“No one has ever booed me out of a ring and no one ever will. As far as I am concerned there is going to be a fight. We are there to fight.”
Classic boxing careers are defined by evolution and entropy. A budding brilliance for combat decides personal signatures of fate, wearing down doubt, culminating in the destruction of valiant and passionate foes. Erik Morales, born above a boxing gym, began his journey as a prizefighter, forging his ultimate individuality as a champion, by developing the artistry of a boxer imbued with the raw determination of a slugger. Besting Mexican legend Daniel Zaragoza in 1997 and then obliterating the feared Junior Jones inside of four rounds a year later, the young gun Morales displayed the leveraging prowess of Carlos Zarate born up upon the robust willfulness of Ruben Olivares. Catapulting past hard rock Wayne McCullough he faced up to a showdown with Marco Antonio Barrera, the parallel light of Mexican boxing, barely more than a month and a half into the new millennium.
In Morales’ epic first contest against fellow phenom Barrera, the boxer bled and the punisher thrashed out at a fellow champion, until the marks of their respective greatness were there for all to see and celebrate. Refusing to be denied victory, Morales showed that his ultimate weapon was his will to push himself to the limits of tolerance. The native son from Tijuana went on to cultivate a pure form of precision power boxing, able to finish off opponents with decisive flurries, the lancing jab giving instantaneous access to a withering right hand. And it was Morales’ sheer hunger – the ability to inject and sustain tactical malice and heart – that drove the fans near to delirium when ever he disrobed to punch it out for pay.
Champions reign, regale and then fade, sometimes in one night, one torrid night. The prime of Erik Morales began almost a decade ago and that’s twice the normal life span of a champion, even an exceptional one. A simple bow deep in the embrace of his corner, a faint kiss of his right glove before it reaches toward heaven; thusly, Morales acknowledges the cheers of the crowds who adore his fighting spirit, his professional dignity and the manner of a common man blessed with industrious excellence. Intense and committed always, Morales boxes feet angling in, around or out, a simple skip backward, spine rigidly erect, then the flashing of jab melds into a spearing right hand, then folding inside a left hook searches out the pulp of opposing flesh, in that instant Morales is outside again skipping back in, and out of no where an uppercut erupts against a quivering jaw. For those who have seen Morales fight this past decade he’s as recognizable in a boxing ring as Roy Jones, Oscar De La Hoya, Bernard Hopkins or Lennox Lewis. You always have the feeling when Morales fights, it’s a title fight because he’s a champion with or without belts, having paid or spurned paying sanctioning fees. If you can, search out the fourth round of Morales battling the great Manny Pacquiao the first time and you will see in miniature the meaning and measure of the man; Morales in motion there needs no knockout signatures, no absolute ending.
But is Morales now to be viewed only in retrospect? Is there now no future left to Erik Morales, just thirty, but by general accounting a ravaged thirty? The rumors of sparring struggles float about while images of a hyper ecstatic Pacquiao training under the watchful eye of Freddie Roach, proprietor of the Wild Card Gym in Los Angeles, makes for acidic speculation. Pacquiao’s thousand dollar Nike designer ring foot wear is not expected to dim Morales’ ardor. But the sheer pulsating energy Pacquiao exhibits forms a gulf separating the two champions or so it would appear. Trainer Roach tries to keep his observations as politically correct as he can – insulting Morales with rhetorical whimsy – nevertheless making Morales a long shot to last the entire scheduled 12 rounds.
That kind of disrespect wrapped up as matter of fact confidence in his charge is precisely the kind of flash point that has, in the past, tended to irritate Erik Morales. For as much as any fighter of his generation the Tijuana born Morales expects professional respect from those who make their living within the boxing establishment. His customary training at the secluded training facility in the Otomi Mountains, 50 minutes from Toluca, Mexico, again proved an assuaging, sobering experience for Morales. The cold autumnal air helped cleanse Morales’ fighting spirit, things falling into familiar ordering, winning ways remembered, his small band dedicated to making a renewal of committed discipline toward one objective: victory. Victory now spells out redemption yet again for Morales. The mood in the camp was as meditative as the Pacquiao training routine was frantic. With his father Jose back in camp to oversee training, Morales steadily brought his 20 weeks of training to a cutting edged finality.
What time had seemingly deducted from the arsenal of Morales, long training sessions with Velocity Sports Performance was calculated to reimburse. The admission by Morales earlier this week that, “I have never lost weight correctly… and weight has always been a major problem for me, losing weight and retaining my strength has been a problem.” So the periodization for training has meant balancing the strengthening of stabilizing muscle groups and developing explosiveness in his legs and upper shoulder, both enhanced by overall stamina. And range of motion translating into strength over time is really what Morales has been lacking in his ring performances for about two years. Has Morales found the detailing and discipline to remake his body for this critical rubber match against the dynamic Pacquiao? Therein lays the mystery and ultimately the destiny of Erik Morales, the fighter.
“There is not much to change,” Morales explains, “it about being able to go 12 rounds, 12 tough rounds and bringing all of your technique and experience and power… I feel no pressure. I’ve done it before. The main thing is to be prepared to fight and I have done all the work… knowing your opponent… it happens in training…. I have prepared perfectly… I like to think I am ready to win.”
No one, it seems, is asking if Pacquiao overtrained, for he’s in his prime years as an athlete. The issue of Pacquiao having signed with Golden Boy Promotions for an extended contract, leaving his current promotional house and vender of this rubber match, Top Rank, doesn’t leave the same lingering stains as his divorce from Murad Muhammad, in the run-up to Morales-Pacquiao I. In such regard is Manny Pacquiao held. Science, the science of the human body in elite level athletic competition, has been invoked by Team Morales and Top Rank to steel their man Morales. But the ides of March have swarmed near, in November; an inexorable decay has gripped Morales and – so it is being whispered – only the boxing legend, the mythic past of Morales is left. Erik Morales, the king of the ring, is no more; he belongs enshrined in the warring glory of his own marvelous past: yesterday’s man. Common report can cut to the bone.
All those days in the Otomi Mountains hitting, reacting, concentrating, Morales knew what was being said about him, paranoia could hardly have amplified the doubts any more clearly.
Pacquiao has his admirers at a fever pitch, his celebrity casting him in movies, chanting till he sings them love songs. Everyone wants him, demands he be theirs. He sees only stars of his reflection. As if to rebel, he takes refuge in the ring to be alone, readying himself to set alight Erik Morales and then Marco Antonio Barrera. The world is his for the taking, Morales’ for the breaking?
The man in the bandana effuses combinations, a blurring application of energy emanating, a body transforming itself for warring literally burning itself alive.
Showing mostly diffidence, the legend from Mexico gathers his momentum, transmissions clearing signal pathways. Morales’ body appears to be awakening, quickening, still drawing upon itself, coiling, the transition to flight and fight aligning to the exact mark, Pacquiao’s certitude, poised to release the anvil of dynamism.
For Morales, it must be his last great night. He’s Erik Morales, the legend.
(Patrick Kehoe may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)