By Cliff Rold
When Michael Buffer, or any other ring announcer, extended the “e” at the end of Erik Morales’s nickname in pre-fight introductions, it was enough to raise the pulse of anyone watching. Goosebumps might creep onto the forearms.
Erik Morales was fighting and that meant, almost always, that one was about to see a FIGHT.
Twice over the years it meant the Fight of the Year. At least a half dozen other times, it meant a solid runner up. That level might not be attainable any more given with the ravages of time and age, but the goosebumps remain. To limited fanfare, after almost three years out of the ring, Morales is on the comeback trail. In March, he returned in a crowd-pleasing scrap with Jose Alfaro. This Saturday, he’ll face Willie Limond (33-2, 8 KO) of Scotland.
They aren’t names on par with Morales’s best foes of the past, but his presence still means fight and Limond will know he was in one Sunday morning.
Let the debate rage about whether or not Morales, at 34, has much to gain by continuing or should be continuing at all. It’s enough to assume the best Morales gone, to feel safe in reflecting on how the best Morales should be regarded. With titles in three weights classes and wins against some of the best of the 1990’s and 2000’s, the question is asked:
How good was Morales, measured against all-time.
In answering the question, five categories will be examined:
2) Competition Faced
3) Competition Not Faced
4) Reaction to Adversity
5) What’s Left to Prove
It begins with…
The Tale of the Tape
Hailed From: Tijuana, Mexico
Turned Professional: March 29, 1993 (KO2 Jose Orejel)
Record: 49-6, 34 KO, 2 KOBY
Record in Title Fights: 18-3, 11 KO (19-3, 12 KO including interim title fights)
Lineal World Titles: World Jr. Featherweight (2000)
Other Major Titles: WBC Jr. Featherweight (1997-2000, 9 Defenses); WBO Jr. Featherweight (2000); WBC Featherweight (2001-02, 1 Defense; 02-04, 3 Defenses); WBC Jr. Lightweight (2004, 1 Defense); IBF Jr. Lightweight (2004)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Defeated: 3 (Jose Luis Bueno KO2; Marco Antonio Barrera SD12; Manny Pacquiao UD12)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Faced in Defeat or Draw: 2 (Marco Antonio Barrera L12, L12; Manny Pacquiao TKO by 10, KO by 3)
Current/Former Alphabet Titlists Defeated: 9 (Hector Acero Sanchez UD12; Daniel Zaragoza KO11; Wayne McCullough UD12; Kevin Kelley TKO7; Guty Espadas Jr. UD12, KO3; In Jin Chi UD12; Paulie Ayala UD12; Jesus Chavez UD12; Carlos Hernandez UD12)
Current/Former Alphabet Titlists Faced in Defeat: 1 (David Diaz L12)
Turning professional at only 16 years of age, Morales made his way through the Tijuana club circuit on a wiry but lethal frame, collecting knockouts in fourteen of his first sixteen contests before going twelve rounds for the first time. Stepping towards more veteran fare in 1995, Morales continued to excel and mad himself a contender with a decision over former 122 lb. titlist Hector Sanchez in 1996. Four fights later, in September 1997, Morales challenged Hall of Famer Daniel Zaragoza for the WBC 122 lb. title and scored a star making stoppage in the 11th. It would be the farewell fight of Zaragoza’s long career.
Morales wracked up nine defenses, eight by knockout, before an all-Mexican unification showdown with WBO titlist Marco Antonio Barrera. Suffering a controversial knockdown call in the final round of an enduring classic, many felt Morales had experienced his first defeat but the split points nod went in his favor. Regardless of the debate about the decision, the official verdict came in a bout between the clear top two in the class at the time and should be viewed as a claim to the lineal title of the division for Morales. It would be Morales’s final fight at 122. Politics saw Morales vacate the WBO title upon winning it and the belt was given back to Barrera.
Morales would engage in three more fights in 2000, besting former Featherweight titlist Kevin Kelley in September for interim WBC Featherweight honors. He would challenge the sanctioning bodies full reigning titlist, Guty Espadas Jr., in February 2001 and exit with the belt via a debated a decision. One defense over the summer and a lengthy layoff followed before a rematch with a by then reigning lineal World Featherweight champion Barrera in June 2002. The vacant Ring Magazine belt was also on the line as Morales saw a heavily debated score go against him this time around.
More political hand wringing between Barrera and the WBC saw the belt go vacant shortly after the rematch and Morales would regain the belt in November with a win over Paulie Ayala. Three defenses were wracked up, including a set matters straight knockout of Espadas, before Morales made his way into a third weight class.
February 2004 saw a WBC 130 lb. title earned in a decision versus Jesus Chavez and Morales would add the IBF honors with a decision over veteran Carlos Hernandez. The IBF belt was vacated and the WBC title was on the line in November for the third contest with Barrera. Morales lost a fiery majority decision.
Morales has since challenged only once for a belt, scoring a knockdown early but losing a decision to 1996 U.S. Olympian David Diaz in August 2007. Morales was inactive until March 2010 and is now continuing his career in the hopes of a title in a fourth weight class. It is something no Mexican-born fighter has ever accomplished.
Among outside the ring honors, Morales was named in, or as, the:
• Ring Magazine Fight of the Year: 2000; 2004
• BWAA Fight of the Year: 2004
• Ring Magazine Round of the Year: 2000; 2004
• Ring Magazine Upset of the Year: 2005
• #3 All-Time Jr. Featherweight by BoxingScene, 2009
Examination of Morales’s title wins hints heavily at the level of foe he faced during his best years and yet doesn’t even encompass what may be his finest win. Long before that win was arrived at, Morales posted a historically significant run at 122 lbs.
Starting his career so young, Morales was groomed carefully to tough challenges. Sanchez came in 1996 while he was still only 19 years old. Zaragoza, just days past Morales’s 21st birthday, was the real arrival. Zaragoza may have been 39 at the time but he was also red hot, having gone 11-0-1 in the near four years prior with wins over Wayne McCullough and Jochiro Tatsuyoshi along the way.
By Morales’s fourth defense he was in with a two-division titlist in Junior Jones who, while having been stopped in his previous outing, was only once removed from a pair of wins over Marco Antonio Barrera. His eighth defense against Wayne McCullough was the first time he went the distance in a title fight and a forgotten barnburner. It was notably more dominant a win than what then-Featherweight king Naseem Hamed had managed two fights earlier against McCullough. Barrera, the last mountain at Jr. Featherweight, could fairly feel he’d done enough to beat Jones in their rematch and entered the Morales bout hot with six wins and a no-contest after that narrow decision defeat.
Morales, coming off the first war with Barrera, moved carefully into Featherweight. He caught a fading Kevin Kelley at an opportune time but Espadas had won 13 straight when he faced Morales with wins over tough outs Luisito Espinoza, Agapito Sanchez and Alfred Kotey along the way. He followed with a lost classic, twelve full rounds of rugged action against a 24-1 In Jin Chi of South Korea who would later go on to win the WBC Featherweight title twice. Barrera, for a second time, was followed by former Bantamweight titlist and Ring Magazine 122 lb. champion Paulie Ayala. Ayala had not officially lost in nine fights including strong wins over “Bones” Adams, Johnny Tapia, and Johnny Bredahl.
Morales took a step off the gas, in the ring, during his second Featherweight belt reign. The only notable bout among three defenses was the Espadas rematch and Espadas entered with losses in two of five since the first Morales bout.
The breather didn’t last long with a rugged campaign to begin at Jr. Lightweight. Chavez and Hernandez, as noted, were both reigning titlists. Barrera, a rival again at a new weight, was only shortly removed from a knockout loss to Manny Pacquiao, but was still Barrera. Their second Fight of the Year epic in three contests was all the evidence needed and Barrera would go on to be a unified titlist in class afterwards.
It was, to date, the end of Erik Morales in the championship ranks but it was not the end of tough competition. HBO commentator Larry Merchant often points out the old axiom that the greats ones all have one great fight left at the end. For Morales, that night came in the fight right after Barrera III as he masterfully outboxed and outfought Manny Pacquiao in the first of their three encounters.
He has won only once since but gets credit for agreeing to a losing Lightweight fight, after the Pacquiao win, with 1996 U.S. Olympian Zahir Raheem, the sort of spoiler most avoid. He also gets credit for going out on his shield against Pacquiao twice over in returns to Jr. Lightweight, the first time in a rematch that was competitive through the first five rounds. Diaz, while not a notable Lightweight titlist, held a belt and Morales took him to the wall in what looked like a fitting farewell.
It hasn’t turned out that way. As Morales prepares for Limond this weekend, one wonders how long the warrior in him can resist the call of elite competition.
Competition Not Faced
As always noted, this section is concerned primarily with what did not happen; why is not the issue.
Given fights with the men mentioned, its hard to believe there could be notable misses for Morales but, like all fighters, there are men they did not face to be leveraged against those they did.
At Jr. Featherweight, more unification could have been a bonus. Africa’s Vuyani Bungu posted a quality IBF reign, winning the title from Kennedy McKinney, to fanfare largely beyond the U.S. and Mexican markets where Morales made his bones. The man who defeated Bungu, Lehlo Ledwaba, was only just emerging as Morales was leaving the class and WBA titlist Antonio Cermeno was departing just as Morales arrived. That they shared space with Morales as titlists at some point merits at least a mention. So do the short WBA reigns that followed a vacating Cermeno for Enrique Sanchez and Nestor Garza. There was also Kennedy McKinney, the 1988 U.S. Olympian who won two titles in class.
At Featherweight, Morales could not secure a shot at Naseem Hamed before rival Barrera did. There were no unification attempts against the likes of Derrick Gainer, Manuel Medina, Johnny Tapia, Julio Pablo Chacon, or Scott Harrison, all of whom held belts at Featherweight during the time Morales did between 2001-03. Most significant, there was no showdown with fellow Mexican Juan Manuel Marquez.
Misses were harder to come by at Jr. Lightweight. Diego Corrales and Joel Casamayor were still competing there in early 2004 when Morales moved up; Yodsanan Sor Nanthachai and Mike Anchondo had belts in class later in 2004. Competition not faced at Lightweight isn’t weighed because Morales didn’t compete there significantly.
Reaction to Adversity
For Morales, adversity could be weighed different than other boxers. He seemed at home when rocked, when caught in a back and forth war. For Morales, adversity seemed often to come from the threat of a fight not being violent enough to satisfy him.
Nowhere was that more evident than in the second Marco Antonio Barrera fight and the first Manny Pacquiao contest. In both, Morales fought with an uncommon discipline, using his jab and, for those weight areas, uncommon height and length to outbox his foes for long stretches.
It was jarring in the Barrera rematch for most of the first eight rounds to see both men play chess and even more jarring to see Morales getting the better of it for healthy stretches. Through eleven rounds of the Pacquiao fight, Morales had used his jab, timed straight rights, and smart movement to build a lead with at least seven rounds in the bank.
Against Barrera, discipline dissolved and hellacious fighting took over through the championship rounds. In the final round versus Pacquiao, Morales dropped all pretense of science and gave Pacquiao a chance at a needed miracle by engaging full stop.
In terms of typically addressed adversity, Morales passed all the tests. When he got hit, he hit back. He could handle the ebbs and flows of escalating battles as well as anyone and had uncommon ability to recover when hurt. It took multiple wars and a younger, all-time great in his prime (Pacquiao in their third fight) to find Morales’s breaking point.
As Morales sat out the count in the third round of their November 2006 rubber match when he appeared capable of rising, it was a rare time when what was essentially quitting could be honorable. Morales had shown he was willing to do anything over the years in pursuit of victory and could be saluted for drawing the line at a risk of life.
One of the knocks on Morales, partly fueled by underestimation among the punditry and press of foes like Chi and Espadas, was that he fought down to the level of opponents. The truth was Morales liked to fight in the purest sense of the word and so fights broke out when he was in the ring.
What’s Left to Prove
For Morales, there is nothing left to prove but perhaps there is the possibility for enhancement of stature. He’s a first ballot Hall of Famer the second he becomes eligible who showed heart and gave fans their money’s worth during a memorable run near the top from 1997-2006. He continues on and one hopes he will prove he knows when to stop. His comeback foes, Jose Alfaro first and now Limond, are the beatable sorts he should be facing if he is not done with fighting. He’s earned the right to continue if he wants to.
The one intriguing option, and it is not out of the realm of the possible, is a showdown with reigning Lightweight champion Juan Manuel Marquez. Marquez is now 37 and, while still regarded as one of the world’s best, is at an age where big money options are growing short. It’s not a fight Morales would be seen as likely to win but it might be a nice capper to a broader era.
The broader era implied is the 2000’s “Fab Four” which emerged with Morales, Barrera, Marquez, and Pacquiao. The only missing fight amongst those four is Morales-Marquez. If it did happen sometime in 2011, and Morales could post the improbable upset, it would put him firmly into a slot he can only be argued towards now.
The clear leader of their personal clubhouse is, and will be historically, Pacquiao. His career accomplishments from Flyweight to Welterweight include a mark of 5-1-1 against his three key rivals at 126 and 130 lbs. The man who can rate second is open for debate. Barrera has two wins over Morales and two one-sided losses to Pacquiao. Marquez drew and lost with Pacquiao in fights where the scoring is still subject to heated discussion while posting a competitive decision against Barrera.
Morales is lone among them to defeat Pacquiao. No debate lingered and the rematches did not erase it. He also, regardless of which of their wars viewers felt it came in, earned at least one win versus Barrera. Despite being younger than Marquez, Morales is rightly seen as having far more miles on him after a number of more grueling fights. If, and it’s a big if, he found a way to beat Marquez, it would be the sort of event which could force a reevaluation of the space they will share in the annals of boxing.
Measured Against History
Common sense still says Marquez-Morales should probably be left to the imagination and results going back years say that the real “El Terrible” is viewable only on video and in the mind’s eye.
What is found there will stand the test of time. Morales met the burdens of greatness in multiple categories. He posted a strong title reign, featuring at least some unification in the modern ever-fractured era, in his primary weight class (122) before moving up to honors in two more divisions. He beat two legitimate Hall of Famers in their prime, Barrera and Pacquiao, and made compelling, multi-fight rivalries with both. He added another Hall of Famer who could still go in Zaragoza.
Then there was the body of work beyond. Outside of Marquez, who stands equal to the best of what was faced, none of the competition missed in Morales’s career stands out as more significant than what he faced and Marquez is on equal. The competition scale weighs heavily in his favor. Hamed at Featherweight, and Corrales and Casamayor at Jr. Lightweight, were timing more than competition issues, those men going as he was arriving in new parts of the scale.
The most notable miss among titlists who reigned alongside him for a sustained time is Bungu and that would have been an interesting match, but few face all. McKinney was the missing ingredient from an explosive round robin of fights between he, Morales, Jones, and Barrera in the second half of the 1990’s. Like Marquez in the later shared rivalry, Morales-McKinney would have been nice to see for completeness sake and one heck of a scrap.
If there were to be any criticism, it would be stylistic. The loss to Raheem in 2005 was chalked up as an indication of Morales slipping. That was partly true. It is also observed here that Raheem was the sort of stick and move (and move) boxer otherwise largely absent from Morales’s ledger. So be it. That style is kryptonite for lots of fighters and usually for the box office. If Morales could not topple that style, he could at least say he defeated others who did, styles making fights and all.
And make fights he did. Among great Mexican fighters, his will be a name never far from conversation even if not quite at the top. Where Morales might have lacked the consistency of a Julio Cesar Chavez or the genius of a Salvador Sanchez, wins over Barrera and Pacquiao, in addition to his other accomplishments, merit at least discussion with the best of his countryman.
Beyond his attachment to the core of his era, Morales also earned the right to be categorized with the sports great action stars. The late Arturo Gatti could be argued as on par with Morales in terms of a contemporary, consistent action hero. Morales exceeded Gatti because he could do it repeatedly against the most elite level of competition. Rare are the men who could say the same through the years. Morales earned the right to have his name mentioned with those who could, with the likes of Beau Jack, Joe Frazier, Matthew Saad Muhammad, and Evander Holyfield (to name a few) in that regard.
It is rare company, a fraternity of leather and crimson representing the soul of the game. The 34-year old Erik Morales continues on this Saturday night. The immortal Erik Morales already belongs to all-time.
Verdict on Erik Morales: All-Time Great Action Star
Author’s Note: This is an occasional series which will examine the most accomplished of modern fighters in seeking to establish how their careers stack up with history’s finest.
Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org