He sat on the edge of the ring that summer afternoon, talking softly and easily, speaking of his career — past and present.
“My country (Mexico) seems to have a sad history of fighters ending up broke,” he said in his soft spoken voice.
Smiling slightly, he added, “That is not my goal. And I also want to keep my head well, so I don't end up in the laughing house when this is all over.”
That was August, 2000, and the man who spoke those words was Erik Morales. He was already a world champion for three years then, though he was just getting ready to celebrate his 24th birthday.
We all grow up hearing the stories, those simple yarns from the little books with the big pictures. When you are a child, you love those stories. They all end the same — happily ever after. Life, though, is hardly a children’s book.
Perhaps the most difficult moment in sport is making that decision, the decision to step away. You grow up with the sport. It is part of you, sewn into the fabric of your soul. Hold on … hold on for as long as you can. Athletes enjoy the moment in the sun and most of them even enjoy all other aspects — the constant training, the dedication it takes. And no one — NO ONE — wants to make that walk into the sunset too soon.
Has the time come for Erik Morales to make that walk?
Perhaps. He is just 29, still a young, young man. But he is a warrior, a gladiator. He has always been a boxer with great power. But he has always been one tough customer, a kid off the Tijuana streets who will fight you. Fight fans pay him the grandest of compliments. They never hesitate to plunk down the money when Erik Morales fights — because they always know he will fight.
Their money is well spent.
Children’s books may not be like life. But boxing sure is. The seasons turn. Boxers always come. And, sadly, they must always go.
Erik Morales fought his way onto the scene in early September, 1997, winning a world championship in the El Paso County Coliseum, putting an end to another man’s very good career. Morales unloaded a thundering body shot to stop Daniel Zaragoza with one second remaining in the 11th round. Morales came and Zaragoza went that night on HBO.
Morales is a three-time world champion. He has inched his way north in weight class and remained a special warrior all along the journey. Maybe, though, that is just the problem. The man is 48-4 with 34 big knockouts. So many great fights, so many tough wars. And three of those losses have come in his last four fights. He is only 29, but he has had so, so many wars … wars that have entertained us so well. Erik Morales is far older than 29 in boxing years.
Who are any of us to suggest someone should walk away from their sport? Some remember the calls for Kareem Abdul Jabbar to retire after his horrible Memorial Day game performance in Boston Garden. He went on to score about another million points, putting an exclamation point on a great career and proving so many people wrong. He was not through. He just had a bad day.
But boxing is not basketball. A man cannot have too many bad days in the ring. If he does … well, he could end up in the “laughing house,” as Morales put it.
He saw it all so clearly that August afternoon in 2000. He sat comfortably on the edge of the ring in San Juan Gym, El Paso, Texas, and could look clearly into his future. But the future is so much easier to see when you are 24 and still champion of the world.
That same day, a friend and mentor talked about the future, too.
“Erik knows he is in a dangerous business,” said his doctor and nutritionist Jose Manuel Covarrubias. “He knows a lot of fighters blow their money and a lot of fighters receive a lot of blows to the head. He has always said when he begins to receive a lot of punches, that is the ending.”
And the circle is a vicious one. One follows the other, as surely as the booming right after the left jab. Squander the money and you are forced to stay too long at the dance. You must have one more fight. And one more. Just get that money back. Stay too long, chase after the lost dollars and dreams too long, and it buys a one way ticket to that laughing house.
But it is not about money for Morales. It is about pride. It is about saying goodbye to a way of life, tipping his hat and walking away from something that has put him on top of the world, something that has given him a life he could never have imagined as a Tijuana teenager.
Morales lost and lost convincingly to Zahir Raheem in September. He was not beaten or battered. But he clearly lost.
Saturday night Manny Pacquiao, who is in the middle of his own great career, did batter Morales. The talented Pacquiao did something no other boxer has been able to do. He not only battered Morales. He stopped him.
Have there been too many wars for Morales? Has he stayed too long at the dance? That is a hard, hard call. But it seems so.
At worst, perhaps the great Mexican fighter should just step away for a year. Take a deep breath. Take a break. He has earned it. Then, in 365 days, maybe he can get a better perspective … a better view of the past, present and future.
Mickey Mantle lamented the fact that he played an extra year of baseball, went one year too long … a year of struggle that cost him his career .300 batting average.
But boxing is not baseball, either. The Mick walked away with a lower batting average than he wanted. But he could walk away — albeit with a limp.
Some of us saw Morales explode onto the boxing scene that night in 1997. We saw him fight in El Paso again in 2000. And we have followed his career closely, with a special fondness for a special fighter all these years. He is bright and he is a gentleman.
No one wants to see a special fighter hang up the gloves and stroll away into the sunset. But everyone wants to see that fighter walk away healthy, head held high and with a wonderful future awaiting. There is life after boxing. It just does not seem so sometimes.
And so we can all hope that Erik Morales remembers that moment in August 2000, that moment when he saw the future so clearly. And we can all hope that whatever he decides — and whenever he makes that decision — his story will be like the finish of one of those children’s books:
Happily ever after.