(Erik Morales, right, catches Danny Garcia)
What distinguishes the great Erik Morales from his contemporaries, the men he is most often compared -- Marco Antonio Barrera, Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez -- is that Morales never changed.
While his chief rival, Barrera, reinvented himself from brawler to boxer/puncher mid-career in order to stay relevant, and Pacquiao became a two-fisted fighter with a defense after relying on his vaunted left for so long, and Marquez blossomed into a risk-taking action star from the chaste technical brilliance of his youth, Morales seemed to shrug and do what he always had. He stayed Morales.
That stubbornness, that willpower, that tenacity... it's been on display from the moment he captured the boxing world's attention with his 11th round body shot stoppage of junior featherweight champion Daniel Zaragoza 15 years ago, right up to when he out-fought and out-thought junior welterweight Danny Garcia for large stretches of their bout just days ago. He has always been as singularly identifiable as an Alfred Hitchcock silhouette, a Beatles harmony or a Jordan dunk.
That singularity is what sets Morales apart from the other greats of his generation. There was no evolution of Morales. He never went back to the drawing board or tweaked his fighting style or mentality. There really wasn't ever a need.
In the ring he made you adjust to him. Hell, he made it seem like making adjustments might be a sign of weakness. The only switch "El Terrible" ever flipped was throttle up or throttle down.
Though comfortable backing up and coming forward, the trait that defines Morales more than any other was that sudden push on the throttle when under duress -- the ability and the need to fire back at an attacker immediately and furiously.
If you tagged him with anything, a moment later he was driving you 15 feet across the ring to the opposite ropes, peppering you with a volley of punches from all sorts of angles.
That explosively violent passion was the fuel to a blistering 41-0 career start, all-time trilogies with Barrera and Pacquiao, and war after war with a who's who of the featherweight divisions around the turn of the century.
And now we are seemingly very close to the end of Erik Morales' storied road as a prize fighter. Following his loss to Garcia, Morales has said he will never again fight on American soil and would like just one more bout in his hometown of Tijuana, Mexico to go out on a high note.
Boy has he earned it.
What fighter in the last decade or so could credibly claim to have delivered more entertainment and breathtaking violence in their fights than Morales? The few that could possibly argue it owe many of their most memorable moments to having shared the ring with Morales himself.
Even the faded Morales we saw in against Garcia was able to show off the traits that made him one of the brightest talents in boxing and a legend in his home country. His bag of tricks unchanged, but looking decidedly soft in the midsection, he still came to fight with the determination that seems to bubble up from the recesses of his body like an eternal spring.
Though the night took a turn late, his jab was in fine form early, dictating the engagement for most of the first half. He used it to setup the overhand right, which had always been his big gun, and was bouncing some big shots off the youngsters skull with regularity. He was also picking off Garcia's body shots with his elbows, an old staple of his defense.
All the moves we'd grown accustomed to, the sharp uppercuts, the straight right hands... all that he had honed over a nearly 20 year career flowed effortlessly from his shopworn body.
He even pulled off his signature feint attack. If you're a longtime Morales fan you already know. Skip past this paragraph. If not, here goes... it's one of the most awkward, but athletic, and ultimately effective feints in the history of the sport. I don't know if I can recall a fight he didn't employ it; he would leap forward jerking his shoulder forward as though to throw an overhand right, then stop it midway, and throw some kind of hybrid left hook-er-cut, followed by a volley of other punches. The interesting thing is, he was always wide open in that one moment between the fake, and the hook-er-cut, but no one was ever ready for it and he never got caught doing it; the move is a very impressive shifting of momentum, and torque... Even the old, overweight Morales pulled it off with dexterity on Saturday night.
The judges, though, seemed not to notice much of what he was doing, a fact that has been characteristic of Morales in the late stages of his career. Against David Diaz in his first fight at lightweight in 2007 Morales came up just short in what many felt was a winning effort to capture a belt in another weight class. Against Marcos Maidana last year, Morales rocked the tough Argentinian and showed the old fire still burned brightly, but was only awarded a majority decision loss.
His performance against Danny Garcia, now unbeaten in 23 bouts, underlines one thing very distinctly about special fighters and talent levels. Garcia, as the HBO announcing crew adroitly mentioned several times, is a very good fighter, not great at any one thing, but an overall talent.
That having been said, for much of the fight Morales, at 35 years old with all of his accumulated wear and tear, having come in at the weigh in two pounds over the contracted limit, slower than ever and arguably four weight classes above his best division, still was able to outbox and outfight a hungry young kid desperate to make his dreams come true -- at least until time finally caught up to Morales in the form of a brilliant left hook to the tip of his chin in round 11 that changed the complexion of the fight and seemed to signal the final turn in Morales' career.
It makes you appreciate how extraordinarily talented the very best of the sport are compared to even the accomplished professionals that fill out the majority of the ranks.
It also was simply further evidence that Morales is and always will be a born fighter. Strip away youth, conditioning, balance... boil the man down to his essence, he's almost a force.
An indomitable hunger to prove you're made of stronger stuff inside. That is Erik Morales at his core.
His rank among Mexican boxers will be argued, his place among his generations best will be discussed, he will be compared to Barrera almost always and his victory over Pacquiao only grows more legendary with each passing year.
If Morales is true to his word and decides that he shall hang them up after a final bout in Mexico, there is one thing that will be certain...
The man that steps into the ring on that night will be instantly recognizable. The Warrior. The Champion.
He may have been Terrible to face in the ring, but he was terrific to watch from outside the ropes.
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