Will Walters sat on a chair in a backstage corridor at B.B. King’s Blues Club and Grill in New York. Three days earlier, the 34-year-old welterweight had flown to New York from California to serve as an opponent.
Walters had a 2-and-7 record as a professional fighter. In less than an hour, he’d enter the ring to face Peter Dobson, who was undefeated in four professional bouts.
There were eleven fights on the card, which meant that some fighters had been relegated to the corridor rather than sharing one of the small makeshift dressing rooms. It was hot and humid. The corridor had a concrete floor and cinderblock walls. There were no fans and little air circulation. Adding to the discomfort, a door alarm had been blaring for a half hour.
As Walters’ hands were being taped, a well-groomed 47-year-old man wearing a navy blue blazer, gray slacks, white shirt, and black tie (all perfectly pressed) watched intently.
Ernie Morales is an inspector for the New York State Athletic Commission. He’s 5-feet-9-inches tall, weighs 163 pounds, and over the years has completed fourteen New York City marathons with a best time of 3:42:42. “I’m not in boxing shape,” he says. “But I am in shape.”
Morales was born on the lower east side of Manhattan on August 2, 1967. “When I was growing up,” he recalls, “it was just my mother and me. She had me when she was nineteen years old, and I lived with her until I got married in 1992. I knew who my father was. My name is Ernest Morales III. But it wasn’t a strong relationship.”
Morales’s mother was a dental hygienist. “It was important to her that I grow up right,” he says. “And she put that belief in me. But the crack epidemic was in full bloom back then, and she went through several relationships where she got involved with intravenous drugs. She tried to keep it from me, but I knew. I made a promise to myself that I would never get caught in that cycle.”
When Morales was five years old, his mother enrolled him in the Boys Club of New York at 9th Street and Avenue A near Tompkins Square Park.
“I was in the gym a lot,” he says. “Then, when I was eight or nine, they opened a boxing program. I tried it, liked it, and stayed with it. I was an average fighter, nothing great. I had 74 amateur fights; won 50, lost 24, and had one knockout. That tells you I wasn’t much of a puncher. The knockout came at a small show in New Jersey. We got into an exchange, I was scoring pretty well, and the referee stopped it. I had a good jab and I could hit you with a solid straight right. The problem was, I might hurt you with the right but I didn’t have the power to finish.”
Morales reached the semi-finals of the New York City Golden Gloves twice. The first time was in the novice 118-pound division; the second, in the open division at 125 pounds. He was never counted out during his amateur years, but he was stopped three times.
“I didn’t have that much natural ability,” Ernie acknowledges. “But boxing was a great experience for me. It kept me away from the streets at a time in my life when a lot of the kids I was growing up with were getting in trouble. I learned about discipline and how to take care of my physical health. I don’t drink. I never did drugs. Boxing started me out right.”
Morales graduated from Chelsea Vocational High School in 1985. While in school, he ran cross-country and clocked a 4:32 mile.
And he had one professional fight. That came at age twenty-one against Rene Pellot (who was also making his pro debut) at Gleason’s Arena in Brooklyn on May 26, 1989. There’s a back story on that one.
“Pellot was well-conditioned and tough with a body like Adonis,” Ernie remembers. “A year or two before, there had been an amateur show when they wanted to match us and I chickened out. I wouldn’t fight him. When it was time to turn pro, Bruce Silverglade (who was promoting the card) gave my trainer, Juan Rivera, five names and said we could choose the opponent. Juan told me ‘you choose.’ Pellot’s name was on the list. I said to myself, ‘If I don’t face my fear now, I’ll never get past it.’ So I chose Pellot. He came right at me like I knew he would. And I got cut from a head butt in the second round. But I outboxed him and won a unanimous decision.”
Meanwhile, Morales had taken the New York City Police Department qualifying examination. “I’d known from the time I was twelve years old that I wanted to be a police officer,” he says.
In mid-1989, Morales was called for duty. Trainees at the Police Academy and in the period immediately after graduation are on probation. During that time, they cannot have outside employment. Professional boxing was considered outside employment. That marked the end of Ernie’s ring career.
New York State Athletic Commission inspectors work on a per diem basis and have a variety of “day jobs.” Morales has one of the NYSAC’s more interesting resumes.
His first assignment with the NYPD was in the 25th Precinct in Harlem, initially in community policing and then in plainclothes Anticrime. That was followed by a four-year stint as an undercover officer in the Manhattan North Narcotics unit.
“I was buying drugs in Washington Heights, which was the cocaine capital of America,” Ernie recalls. “There were times when I was nervous. But I brought the same mentality to it that I brought to boxing. If you lose that nervous edge, you’re going to get hurt.”
Morales was promoted to sergeant in 1998 and spent much of the next three years in the 47th Precinct in the Bronx on a plainclothes Anticrime detail. Then he was drafted into Internal Affairs (an independent unit that investigates alleged misconduct by police officers).
“I didn’t ask for that assignment,” Ernie says. “I was told that was what I was going to do next.”
After one year with Internal Affairs, Morales was promoted to lieutenant and sent to the 44th Precinct in the Bronx. In 2002, he was selected to attend a three-month advanced training program in law enforcement at the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia. Then he was assigned to the Bronx narcotics unit as a supervising lieutenant, a role he filled for nine years. He was promoted to captain on October 31, 2011, and transferred to the 34th Precinct in Manhattan, where he served as executive officer (#2 in the chain of command behind the precinct’s ranking officer). A similar assignment in the 32nd Precinct in Harlem followed.
Then, on August 18, 2014, Morales was appointed to his present position: Commanding Officer of Transit District 12 in the Bronx. The district covers eight precincts and forty-two subway stations. “Over a half million people pass through those stations each day,” he notes. “We have to make sure they’re safe.”
In twenty-five years with the NYPD, Morales has never fired his gun in the line of duty. Fourteen of his years on the force have been devoted to fighting drugs.
“Every promotion I’ve gotten,” he says “has felt to me like winning a world title fight.”
Morales’s work as an inspector with the New York State Athletic Commission flowed naturally from his love of boxing.
“I used to go to shows from time to time,” Ernie recounts. “Then I met [former NYSAC chief inspector] Felix Figueroa, who told me about the commission and asked if I wanted to get involved. The idea appealed to me. I was at Madison Square Garden as a fan when Billy Collins fought Luis Resto [on June 18, 1983, the night that trainer Panama Lewis removed padding from Resto’s gloves in the dressing room prior to the fight]. That night, a man’s life was ruined because of a cheater.”
Morales was hired as an inspector on August 4, 2008. On fight night, he arrives at the venue two hours before the first bout. As a general rule, he’s assigned to monitor one or two fighters. In the dressing room, he introduces himself to each fighter that he has been assigned to cover and also to the fighter’s seconds. During the next few hours, he supervises the gathering of urine samples, wrapping of hands, and gloving up, in addition to making certain that myriad commission rules are followed.
“I try to keep a calm environment,” Morales says. “I explain the rules to the fighter and his seconds and tell them how they’re expected to conduct themselves. One of the commission’s responsibilities is to make sure that, within the rules, the playing field is as level as possible. My job as an inspector is to help implement that policy. If something doesn’t look right – a gauze pad, a medication, whatever it is – I don’t just say ‘no’ and give it back to them. I hold onto it until after the show and then decide with the chief inspector what to do with it.”
In performing his task, Morales is firm but non-confrontational. He does his best to treat every fighter equally, The fact that he’s bilingual is a plus.
When the fighter leaves for the ring, Morales goes with him. In the corner, he watches to ensure that adherence to the commission rules continues. Also, during the bout, he’s a link in the chain of safety for a fighter. A good inspector knows when to signal to the referee that a fighter might be laboring between rounds or to suggest to the ring doctor that the fighter needs a closer look.
“I find it all very rewarding,” Ernie says. “It’s service-oriented and allows me to remain part of the sport I love. Felix was my first mentor. The other person who taught me a lot was [current NYSAC chief inspector] George Ward. George has a lot of experience and he’s generous in sharing it. I learned a lot by watching how George does his job.”
“Iron Will” Walters vs. “Pistol Pete” Dobson wasn’t much of a fight. Walters holds his left hand low and, to make matters worse, brings it back slowly when he jabs. That made him a sitting duck for chopping right hands that Dobson landed throughout the contest. Referee Harvey Dock mercifully stopped the bout with Walters still on his feet at 1:33 of the third round.
Morales sat with Walters in the corridor afterward.
“It’s embarrassing,” the fighter said.
“Don’t say that,” Morales told him. “To step in the ring like you just did is never embarrassing. Very few people have the courage and skill to do what you did tonight.”
“Thanks for the kind words, man. I appreciate them.”
There were six more fights on the card. Dobson-Walters was now history.
“I’ve lived in a lot of places,” Walters said, ruminating on his life. “Moved around a lot when I was a kid. My last job was as a server in a restaurant. Right now, boxing is all I do, but it’s a dirty gig. I loved boxing when I was an amateur. The whole community of fight people seemed special to me. But the way they match people up in the pros; I understand it from a business point of view. But in a perfect world, I’d be more evenly matched.”
“Probably, I’ll have a few more fights. Then I’d like to do something else. My dream would be to be a fireman. Firemen are the real heroes, but those jobs are hard to get. Maybe I could be a paramedic or something like that where I’m helping people.”
Walters’ purse for fighting Dobson was three thousand dollars. He’d traveled alone to New York and picked up two corner men at the last minute. Richard Schwartz would get a hundred dollars for serving as chief second; cutman George Mitchell, twenty-five.
“I’m bummed out that things happened the way they did tonight,” Walters continued. “But that’s the story of my life. I always seem to come up short, even if it’s just by a little bit. I run marathons sometimes. My goal is to break three hours. My best time so far is three hours and twelve seconds. Think about that. If I’d run each mile a half second faster, I’d have broke three hours.”
“I wanted to go the distance tonight. That way, maybe my next fight would be eight rounds instead of six. They pay more for eight-round fights. But what happened happened. It would be cool if Dobson becomes a great fighter some day. Then I could say I fought him way back when.”
On that note, Walters’ mood brightened a bit.
“I like fighting in New York,” he said. “The pay is pretty good and they pay your medical expenses. If I need another MRI, I’ll try for another fight in New York. And I liked the inspector. He’s a nice guy. He knows what he’s doing and where the fighters are coming from.”
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His most recent book – Thomas Hauser on Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press.