Bout time

Feb 24, 2004 6:48 AM

The stairway to the stars, in boxing, is invariably narrow and steep. There are gyms that are tougher to climb than Everest, like the one in Jersey City where Buddy McGirt learned his trade.

Gil Clancy’s old joint on New York’s West 28th Street and Gleason’s, the Brooklyn version, had elevators, but there are no such amenities in the Tijuana gym where Erik Morales was born and grew to be a world champion.

It’s in the Zona Norte, one of the roughest sections in town. Downstairs, before you start climbing, there is a little office that has become sort of a Morales museum. The stairs are dark and foreboding. No two steps are the same size. The gym one flight up is Spartan. El Terrible was born a floor above.

What was his pregnant mother doing in the gym?

"We all lived there," said Erik.

Morales has been moving up, both in weight and in high regard, for a long while, capturing world titles at 122 and 126 pounds. This Friday at the MGM Grand in Vegas, he goes for No. 3. The opponent, Jesus Chavez, now fighting out of Austin, would be a nice story except he doesn’t have much of a chance.

Chavez, no relation to Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. (on the undercard), is a tough, hardworking aggressive fighter with no punch and a flagrant disregard for personal safety.

JC had a 31-fight winning streak broken a couple of years ago by Floyd Mayweather Jr. It wasn’t close, despite Harold Lederman’s blatherings on HBO. Mayweather seemed more concerned with the health of his hands than in anything Chavez could do, and this was a Mayweather who said he had not eaten in four days to make the 130-pound limit.

Little Floyd fought much of the bout off the ropes, slipping and sliding and easily avoiding the heavy rate of incoming, while judiciously using his fragile hands to keep Chavez at bay. Mayweather, when the hands are right, is of course one of boxing’s very best. There’s a good chance, with Roy Jones Jr. nearing retirement, that in less than a year, he might be recognized as No. 1 pound-for-pound.

Morales is in the Jones-Mayweather class, or one of the tiny Zona Norte steps below. He’s that good, a tall, angular counterpuncher with real pop in both hands. He’s had some shaky nights, but his worst performance should get him safely past Chavez. I saw odds of minus $2.70, but before I could get a taste of free money, the line went up to minus $4. Morales is still a hell of a bet to start off the year.

It’s been slow so far in 2004, but there will be some good values coming up in the next couple of months. On March 6, Joel Casamayor gives Diego Corrales another shot. The week after, Sugar Shane Mosley is no lock against Winky Wright. There are even bettable fights underneath, though I don’t think Victoriano Sosa, who gave Mayweather a tussle last year, will be able to do much with the bigger Miguel Cotto next Friday. Beneath Casamayor-Corrales, there’s what should be a good betting heavyweight brawl between Baby Joe Mesi, under-rated and over-rated by the cognizenti, and Vassiliy Jirov, mostly over-rated.

Morales seems good value for even those who choke on chalk. Yes, he has had some tough nights, not counting the two wars with Marco Antonio Barrera. He struggled with lesser talents like Guty Espadas, when he moved up to win a 126-pound title, and later with In-Jin Chi. But when he tested 130 against Espadas in a rematch last year, he blasted out in three rounds the man who gave him hell for 12 two years earlier.

The thing about Morales is that he will not be looking past Chavez for, say, a meeting with the winner of Casamayor-Corrales II, or some other major player. This is a solid citizen who grew up in the gym. His father trained him, his kid brother won a minor world title. He’s got good bloodlines.

He’s a very giving guy. Every Christmas in Tijuana, he gathers the kids in the main town square to give out gifts. He is not just another tough guy from the back streets. He took a couple of college courses, studied to be a refrigeration technician and goes on the road with a laptop. In fact, he donated 30 computers to his old high school.

In Chavez, he’s meeting a perfect foil who’ll be walking into counterpunches. Said Mayweather of Chavez, "He’s not a hard puncher at all."

Remember, in the fight before Chavez, Little Floyd beat another guy who went on to win a 130-pound title in Carlos Hernandez, actually going down from a left hook — which Mayweather landed. But the pain was so great, Little Floyd went down. Naturally, he did not hit Chavez as often as he could have.

There’s nothing wrong with Morales’s hands, though.