative Chicago crowd. In the end, Diaz won on scores of 114-113, 115-113, and 115-112, handing Morales his fourth straight loss, and fifth in his last six fights. There were many who had scored the fight for Morales, and felt he deserved then to have been crowned Mexico's first four-division titlist. But it wasn't in the cards that night.

That time, Morales said it was all over. He retired from the sport -- and comfortably. Morales didn't have money problems calling him back to the sport. He didn't have any reason to come back, really.

But in 2010, he returned. It was ill-advised. Bob Arum said after the Diaz fight that Morales told him he had a "ringing" in his head. At that time, Bob Arum said he would never promote another Morales fight. Earlier this year, speaking with Michael Marley, Arum said, "Erik was a key fighter over years for us, for our company. He was a key part of Top Rank, that's for sure. He was a lovely, terrific and totally loyal young man. He always gave 100 percent and he's one of my all-time favorite guys."

And true to his word (if only for once), Arum never did promote another Morales fight. When Morales staged his comeback in 2010, he did it alone at first, and eventually with the help of Golden Boy Promotions.

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

To be 100% clear and 100% honest, Morales did not look good upon return. Fighting at a career-high weight of 147 pounds, he struggled a bit through his fight with 140-pound gateekeper Jose Alfaro in March 2010, ultimately winning a 12-round decision for some minor WBC trinket that put him back in the good graces of the people who compile their silly rankings.

Slowly, he worked his way down in weight. He was at 143 for a fight against Scotland's light-hitting Willie Limond in September, stopping Limond on body shots in six rounds. Though he won quicker and won effectively, he looked worse than he had against Alfaro in the early rounds. And three months after that, he nipped one out against tricky veteran Francisco Lorenzo, a risky fight to take for Morales. This time, he was at 140 pounds.

There was talk of Morales facing lightweight king Juan Manuel Marquez, but it never happened. There was talk of Morales facing Amir Khan for a 140-pound belt, but it didn't happen.

Instead, Golden Boy matched Morales with Marcos Maidana in April 2011, part of a financial flop pay-per-view they called "Action Heroes." And while the return money wasn't what HBO or Golden Boy probably hoped it would be (to say the very least), the in-ring action that night left none of the few who ordered wanting more.

The fear heading into the fight was huge. Morales is a favorite of almost every diehard fight fan on earth. Nobody wanted to see him demolished by a hard-punching fighter like Maidana, who wasn't going to "take it easy" on "the old man," because that's just not Maidana's style. He was expected to come for blood, and he did.

But Morales weathered an early storm, including his eye closing almost completely shut in just the first round. Eventually, it would swell shut, leaving him a one-eyed fighter in a fight he already wasn't supposed to be competitive in, let alone win.

Then, it all happened. Morales, on his last legs as a fighter, went deep into his playbook and started making a fight of it. He picked Maidana apart at times, using his wealth of experience and knowledge to frustrate Maidana and outbox him. When he had to go toe-to-toe, he did it. When he could box, he would. And it wound up being a thrilling Fight of the Year candidate, which Maidana earned on close scores of 116-112, 116-112 and 114-114.

For one night, if nothing more, "El Terrible" was back. He showed us once again just who Erik Morales is: A fighter right down to his bones, a man who came back for the glory and for the fight itself, and not for money.

Morales moved on from the loss a winner in the hearts and minds of boxing fans and pundits, and targeted a next fight. First, he was supposed to face Anthony Crolla on the Mayweather vs Ortiz undercard, sort of a special attraction on Mexican Independence weekend.

But then the WBC decided to make their junior welterweight title vacant for reasons that weren't quite legitimate, and Morales, a favorite son of the sanctioning body, was in their plans. They set up a fight with Jorge Barrios of Argentina for the vacant title. This was criticized because Barrios hadn't fought a legitimate contender in a while, and had never fought at 140 pounds. He was nowhere to be found in the WBC's rankings, not even at lightweight.

Unsurprisingly, visa issues kept the troubled Barrios in Argentina, so he was replaced in the fight by a countryman and legit contender in Lucas Matthysse. Matthysse was coming off of a robbery loss to Devon Alexander, but like Morales, moved on from it the real winner. He and Morales for the vacant title was at the least, more acceptable than a lot of vacant title fights. And it once again was a credit to Erik Morales, who basically sized up one of the top five junior welterweights in the world and said, "Sure, I'll fight him," without even hesitating.

Then Matthysse got sick, and a late replacement needed to be found. The WBC went down their rankings, and found a young, Golden Boy-promoted Mexican fighter named Pablo Cesar Cano. At 21 years old and with no fights on this level, he was a longshot. But he took the fight, and Morales took it, too, the belt still on the line.

On fight night, Morales didn't look great. He was soft, even doughy in his midsection, proving still that 140 pounds is a huge weight for him to fight at, as he still doesn't look like his old self or even close to it, really.

He started slow, but turned it up after the fourth round and started building some momentum. He had cut Cano early, and cut him again. Both men bled. Both men fought their hearts out. It was a 35-year-old warrior, a legend still going, and a Hall of Famer-to-be against a 21-year-old kid who wasn't quite ready for prime time. Watching them duke it out was not just a good time, since the fight was action-packed and appealed to the bloodthirsty nature that all fight fans do have to some degree, but fascinating.

Cano was born in 1989, four years before Morales went pro at the age of 17. In 2006, when Cano made his pro debut, Morales had just lost the second fight with Pacquiao. Cano was eight years old when Morales knocked out and retired the great Daniel Zaragoza to win his first major title. He was eight months shy of his 11th birthday when Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera fought for the first time.

But he came to win, to do to Morales what Morales did to Zaragoza. And he gave it his all. When a gruesome cut erupted on Cano's left eyelid in the 10th round, the doctor gave him a chance to finish the round. But after the bell sounded, his corner made the decision to pull him out of the fight.

(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Erik Morales was champion again, no matter how bogus or gifted the title belt may have been. For everything he has done over the years, and for as unlikely as this may have seemed half a decade ago when we all thought he was flat-out finished, he deserves to be called a champion. He deserves the glory of having done something no Mexican fighter has done to date. He's not likely to be the only four-division Mexican titlist for long, but he'll always be the first. And in today's boxing world, it was probably never going to happen much more "legitimately" than this.

Congratulations, "El Terrible."

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