By Lyle Fitzsimmons
I’ve never met him… but I’m sure he’s a terrific guy.
And there’s no question he’s been a terrific fighter for the majority of an 18-year pro career.
Even in an era of multiple world champions wearing dubious tags like interim, super, recess and emeritus alongside their names, it’s still no small feat when someone claims a share of the legitimate title-claimant pie in one weight class – let alone three, as he’s done.
Such is the respect due to a veteran like Erik Morales.
But reality is reality.
And regardless of gaudy resume, there’s no way the future Hall of Famer known as “El Terrible” belongs anywhere near a championship-level prize ring this weekend.
Though his Saturday night bout at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas is for one of those bogus tags created by the alphabets to siphon sanctioning fees, the guy he’s in the ring with – rugged Argentine slugger Marcos Maidana – is far from an inconsequential punch line.
He’s racked up 27 of 29 wins by stoppage, was a shade shy of toppling Amir Khan in his last fight and has copped the scalps of well-regarded prospects Victor Cayo and Victor Ortiz – not to mention former world champion DeMarcus Corley – over the last 21 months.
The WBA justifiably ranks him No. 1 at 140, he has KO wins over the top contenders of the WBO (Ortiz) and IBF (Cayo) and he’s slotted third among non-champs on the IBO computer, where he trails only former world title-holders Joan Guzman and Devon Alexander.
In other words, he’d have been a handful for a lot of guys on their best days.
On Saturday, with his foe far beyond that peak, there’s a chance he could be far more.
Not only is Morales seven years older and a veteran of 273 more professional rounds – with all the hard mileage those pseudo-advantages entail – he’s also six years removed from a victory over an opponent legitimately classified as world class.
Six years and 21 days, to be exact – from March 19, 2005 to this weekend.
Morales defeated Manny Pacquiao in a rough-and-tumble 12-rounder back then in Las Vegas, four months after he’d dropped a rubber match to Marco Antonio Barrera and six months before a listless HBO-televised loss to Zahir Raheem kick-started what became a four-fight skid.
He was stopped by Pacquiao in 10 rounds in early 2006, fell in three to the now-streaking Filipino to complete their trilogy later that year and lost a unanimous nod to a gritty but pedestrian David Diaz for the WBC lightweight belt in August 2007.
The end of Morales’s prolonged post-Diaz sabbatical would have been acceptable had it yielded a brief curtain call for a good stamp on a solid career, which it seemed designed to do when he beat mid-range junior welters Jose Alfaro, Willie Limond and Francisco Lorenzo in 2010.
It would have been a respectable coda.
But beating Maidana is another matter.
Though he’s just an inch taller than Morales at 5-foot-9, Maidana is far sturdier and more natural at 140 pounds, having spent every moment of an eight-year career at junior welter or higher – including a maximum 151 pounds for a six-round decision over 150-pound countryman Daniel Carriqueo in 2005.
He halted 146½-pound Adolfo Espinoza in one round in January 2005 and stopped 150¼-pound Ariel Aparicio in one round 18 months later.
Meanwhile, before scoring the sixth-round stoppage of Scottish-born journeyman Limond – who was KO’d in eight by a 20-year-old Khan four years ago – Morales’s last win inside the distance came against a 129-pound Guty Espadas Jr. in 2003.
He’s weighed 140 pounds just three times in 57 fights, and more than 130 only five.
So not only is he far from his best… he’s even farther from his element.
And unlike other sports, where ill-advised comebacks merely prompt incessant babble over compromised legacies – for recent examples, see: Favre, Brett; and Jordan, Michael – a similar misstep in the ring too often includes words like “tragic,” “punishing” and “permanent.”
It’s hardly hyperbole to imagine their use come Sunday.
And in this instance, another word is deserved by Golden Boy Promotions and HBO Pay-Per-View – the respective outfits that signed off on the match and authorized a $44.95 retail price to see it.
This isn’t the De La Hoya-Pacquiao circus of three years ago, where the older, slower impala was tracked and devoured by a smaller, speedier lion.
In this case, the lion is bigger, stronger, younger and faster… and has shown no outward intention of taking it easy on what amounts to gimpy prey.
“I'm going to come out throwing punches, guns blazing,” Maidana said.
“If he can withstand it, great; if he can't, then good night.”
Not exactly the chatter of kid-glove respect.
But, before we get too fatalist here, I’ll concede to being as nostalgic as anyone.
When the opening bell arrives I’ll be hoping Morales finds a way.
And if his worst nightmare were a non-violent tango with a partner more equipped for 12 rounds of dancing – see: Leonard-Duran III – it’d be excusable in a PPV world.
But given the old man’s tradition of taking shots and the young man’s propensity to dish them out, it’s far more likely to resemble an ugly, grinding car wreck for as long as it lasts.
In that kind of macabre scenario, the only good end for Morales is being able to walk away.
And if we get anything short of that, it’ll be tough to watch and tougher to stomach.
When in reality… the boys at GBP and HBO know they should have walked before it started.
* * * * * * * * * *
This week’s title-fight schedule:
WBC featherweight title – Kobe, Japan
Hozumi Hasegawa (champion) vs. Jhonny Gonzalez (No. 1 contender)
Hasegawa (29-3, 12 KO): First title defense; Held WBC title at 118 from 2005-2010 (11 defenses)
Gonzalez (47-7, 41 KO): Eighth title fight (4-3, 3 KO); Held WBO title at 118, IBO title at 126
Fitzbitz says: “Home-field edge helps Hasegawa regain his bantam momentum.” Hasegawa by decision
WBC super bantamweight title – Kobe, Japan
Toshiaki Nishioka (champion) vs. Mauricio Munoz (No. 6 contender)
Nishioka (37-4-3, 23 KO): Sixth title defense; Failed in four tries for WBC belt at 118 (0-2-2, 0 KO)
Munoz (21-2, 9 KO): First title fight; First fight outside South America
Fitzbitz says: “Late-blooming incumbent in good with inexperienced foe.” Nishioka in 10
WBC super featherweight title – Kobe, Japan
Takahiro Ao (champion) vs. Humberto Gutierrez (No. 3 contender)
Ao (20-2-1, 9 KO): First title defense; Held WBC belt at 126 (2009)
Gutierrez (28-2-1, 20 KO): First title fight; Second fight outside Mexico (0-1, 0 KO)
Fitzbitz says: “Another successful outing for another Japanese host.” Ao by decision
WBO super middleweight title – Magdeburg, Germany
Robert Stieglitz (champion) vs. Khoren Gevor (No. 11 contender)
Stieglitz (39-2, 23 KO): Fourth title defense; Unbeaten since 2008 (8-0, 4 KO)
Gevor (31-5, 16 KO): Fourth title fight (0-3, 0 KO); Lost two title shots at 160, one at 168
Fitzbitz says: “Russian-born champ is no Ivan Drago, but he gets it done here.” Stieglitz by decision
Last week’s picks: 2-2
Overall picks record: 195-63 (75.5 percent)
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him at www.twitter.com/fitzbitz .