By Jake Donovan
It’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game.
The phrase is among the most repeated – and misquoted – clichés in all of sports, but every once in a while rings oh so true.
In regards to boxing, the phrase perfectly complements the career of Erik Morales.
There was a time when the future Hall of Famer couldn’t buy a win, yet his dedicated and always grown fan base couldn’t care less. Morales had lost four straight during one stretch, at a time when his in-country rivals Marco Antonio Barrera and Juan Manuel Marquez were still regularly winning, but remained a cult hero whose action style is often the standard to which all other fighters are held.
So as the 35-year old continues to linger around, a chapter awaits. At a stage when most would serve as a steppingstone for the next generation, Morales remains a very relevant force as he prepares for his latest venture.
The latest assignment for Morales (52-7, 36KO) comes against a fighter 11 years as the reigning 140 lb. titlist defends against unbeaten Danny Garcia (22-0, 14KO) this weekend at the Reliant Center in Houston, Texas, airing live on HBO (10:00PM ET/PT).
“I’m very excited to be here and to be fighting and building towards bigger and better things,” Morales says matter-of-factly, viewing his showdown with Garcia as just another day in the office. The age difference means little to the Mexican icon, or the fact that his opponent is in the heart of his prime and has yet to learn what it’s like to lose.
To put the evening’s dynamics in proper perspective, Garcia’s career began in Nov. ’07 – about three months into Morales’ retirement after having suffered his fourth straight loss. The narrow and disputed points loss to David Diaz was about as close as Morales could’ve come to going out on a high note.
As time marched on, Morales decided that moral victories weren’t his thing. Actual victories was more his speed, having rattled off three straight after returning to the ring in 2010. Yet another narrow points loss – this time to Marcos Maidana last April – saw Morales’ stock once again rise in defeat, his fan base and the legend behind his name once again growing all without adding to the win column.
The performance was good enough for Golden Boy Promotions – who have been along for the ride since his return – to attempt to put together a long-awaited showdown with Marquez, a fight that would’ve been the final piece to the puzzle and bring closure to the modern day Fab Four era of Morales, Barrera, Marquez and of course Manny Pacquiao.
When plans for the Marquez fight fell through, Morales was instead given a chance at making history. He succeeded, even if it required title manipulation, scooping up a belt in which its sanctioning body was all too willing to make available solely for the sake of Morales becoming the first ever Mexican fighter to win belts in four weight classes.
Even with the generous opportunity, you still have to go out there and win in order to make the history books. Morales did just that, overcoming a disastrous first half against unbeaten Pablo Cesar Cano that already had some people pondering the delivery of his retirement speech afterward.
Instead, Morales once again resurrected his career, taking over in the second half and coming on to stop Cano in the 10th round. It was yet another in a long line of action packed fights for Morales, who always puts a memorable evening for the fans ahead of his own success.
“It’s very important that fans think of me in that regard,” Morales says of his hero status among his boxing rich Mexico home land. “It makes me proud to know what we’re doing has that much of an impact, that all of the hard work pays off. It motivates me to continue.”
Onward he marches.
For the second straight time, Morales climbs through the ropes against an undefeated and much younger opponent whose youth was spent idolizing the legend in the other corner. Boxing history has proven that not all young fighters are star struck once the bell rings.
Larry Holmes pitied the state of Muhammad Ali in their 1980 bout, but wasn’t about to lose to him. Oscar de la Hoya treated a pre-fight cut above Julio Cesar Chavez’ eye as a bullseye in ’96 without giving the matter a second thought. Even Morales himself entered the championship fray by retiring the great Daniel Zaragoza.
Nobody expects a sympathetic performance this weekend from Garcia, who admits to have grown up watching and idolizing Morales. Garcia also insists that it serves as that much greater of a motivating factor to prevail this weekend.
While most in his position would’ve sought a far more rewarding opportunity involving far less risk, Morales instead does what he has always done best – run towards the sound of gun fire.
“I’ve seen a few fights of his. I think he’s fast and strong, but also think he’s more worried about his image in the ring,” Morales believes. “He’s more worried about looking pretty. He has high dreams, but we’ll both see on Saturday.”
The two fighters were supposed to settle up in January, but Morales was forced to withdraw after requiring emergency surgery to have gallstones removed. Such a dangerous operation has presented doubt in the minds over how damaging it can prove for a fighter long ago in the twilight of his career.
Joining such inquiring minds is Morales himself, who has an idea on what else he’d like to accomplish in this sport, but believes this weekend serves as the proper gauge for how much further the journey takes him.
“I’m 100% convinced of what I want,” Morales states when asked why he feels the need to hang around after having already made history in his country. “There are some thoughts about future fights that I want. Before I do those, I have to be 100% certain that I’m ready for them. This fight will determine that.”
And if he loses?
“I accepted this fight because I know I can win. The word “loss” doesn’t cross my mind.”
That said, seven defeats in the bank clearly indicate that even the great modern day legend is not impervious to the occasional letdown. Yet in true Morales fandom fashion, it’s not the losses that have defined his career, but his wins or at the very least his will to win.
Manny Pacquiao’s run towards pound-for-pound supremacy officially took off the moment he twice defeated Morales, also becoming the only fighter to stop him (twice, at that). Still, what remains every bit as vivid a picture to this day is the fact that Morales is the last fighter to hang a loss on the career of the legendary Filipino.
Few fighters in history can endure a stretch where they’ve won as often as they’ve lost and not miss a beat in terms of popularity.
Morales dropped two out of three to longtime hated rival Barrera, yet remains the hero to his countryman’s villain to this very day. Despite Marquez’ longtime pound-for-pound status and his popularity at an all-time high, he shoulders the majority of the blame for why a fight with Morales has yet to occur and – despite ranking very high among the greatest Mexican fighter of all time - will be held accountable should such a fight never take place.
Even if Morales never again manages to add to his current total of 52 wins, what he’s accomplished in nearly 20 years in service will forever be celebrated by those who prefer ‘fights’ to boxing matches.
While a win this weekend is desired, the career he’s forged on as much will as skill is what allows Morales to proudly hit his head on the pillow at night.
“My dreams were always high, to be somebody in the sport and to leave my mark.”
Twenty years later, there still remains time for Erik Morales to add to his mile high pile of time capsule moments in the sport.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter: @JakeNDaBox or submit questions/comments to JakeNDaBox@gmail.com .