The steps are uneven. No two the same size in the walkup to the gym above which Erik Morales was born in the Zona Norte, one of the rougher areas of Tijuana.
The steps are usually uneven on the way to the top and Morales knows this better than most. You win some, you lose some. Morales hasn’t lost much. Twice to Marco Antonio Barrera, his bitter Mexican rival. He’s also beaten Barrera once. That’s officially. All three fights were hellaciously fought, hellaciously close. Boxing just doesn’t get any better.
It was Gatti-Ward with a much higher skill level. But that’s Morales. He doesn’t duck anyone, and most of his fights are barn-burners, even when he dominates he seems to have a basic need to be hit hard. No wonder he is one of everyone’s favorite fighters and you don’t have to be Mexican to enjoy this otherwise quiet, thoughtful lad who buys computers by the bushel to donate to the students in his home town.
And this Saturday night, there is a 50-50 chance, to quote the approximate odds, that he will be sent tumbling down boxing’s irregular stairs once and for all. Just in the very possible case that he is knocked out by Manny Pacquiao, let us now and forever salute El Terrible.
He knows how serious this fight is, even if it’s at 130 pounds. Morales figures to come into the MGM Grand Garden ring in Vegas at closer to 150 against a guy who began his career beating up other flyweights. He didn’t train at his father’s gym, where he was born (what was his pregnant mother doing there, he was asked; "We lived there," he replied) but opted for the thin air in the mountains above Mexico City.
When he came down from the mountain, he explained to dozens of boxing writers that this was "the biggest fight of my life - if I don’t win, where am I?"
The odds, last time we looked, were infinitesimally in favor of Pacquiao, the Filipino dervish who has been going through Mexicans as if were avenging the Alamo. If one uses Barrera as a measuring stick, Morales comes up very short. Pacquiao beat up and knocked out Barrera in the 11th round of a 2003 bout that made him my fighter of the year.
Okay, Barrera may have had some outside distractions and/or had a one of those bad nights through which athletes sometimes suffer. Fact is, Pacquiao beat him like his 122-pound daddy. He then moved up to 126 and put Juan Manuel Marquez on his butt three times in the first round but had to settle for a controversial draw.
And don’t think just because Morales came out of terrible poverty that Pacquiao was living it up, buying shoes for his president in the Philippines. Morales may be one of the greatest warriors in the game; Pacquiao may be the far better fighter.
I’m not sure. How could one possibly be sure about this matchup? Morales has slight height and reach edges, is the naturally bigger man - he’s talking about moving up to lightweight, though the heavier he is in the ring, the slower he is going to be - and his 47-2 record, with 34 knockouts, is star-studded. Just last year, he moved up to 130 and knocked off two champions, Jesus Chavez and Carlos Hernandez, before fighting Barrera the third time. The man simply does not take breathers.
But I’m beginning to suspect that all that courage may be taking its toll. Chavez hurt him seriously early, then wounded his right arm and still gave him a battle over the next 10 rounds. Morales’s hard jab could bother Pac Man, but the Filipino’s esteemed trainer, Freddie Roach, thinks the Mexican throws it "long and slow," easy for counters.
Pacquiao’s best punch has been his straight left, but he’s worked on his very accomplished right hook for this bout in Roach’s Hollywood gym. And while Morales has the kind of uppercuts that could do a lot of damage to a man who believes in all-out attacks, I’m not sure he’ll be able to land them against the far quicker Pacquiao.
Plus, the Filipino is a southpaw who is one of the best punchers, ounce for ounce, in the game. He carried his power with him to 126 pounds, as witness the three knockdowns of Marquez, and there’s no reason to anticipate him not being even stronger at 130.
Do not expect much of a boxing match, though both guys can move laterally and set up angles. Sooner, more likely than later, they will commence the toe-to-toe battles for which they both are admired.
This is a fight that people have been asking me about ever since it was made to replace the Pacquiao-Marquez rematch (Juan Manuel foolishly priced himself out of it). Obviously, today I have a lean toward Pacquiao. But tomorrow’s another day, which is probably as far out on the limb as I wish to be. Whoever wins, though, it will be great to watch.