When Daniel Zaragoza popped Erik Morales with that uppercut, who would have thought that the Tijuana kid whose legs turned to jelly would become one of the greatest Mexican fighters of all-time?
That was Sept. 6, 1997 at a blistering-hot El Paso County Coliseum. As it turned out, the uppercut was Zaragoza’s last stand. Morales survived that early-rounds scare, and roared back to knock out the proud veteran.
The end came in round eleven, when a vicious right hand to Zaragoza’s solar-plexus doubled him over. As he sat on the canvas, “The Mouse” winked at the kid, effectively passing the Mexican torch from one great to another.
Unbelievably, that was eight years ago today. Zaragoza has long-since retired, and is a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Morales, meanwhile, may be in the prime of his career.
Can it be that the best of “El Terrible” may be yet to come?
Saturday, Morales will meet Zahir Raheem as a warm-up for a projected winter rematch with Filipino superstar Manny Pacquiao, who fights on the same card. Raheem, best known for providing Rocky Juarez with a good fight last year, may trouble Morales with his movement and speed.
But as we have learned in the past, Morales almost always finds a way to win.
He found a way to beat Wayne McCullough, who wouldn’t go away and provided Morales with his first great challenge. He found a way to beat the relentless In Jin Chi, who was every bit as tough as McCullough. He found a way to beat Marco Antonio Barrera in one of the more devastating wars in boxing history – albeit controversially. He found a way to beat Guty Espadas on an off-night that almost proved disastrous. He found a way to beat Jesus Chavez and Carlos Hernandez, a pair of hardnosed veterans who never allowed Morales a second of rest.
And, last March, he found a way to beat a seemingly-invincible Pacquiao – cutting him, hurting him and dethroning him via 12-round decision.
And the two losses that stain an otherwise perfect record? Both highly questionable decision defeats.
His pair of losses to Barrera in the second and third meetings of their historic trilogy were close and controversial. Most thought Morales got the better of Barrera in the rematch on June 22, 2002, at Las Vegas.
The nod went to Barrera.
And the pair put on another classic show last Nov. 27, also in Vegas. It was every bit as close as the first two. Barrera again was given the decision.
There are those who believe that Morales is still unofficially undefeated, and therefore has always found a way to beat his opponent. They would have a strong argument.
But the bigger question is, how has Morales provided his fans with so much enjoyment – he may be the most exciting fighter in boxing – and, at the same time, managed to have a lengthy, stellar career?
The answer: An undying will to win.
Against Barrera in the original on Feb. 19, 2000, Morales was staggered so badly in the middle rounds that no one expected him to last the fight. He did, though his handsome features had been beaten bloody and lumpy.
And through that mask of pain, he fired back at Barrera with a startling ferocity.
Pacquaio found out about the Morales heart last March 19. The punches that destroyed Barrera and wobbled Juan Manuel Marquez hardly fazed Morales.
Morales responded to “Pac-Man’s” bombs by attacking. As he always does.
When he is hurt, he fights harder. When he is in trouble, he often reverses his fortunes with pure determination and fury. And not since the days of Marvin Hagler has boxing seen a chin as sturdy as Morales’.
Only difference is that Hagler often boxed. Morales comes to slug, every time. All the time.
Even when Barrera caught him with a punch at a wild press conference in 2001, Morales went into attack mode after fielding the shot.
That’s Erik Morales. He always wants to win. His spirit is unyielding. Even at press conferences.
Morales will likely defeat Raheem, who is nowhere near the class of the Tijuana great. And he will meet Pacquaio again early next year.
Morales will be a favorite in that fight. Because of his will, and his courage. And because there is not a tougher fighter in boxing today.
Not bad for a kid whose legs turned to jelly in his first big fight.