By Thomas Gerbasi
Pablo Cesar Cano will one day be a champion. Call it a hunch, a gut feeling, a premonition. At just 21 years old, the Mexican junior welterweight has already shown enough talent, determination, and heart that it’s almost inevitable that one of boxing’s major sanctioning bodies will offer him a shot at a title in the future and that he will win it.
But last Saturday night was just not his time. Lost in the aftermath of a Victor Ortiz headbutt, some Floyd Mayweather payback, a Larry Merchant line for the ages, and another win for “Canelo” Alvarez was yet another performance by Mexico’s Grand Old Man, Erik Morales, which makes you wonder if any of us really know anything about boxing anymore.
It was that good.
Yes, Cano was coming in on short notice to face Morales after never having been within sniffing distance of a top contender, and if the original opponent that night, concussive punching Lucas Matthysse, was in the MGM Grand Garden Arena with “El Terrible” it may well have been a different end result, but in boxing all the ‘what ifs’ and ‘could have beens’ really don’t matter once the entourages leave the ring and the two men that matter fight. It’s what happens when that bell rings that’s important, and in Cano there was a hungry young lion who saw the opportunity of a lifetime before him to win a title and defeat a legend, and in Morales, there was the future Hall of Famer enjoying his resurrection as the unlikely comebacking hero.
That’s drama, and frankly, that’s boxing at its best. Sure, having Sugar Ray Leonard and Tommy Hearns slugging it out in their primes was a beautiful sight to see, but that was in 1981. How often does that happen these days? We got what we thought would be an instant classic when Tim Bradley met Devon Alexander, but that turned out to be a dud. Wladimir Klitschko vs. David Haye in July was more of the same.
So where does the drama come from these days? From athletes who are well past their sell by date fighting younger opponents they have no right even being in the ring with. Tell me you didn’t cheer for Bernard Hopkins or Glen Johnson in their recent fights with Jean Pascal and Carl Froch, respectively, and I’ll ask to check your pulse.
And though Morales, at 35, has some time to catch up to “The Executioner” and “The Road Warrior” chronologically, in some ways he’s got even more mileage on him in a fistic sense.
Three fights with Manny Pacquiao with two losses by knockout.
Three fights with Marco Antonio Barrera.
Wars with Daniel Zaragoza and In-Jin Chi
A punishing loss to David Diaz in 2007 that prompted him to step away from the ring for nearly three years.
That kind of live fast, die young career will catch up to you in a hurry. That Morales made it through 14 years when he lost to Diaz was amazing. But that defeat convinced nearly everyone that it was time for him to leave before he got seriously hurt.
And he did leave, though when he returned in 2010, we all groaned as he insisted that he was just taking a break.
“I just needed a little time off to get away from it,” Morales told me before his bout against Willie Limond. “But (when I was off) the biggest thing I missed was being out of it. And it was in my family where I found the answers. I had that motivation to go ahead and my family motivated me, and that’s what brought me back. I feel like I still have it.”
No one believed him. We hoped, but we knew better. Beating Jose Alfaro, Willie Limond, and Francisco Lorenzo was not going to prepare him for an inevitable bout as the sacrificial lamb for a young fighter on the rise with the backing to get the execution televised.
Yet in April, when he was brought in as the foil for iron-fisted Argentinean Marcos Maidana, a funny thing happened on the way to the gallows: Erik Morales turned into “El Terrible” again. Turning back into the ferociously competitive terror from Tijuana, Morales gave Maidana all sorts of hell for 12 fast-paced rounds, and he did it with his right eye practically closed for much of them. If controlled violence has any sort of beauty to it, this was it.
The decision, a majority verdict in Maidana’s favor, really didn’t matter. We got to see a master of the ring show that the last thing to go on a fighter isn’t his power, but his heart. Add in the technical smarts that have always been an underrated part of Morales’ game, and you had the perfect send off if he decided to pack it in.
But why pack it in when you still can compete at the world-class level, and that was Morales’ reasoning for sticking around. Matthysse would have been another slugfest, one that could have sent Morales packing, but the old warrior was willing to take that risk, to no one’s surprise.
And even when Cano was inserted in Matthysse’s place on the Mayweather-Ortiz Pay-Per-View undercard, after the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the untested 21-year old getting a title shot was done, there were many who believed that this would still be Morales’ Waterloo.
Maybe Morales thought so too, as Cano’s fast hands kept the veteran off balance in the early rounds and had viewers in the MGM and watching worldwide thinking upset.
Yet as the fight progressed, Morales did what he has done for years – he used timing to beat speed, technique to beat superior athleticism, and soon, Pablo Cesar Cano didn’t look like Pablo Cesar Cano anymore. The youngster wiped blood from a face that was morphing by the second due to Morales’ fists, and while he kept fighting with the pride that has become a trademark of Mexican boxers, on this night, Morales, en route to a 10th round stoppage win, was going to teach his pupil a lesson about greatness and how possessing it is something that never goes away.
Sure, Morales’ number will come up one day, just like it does for 99% of boxers throughout history, and he will run into the fighter that sends him into retirement for real this time. That could happen in his next fight or it could happen five fights from now. But while this second trip around lasts, it’s impossible not to enjoy it.
There are good, young fighters around like Pablo Cesar Cano, and exciting fights between prime competitors like Andre Ward vs. Carl Froch on the horizon. But the ones still displaying the sweet science at its finest are the ones who have no right doing so anymore.
Viva “El Terrible.” It will be a lonely sport without you.