by David P. Greisman
He asked for it – and he asked for it at a time when we were asking questions of him.
What little did Erik Morales have left? Why would he choose Marcos Maidana as his latest comeback opponent? How long would he last against Maidana? And how badly would he get hurt?
Morales asked for it – and he asked for it because he already knew the answers to those questions.
He had enough left after a great but grueling career that he could still pose an honest challenge to one of the top fighters at junior welterweight, that he could still pose a hard challenge against one of the toughest fighters in the division.
He had enough left, at least, to face Maidana, a fighter whose power made up for his predictability, whose unrelenting advances made up for his unrefined skills.
Except Morales saw it the other way around. Rather than those traits being flaws that Maidana had succeeding in overcoming, they were weaknesses for undermining Maidana, weaknesses that others had failed to fully exploit.
Morales would last, then, for as long as his strategy allowed, and for as long as his body did, too. What remained physically would be key for applying the mental aspects of the fight game. And the mental aspects of the fight game would help him make up for what was no longer physically there.
This, after all, was a fighter older than his 34 years, a fighter who’d turned pro 18 years ago and had fought 57 times, going to war in trilogies with Marco Antonio Barrera and Manny Pacquiao and waging battles with so many others over so many years at junior featherweight, featherweight and junior lightweight.
This, after all, was a fighter who’d retired in 2007 after moving up to lightweight to challenge David Diaz, a limited but rugged beltholder who’d overcome his flaws and overachieved. Morales said after the close, unanimous decision loss to Diaz that his head rang every time Diaz hit him.
This, after all, was a fighter who’d only returned to the ring a year ago and had only faced second- and third-tier opponents since coming back. Maidana, for all of his flaws, was still far more accomplished and able than Jose Alfaro, Willie Limond and Francisco Lorenzo.
This was why we were asking questions of Erik Morales. And this was why we were uncertain of what the answers would be to what Marcos Maidana would ask of Morales in the ring.
Morales’ legs looked stiffened with age and rust, slowed by the burden of additional weight on his frame. Maidana laid into him in the first round with heavy left hooks to the body and head and hard uppercuts upstairs.
Morales didn’t appear to have the ability to keep Maidana off of him. In clinches, he would hold Maidana’s right arm but allow Maidana to punch away at him with the left. Morales didn’t throw much either – just 46 punches in the first three minutes, about half of the 91 that Maidana threw. Morales only landed seven, of which only four were power punches. Maidana landed 24, of which 21 were power shots.
One of those power punches brought out significant swelling over Morales’ right eye. Maidana alone is a difficult opponent. Morales would spend the duration of the bout half-blind and less able to see shots from Maidana’s punishing left hand.
Maidana saw a wounded warrior waiting to be put down. He trapped Morales against the ropes in the final minute of the second round and hit him with the left, then chased him to another side of the ring and hit him with that left hand again.
And then Morales gave the first glimpse of what he had left – and what he had planned.
He fought off the ropes with a few right hooks, then a left hook, then a right cross, and then another right hand, and then another. And then it was Maidana who was backing away and Maidana who was trying to battle back.
Maidana is powerful and unrelenting. But his style means that he would be there in front of Morales the entire time. Morales could see him coming, and Maidana is slow enough that Morales could see what was coming, too.
For an aging fighter who can no longer use his legs as much and no longer throws his hands as much, an opponent who hits harder is much easier to deal with than an opponent who moves quicker and throws faster.
Morales was less active and used less footwork, but he was able to compensate for Maidana’s pressure and power with head movement, ducking and weaving and rolling with punches, limiting the damage if the punches landed. He put forth jabs and one-twos to throw Maidana off his rhythm and sent out counters and flurries in response and retaliation.
Maidana kept coming.
Through four, Maidana had thrown 301 punches and landed 64, including 53 power shots. Morales had thrown 185 total shots, landing 37, including 25 power punches.
Everyone thinks they see something in Maidana. They see the wide arm punches that don’t look like they should hurt as much as they do. They see the lack of fundamental skills, the slow offense and the porous defense.
But only two men had been able to beat him. Andriy Kotelnik managed a close split decision. Amir Khan had to survive a frightening late rally en route to a close unanimous decision.
Khan had remained mobile and relied on speedy feet and hands to keep hitting Maidana and keep moving afterward. He was the one expending energy while Maidana stalked. It was only when Khan rested that Maidana was able to hurt him with damaging uppercuts.
Victor Ortiz had stood in front of Maidana after scoring three knockdowns in the first two rounds, leaving himself susceptible to Maidana. If Maidana can hit you, he can hurt you. Ortiz called it a night after six rounds, unwilling to take more punishment and unable to prevent himself from taking it.
Maidana is aggressive, and so Morales threw between Maidana’s wide punches with straight, clean shots. This forced Maidana to recuperate. And Maidana was more active against what he perceived to be a lesser threat in Morales. This forced Maidana to rest.
Morales sent Maidana moving backward in the fifth with right hands, left hooks and combinations, slightly outlanding Maidana in the round, 20 to 19, with each landing 17 power punches.
Morales had handpicked Maidana as his opponent. Yet it was Morales who had to earn Maidana’s respect.
He did that in the fifth, and he did it again at the end of the sixth, letting Maidana finish his own combinations and then sending out several flurries of his own, just as Morales had during his three back-and-forth battles with Marco Antonio Barrera. And he earned his respect again in the beginning of the eighth, hurting Maidana with a lead left hook.
Now it was Morales asking questions of Maidana.
How much energy did Maidana have left to deal with the vintage Morales moments? How badly had Morales hurt him? How long would it take for Maidana to get his second wind?
Maidana answered in the ninth, bursting forth with a tremendous attack that went unanswered for the first minute of the round. Then Morales dug in, reminding Maidana that there would be return fire – even if the volleys came less often, even if the ordnance was less explosive.
Morales outlanded Maidana in the eighth. Maidana outlanded Morales in the ninth, going 22 of 99, though Morales was still an exceptionally effective 18 of 26.
Maidana needed a round to rest after that. The 10th would be the only round in the fight in which Morales threw more punches than Maidana, sending out 57 punches and landing 22. Maidana, meanwhile, sent out 49 punches and hit Morales with just eight of them.
It was a closer fight than most expected. The ending was in question.
Maidana had the solution.
Maidana summoned the stamina for the championship rounds and targeted Morales’ closed right eye with more left hands.
For 10 rounds, Morales had shown what he had left in him – one more great fight. But he didn’t have enough left in the final two rounds for one more great victory.
Morales threw just 25 punches in the 11th round, landing four. He threw 45 punches in the 12th, landing 11. Maidana threw 197 punches in those final six minutes, landing 39 and taking the two rounds that would earn him the majority decision victory.
The scorecards: 114-114 once, or six rounds apiece; and 116-112 twice, or eight rounds to four.
Like Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky, Erik Morales had fought through a closed eye.
Like Rocky, Morales came up short.
Erik Morales had asked for this, for a chance to prove that his year-old comeback was not about vanity, not about money and not about trying to hold onto the sport when you can no longer handle the competition.
We asked questions of Morales, thinking that we already knew the answers. We were wrong, and Morales made us glad to be wrong.
His fight with Marcos Maidana went from ugly to beautiful. And we went from dreading what could happen to delighting in what did.
The 10 Count
1. It was a quick stoppage from referee Joe Cortez in waving off the fight between James Kirkland and Nobuhiro Ishida after Ishida surprisingly knocked down Kirkland three times in less than two minutes.
But it wasn’t a crime.
Kirkland was clear-eyed and quick to rise after each of the three knockdowns, floorings that truly appeared to be flash knockdowns – albeit surprising knockdowns that came on what didn’t look to be devastating punches.
There was no three knockdown rule in effect. Cortez could’ve looked in Kirkland’s eyes and let him get up and continue.
But a fighter loses a lot of leeway to complain when he’s just been sent down three times in a round.
Nobody would’ve complained had the first fight between Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez been stopped in the first round. Nobody would’ve complained had Steve Smoger stopped the first fight between Jermain Taylor and Kelly Pavlik when Pavlik was badly hurt and reeling around the ring.
Nobody would’ve complained had Tony Weeks stopped the first fight between Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo after Corrales went down hard for the second time in the 10th round. And nobody would’ve complained had Frank Cappuccino stopped the first fight between Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward when Gatti was being pummeled in the ninth round.
Those fights were not stopped, though, and because of that they became even more special.
Yet Gatti and Corrales had shown referees over the years that they could withstand inhuman punishment, recuperate and battle back. Smoger has a reputation for letting fights go on a little bit longer than other referees might let them – and he was also known for stopping the action at just the right time.
Know who that referee was for the first fight between Marquez and Pacquiao?
2. The prospect of James Kirkland vs. David Lemieux prior to April 8?
The prospect of Kirkland vs. Lemieux after April 8 and Lemieux’s technical knockout loss to Marco Antonio Rubio?
Still somewhat marketable.
The prospect of Kirkland vs. Lemieux after April 9 and Kirkland’s technical knockout loss to Nobuhiro Ishida?
3. Something tells me we’ll see Kirkland back on American airwaves again before we see Ishida.
The same could be said about Danny Jacobs probably returning to HBO or Showtime before Dmitry Pirog.
Heck, almost seven years after Felix Sturm nearly derailed the Oscar De La Hoya/Bernard Hopkins train, Sturm still hasn’t been seen on TV again in the United States.
4. Remember when Vivian Harris was the most avoided man at 140? He’d twice beaten Oktay Urkal. Now he’d probably lose to Steve Urkel.
5. I should watch it again, but after first viewing I don’t quite agree with those who say that the April 2 title fight between flyweights Hernan Marquez and Luis Concepcion was the best battle in years.
It was a very good fight. But there were just too many slower rounds in-between the stellar first few stanzas and the dramatic 10th.
Then again, I didn’t think Amir Khan vs. Marcos Maidana was “Fight of the Year” for 2010, nor did I think Juan Manuel Marquez vs. Juan Diaz was “Fight of the Year” for 2009.
So take my opinion with that grain of salt.
My standard remains the same: In a vacuum, without any benefits of past storyline or knowing about the fighters, it is the one bout that someone must see for the year – the one bout that someone will finish watching and will then recommend to someone else.
It’s completely possible that the praise about the fight made it impossible for it to live up to expectations. I’ll watch the bout again at the end of 2011 alongside the other “Fight of the Year” contenders. Marquez-Concepcion’s greater place in history can wait until after that.
6. There has never been a fighter who hasn’t reminded Max Kellerman of another fighter.
7. Roy Jones Jr. musta forgot… to pay his taxes.
(I know, I know, but you couldn’t expect me to resist that one…)
Jones owes more than $3.5 million in federal taxes, according to The Detroit News, which has found a niche in finding celebrities who haven’t been holding their weight when it comes to paying the man.
The debt stems from $629,085 owed to the IRS for income taxes for 2009 and $2,946,650 owed to the agency for income taxes from 2003 and 2004, according to the report.
8. When Antonio Tarver asked Roy Jones Jr. during pre-fight instructions if he had any excuses that night, he backed up his words by knocking Jones out.
When Nate Campbell asked Juan Diaz during pre-fight instructions if he was ready for hell, he backed up his words by taking Diaz into the trenches and taking away his three world titles.
But when Michael Katsidis screamed “What are you looking at?” at Robert Guerrero during pre-fight instructions this past Saturday, Guerrero answered with his fists: “I’m looking at you. And I’m hitting you at will.”
Katsidis is falling into the role of the B-side against top lightweights, but he’s still not an easy out. Guerrero impressed against Katsidis, and now the next question should be posed to Juan Manuel Marquez:
“Who are you fighting next? Robert Guerrero or Zab Judah?”
9. I’ve just caught up on the last two week’s episodes of “Dancing with the Stars” for you.
I’m selfless, I know.
And it’s all so that I can tell you that Sugar Ray Leonard is struggling after three weeks of the reality dancing competition. Though he’s improved slightly, he’s remained at the bottom of the pack when it comes to the judges’ scoring.
Those scores don’t dictate everything; fan voting also counts.
Week three actually had an appearance from Michael Buffer, who broke out his “Let’s Get Ready to Rumble” for Leonard’s paso doble.
At this rate, however, week four might end with Roberto Duran showing up and telling Leonard “No mas.”
10. How soon until Joe Cortez is doing Viagra commercials?
“I’m fair and I’m firm.”
David P. Greisman is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His weekly column, “Fighting Words,” appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com.
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