He had just celebrated his 21st birthday, just a boy trying to figure out this whole manhood thing.

Just six days later, Erik Morales celebrated his birthday by bringing his greatest dream to life — with a world championship. The young boy becoming a man from Tijuana engaged in a beautiful war with veteran Daniel Zaragoza, stopping the champion with a tremendous body shot in the final second of the 11th round. A new star was born on that September night in El Paso, Texas.

Eight years have passed since that young man first became a world champion. Last Thursday Morales celebrated his 29th birthday while training in Mexico City. Saturday night in Los Angeles’ Staples Center, Morales will face Philadelphia’s Zahir Raheem in what is expected to be a 135-pound dance.

The 21-year-old Morales weighed in at 121¼ the afternoon before he took Zaragoza’s title belt eight years ago, winning the WBC super bantamweight championship. As fighters do, he has eased his way up the weight ladder. As few fighters do, Morales has eased up that weight ladder with greatness.

Now he said he will probably find his final boxing home at 135 — with greatness and history again as a goal.

“As far as I know, it’s (the Raheem fight) always been talked about as the lightweight, 135. Maybe they’ll tell me that it’s going to be 134 or 133, which would be all right with me. But, you know, if they say anything less than 135, it should be right around 135.”

Of course, Manny Pacquiao is fighting on that same card Saturday night … with the logical course of events leading to a Morales-Pacquiao rematch in the near future. But …

“I know that if that happens, I’m willing to go down to 130,” Morales said. “I think it is important for me to find out how I feel at 135 — you know, my movement, how fast I feel, how strong I feel at 135. Because I do want to win a fourth title and I do want to be a lightweight champion. If I do fight Pacquiao, I have no problems going to 130. But that’s the only reason I would go down to 130, to fight him in the rematch, and then move on to 135. But that’s the only fight I would do at 130.

“I do feel better overall, you know (at 135),” Morales said. “I don’t have to worry about dieting. I don’t have to worry about anything like that. I’m eating properly. I feel stronger. I feel I can do a lot more when I’m preparing to do my job, my work during the day. I just feel stronger.”

The question always remains when a fighter moves up in weight. Will he carry that same pop with him? Morales has always been a warrior, a strong, lean machine in the ring. And his fists have always been heavy. He has already had a long career, even though he is still on the happy side of 30. He is 48-2 already, because he began his career as a 16-year-old in the Tijuana rings. Morales faced four men and knocked each one of them out — all before he turned 17.

Now he is far closer to the end of his career than the beginning. He has been a special champion, a three-time world champion. And he is very aware of making his notch on a higher rung in boxing history. Does he think about it? Does he think about that title at a fourth division … that Mexico’s very own legend Julio Caesar Chavez wore belts in three divisions?

“Yes, without a doubt,” he said. “You know, it’s something that I know is there. The opportunity is there for me and I would really like to take advantage of it. You don’t have that many opportunities to do something great all the time. And I think winning a fourth title would be great.”

Of course, his modern day rival, Marco Antonio Barrera, has similar thoughts.

“If I would have been fighting for WBL titles, I would have been a six-time champion by now,” Morales said. “I don’t … you know … those WBL titles WBL titles don’t mean much to me. And I don’t think to anyone else.”

Barrera remains the one thorn in the Morales side. Three great fights. One win for Morales. His only two losses came in the other two fights. It had to be a heartbreaking moment for him in November, 2004, listening to the scores of that last Barrera fight, that last loss — 115-113, 115-114, 114-114.

Two great Mexican fighters have come along at the same moment in time.

“I think I’ve proven myself,” he said. “I think my career speaks for itself. I think the fact that the people keep showing up to my fights, watch my fights whenever I’m on TV, you know, that I guess it shows where I’m at — where my level is and where his level is.”

Perhaps someday there will be Morales-Barrera IV. Perhaps it will be Morales-Corrales or Morales-Castillo or Morales-Pacquiao. Whatever the case, fight fans enjoy Morales and his wars.

Todd DuBoef, president of Top Rank, said, “I think with Erik we’ve always sat down and done our game plan. We’ve had to work very hard in creating a great attraction as he is. He said his career is going to go forward. And we’re going forward and decide with him what those big opportunities are. And if a big opportunity is a Barrera fight, then we have no problem doing it. Not at all. And likewise, if a big opportunity came up in a rematch with Pacquiao, if that’s possible after they both are successful on September 10th …”

Naturally, Morales is training for Rahim now and not for Barrera or Pacquiao or anyone else. He said his camp has been good. Training has been good. He is ready.

Fights come and go. Birthdays come and go. Still, he will never really forget that special moment, just after his 21st birthday, when he became a world champion for the very first time.

His heart must have been beating about a million times a minute, those eight years ago. He was but a kid, only a handful of days at 21, a soft spoken, baby faced boy becoming a man, but a boy with knockout juice flowing freely from either fist. And this was the moment of his young life, this short walk from the locker room at the El Paso County Coliseum and into the glaring spotlight of the ring and the unforgiving lights of HBO.

Erik Morales was coming face-to-face with his dream — and with a great warrior, the 39-year-old world champion from Mexico City, Daniel Zaragoza.

Not so long ago, Morales reflected on that moment.

Smiling, speaking softly as always, Morales wiped the fresh training sweat from his face and said, “I remember that time as if it were yesterday. I was feeling a lot of confidence, confidence that I could win the fight. Even before I went into the ring, I knew the people of El Paso would be for the champion, for Zaragoza. I think at the time of the fight, 80% of the people were with Zaragoza. But it didn't matter. I was happy. I was happy because this was my big opportunity. And I truly believed that all the people that night, at the end, would recognize my efforts and that all the people would believe that in the future I would be a great champion of the world.”

They did.

A crowd of more than 6,000 packed into the old building that September Saturday night gave Morales a long, raucous, standing ovation.

And he has.

Morales has become a great champion of the world, still working toward making even larger footprints in the history of the sport.