POINTS UNKNOWN BETWEEN THIS SIDE OF THE DESERT AND THAT – For most boxing fans, every once in a while a fight comes along which holds personal interest. The hometown team or former school making it to the playoffs. You could call it an emotional attachment.

It’s like that for me heading into Manny Pacquiao – Erik Morales III.

I’ve been lucky enough to have seen Morales fight at least fourteen times, plus at least half a dozen more TV bouts. Precise calculations on the numbers get blurred. Let’s just call it the undercard party era.

One memory that remains quite clear is how Morales developed from promising youngster to disciplined punching machine, in sporadic monthly segments, seemingly right before my eyes.

Now, Morales faces the final chapters of his professional boxing career. At the end of this symbolic road too far stands Pacquiao, still progressing on his own path to glory.

Pacquiao opened at around a 2 to 1 betting favorite, but after watching him dominate their last brawl it seems Pacquiao should be far closer to a lock. An over-under line around nine and a half frames seems fair.

Still, I can’t shake the image of a young Morales breaking down first-rate, seasoned veterans like Hector Acero Sanchez or Juan Carlos Ramirez in the mid ‘90s. Almost a decade later he was doing the same to titlists like Jesus Chavez and Carlos Hernandez.

Morales was vicious when he splattered Fernando “Baby Boy” Velardez, reportedly to avenge Morales’s brother’s defeat. It looked like Morales was going to spit on his fallen foe.

Besides the highlight reel rivalries with “Pac-Man” and Marco Antonio Barrera, the only time I’ve seen Morales eat leather was when he took a debatable nod over In Jin Chi in LA.

Morales erased any doubts from his controversial contest against Guty Espadas with a quick blast out in their rematch.

Since this go-round between Pacquiao and Morales shapes up much like the first time in terms of the fighters’ status it shouldn’t be a huge surprise if Morales pulls it off again, especially considering that the winner probably gets a goldmine facing Barrera relatively soon.

For me it’s the type situation illuminated by A.J, Liebling in “Ahab and Nemesis,” the classic finale to his “The Sweet Science” compilation. Describing his excitement over the Archie Moore – Rocky Marciano contest, Liebling wrote about how he didn’t think Moore could pull it off, but wanted to be there when he tried.

The first two Pacquiao – Morales rumbles were enough to convince me Manny can continue marching through Morales right from where he left off last February.

The only other time I’ve seen Pacquiao beside his split with Morales, was on the undercard of Lennox Lewis – Mike Tyson. Co-promoters Showtime and HBO shared a rising star spotlight in the featured prelims. HBO presented Pacquiao, who stole that portion of the broadcast from Showtime’s Jeff Lacy.

Pacquiao has absorbed far less big-league damage than Morales at this relative stage.

Time will tell if the likeable Filipino star (mega star in his homeland) is still on the rise. He’s certainly more secure in his present state. Morales has to be considered in the last stages of his campaign.

Morales seems to have held together well after at least a dozen punishing performances, but he’s been busted up many times. One has to hope the Tijuana icon isn’t seen stumbling as he ages along Baja. That may well depend on when he decides to call it a dia.

If it’s true Morales’s punching power has vastly declined, it’s also a fact his fighting spirit has grown by more than just the jump from Feather to Light.

There are only a handful of major contests that can share consideration for 2006 Fight of the Year. If the Pacquiao – Morales pattern continues, this is one of them. If not for the Diego Corrales – Jose Luis Castillo classic, Pacquiao and Morales’s initial encounter deserved FOY honors in 2004.

I can’t think of a better trilogy than Barrera – Morales, but if Pacquiao and Morales match their first fight it’s a virtual tie.

With more than 30 years worth of mileage, Morales promises to be psyched up Saturday night.

“I have been here before,” said Morales. “I know what I have to do and I am prepared mentally and physically.”

By the time he makes his way down the Thomas and Mack corridor for what emerges as yet another defining fight in his distinguished saga, thousands of believers, some waving Mexican flags and chanting Morales’s name, will be plenty psyched up themselves.