This is a good story, a happy story … perhaps as close to happily-ever-after as real life gets.
But it is also a boxer’s story. And boxer’s stories can never be told without a dance with sadness, without a flirtation with tragedy. Fighters, after all, are those brave souls who walk the crazy streets of life, going right down that center stripe — glory on one side, utter disaster on the other.
Fernie Morales remembers almost nothing about that sizzling hot afternoon in the desert of Indio, Calif., in 1991; doesn’t even remember much about that entire week. He vaguely remembers running in someplace very, very hot. Nothing more. He can watch a tape of that fight and it is still like he is watching someone else.
What a way for a career to end. What a way for a love affair to end.
Morales does remember being a small boy in Mexico, glued to the television, watching Saturday night boxing. He remembers slipping socks over his tiny fists and imitating his television heroes, pounding away, making moves and unloading punches on the nearest door. Boxing seeped into his blood at an early age. And it is still there.
Morales celebrated his 40th birthday on the Fourth of July. For his lovely wife Laura, for his five beautiful children, for all his family and friends, that birthday and every birthday is something special … a taste of a miracle.
Everything funnels back to that hot summer afternoon in 1991. It was an ending. And it was a beginning.
Morales built a career, step by step, to reach that championship moment. He was reaching the bright lights of a lifelong dream. He was fighting for a world title. Morales faced Orlando Canizales that scorching afternoon for the IBF bantamweight world title belt. It was the stuff of every fighter’s dreams — especially the little boy from Mexico, the one with socks on his fists.
It was a long tough trip, though, for a young man.
Morales moved with his family from Gomez Palacio in Mexico to East Los Angeles as a young boy. Like so many tough young boys, he found trouble on the city’s mean streets. He found fights. He found gangs. It could have easily ended then — long before 1991.
“I remember us having fights, shooting at each other,” Morales said. “The guys in our gang would be cussing when they missed. I would shoot the gun and say, please God, don’t let me hit anybody.”
Fortunately for him, Morales’ father Frank took control of the situation before it ended badly. He moved his family to El Paso for Fernie’s teenage years. The young boy began to excel in the ring instead of on the streets. He became a member of the U.S. national team and spent weeks at a time training in Colorado Springs. He fought internationally and pieced together a fine 101-7 amateur record. He was named Fighter of the Tournament on a couple of occasions, earning the honor over talented teammates like Mike Tyson and Meldrick Taylor.
When he lost a decision in the 1984 Olympic Trials (despite knocking winner Robert Shannon down), Morales turned professional. He became a popular figure in El Paso and in Mexico. He was the Mexican national bantamweight champion and was the NABF bantamweight belt holder. Morales could not wait for that special moment, the chance to become a world champion. It was his dream. It was also the dream of two cities. El Paso has 600,000 people, is 80 percent Hispanic and 99 percent infatuated with its boxers. Juarez is across the Rio Grande, has twice as many people and an equal love for its warriors.
Morales could not walk anywhere in El Paso without signing autographs. Once, he went to the fights in Juarez as a spectator. He was sitting in the back of a big van with family and friends. The driver pulled up next to Gymnasio Municipal and parking attendants came running out, screaming, “You can’t park here, you can’t park here.” The driver calmly responded, “We’ve got Fernie Morales in here.” The attendants calmed, then yelled, “Hey Fernie … right this way, come on in. Can you sign this for me?”
The human drama that is a boxing career built and built, seeming to move toward a crescendo. Morales put together a 28-4 record, losing three split decisions and another close decision. One of the split decision losses was to former and future world champion Wilfredo Vasquez.
It all led to that Sunday afternoon in Indio.
The two men fought a fine fight. Morales was the aggressor, but the longtime champion Canizales was just a little better. After 12 rounds, Canizales had defended his belt again, winning a unanimous decision. Morales was just 27. He would have other moments in the sun.
But it was not to be.
Morales collapsed in the parking lot after the fight, was rushed to the emergency room. A blood clot was removed from his brain. He was in a coma for a week. Everyone feared for his life.
“I don’t remember anything about that fight,” Morales said. “I can remember running in a desert-like place. I know it had to be Indio. It was so hot. But that’s all I can remember. When I watch a tape of the fight, it’s like watching someone else.”
Dr. Ali Tahmouresie, who removed the blood clot, said, “We put him on medication to reduce the swelling of the brain. At that time, we had no idea how much body movement or brain damage there would be.”
Morales’ high school sweetheart and wife since their teenage years, Laura, said, “I almost lost my mind at first. Fernie has always been the sweetest man I’ve ever known. We’ve always been together. It was the most special feeling when he woke up from that coma and said, ‘Oh, Babe, you’re so beautiful.’ Then he said it again. And somehow I knew everything was going to be OK.”
It has been a long journey, though. But, again, that afternoon in Indio was not only an end … it was also a beginning.
Amazingly, Morales went home to El Paso one month to the day after the fight. Nearly 200 people greeted him at the airport. He was still weak. But not too weak to greet everyone. He spotted a friend and reached out a hand over a row of chairs, then said, “Come around here and give me a hug.” After the hug, he said quietly, “Well, I’ll never fight again. But at least I’m here.”
And remember, Morales was and always will be a fighter.
He went through extensive rehabilitation. Bit by bit, he fought his way back into his own life. In the beginning, he was partially paralyzed on his left side. And he will always have some limitations.
“I can do a little bit of everything,” he said with a shrug. “I can’t drive more than a half hour. I have to attend school one class at a time. I can’t watch a movie that lasts two hours. I get frustrated. Sometimes I lose my train of thought. But I’m just always thankful I’m still here, still fighting to help young people.”
Morales finished his Associate’s Degree at El Paso Community College in 1998. He moves well again. When you talk to him these days, you really wouldn’t know anything was wrong.
Now, this 40-year-old fighter works with young people. He has always worked with them, all during his career. But now, well, there seems to be even more passion. Not only does he get kids in the gym, work them hard, teach them footwork and combinations and life (whether they are good, mediocre or terrible in the ring), he also goes the extra mile. He truly cares. He will go to their schools, talk to their principals, to their counselors.
It is his livelihood, it seems. It is his destiny, perhaps even more than boxing was.
But, make no mistake, boxing still has his heart.
Fernie Morales is like any fighter. He loves to battle. But, like all fighters, he knows. He knows there is danger, possibly permanent injury and even death lurking just a round, just a combination, just a single punch away.
“I know God has blessed me,” he said. “I have my life, my family and I’m still trying to do what I’ve always wanted to do — work with kids, work with youth. They’re our future. They’re our future governors and future presidents and future everything.
“But there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about boxing. I miss it so much. It broke my heart there in the hospital when they told me I’d never fight again. I know I could have been a world champion someday. You learn. You get better.”
Canizales went on to set a record for the most title defenses by a bantamweight. Not so long ago, he finished his college degree. Years after that summer Sunday afternoon in Indio, Canizales said, “I was shocked (when he heard Morales was in the hospital). Fernie was the aggressor the whole fight. When I heard they’d taken him to the hospital, I just thought it might be for cuts. It was hard for me, too. I’m just so glad he’s OK now.”
And Morales is OK … very much OK.
His two oldest daughters, Jessica and Sonika, are attending community college. His oldest son, Fernie Jr., is in high school. His daughter Lauren enters high school this fall. And his youngest son, Christian, is entering middle school. Christian was born after that near tragedy in Indio and is named Christian because he, like his father, is a miracle.
He also has all those other kids, those troubled ones, the ones who depend on him.
It is a good life.
On a blistering Sunday afternoon in Indio, a boxing career … a love affair with a sport, came to an end. Fernie Morales will never remember his final fight.
But, then again, he continues to fight. That afternoon in Indio, after all, was also a beginning. A very special beginning.
And so now this story continues and it continues happily … about as close to happily-ever-after as you get in this life.