Blood of a Warrior, Heart of a King: Erik "El Terrible" Morales
By Hector Franco | Senior Writer and Editor
Published: June 19, 2018
It is that time of the year for boxing fans to celebrate the legends of the past that have given the sport wonderful memories that will live on long after they have passed away. This year the inductees in the International Boxing Hall of Fame for pugilists featured former heavyweight world champion Vitali “Dr. Iron Fist” Klitschko, Ronald “Winky” Wright, and Mexico’s Erik “El Terrible” Morales (52-9, 36 KOs). While it can be argued as to which of the three mentioned fighters had the overall best career, Morales provided fans with some of the greatest fights in the history of the sport.
Morales is part of the fabulous four era that emerged in the 2000’s with Juan Manuel Marquez (56-7-1, 40 KOs), Manny Pacquiao (59-7-2, 38 KOs), and Marco Antonio Barrera (67-7, 44 KOs). Pacquiao has yet to retire, and Marquez recently retired in 2017. Last year the man, whose name will forever be linked with Morales, Marco Antonio Barrera was inducted into the Hall-of-Fame. It will forever be debated as to who was the greater fighter between the two men and even the scoring of all three fights in their epic trilogy.
Looking back at Morales’ career it runs into different stages. Each stage had its ups and downs, but there was always one constant, and that was Morales’ ability to have exciting fights with almost any opponent.
In the 1990’s the Mexican boxing scene was focused on the great Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. However, that began to change in the mid-1990’s with the emergence of fighters like Barrera and Marquez who made their names known in California at the famed Forum in Inglewood. During this time another fighter was emerging from the Mexican underground from Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico. This fighter turned out to be Erik Morales.
After Barrera’s back-to-back losses to Junior Jones in 1996 and 1997, many fans thought Barrera's career was over. They began putting their full attention into Morales. In September of 1997, Morales fought for his first world title against Mexican veteran Daniel Zaragoza (55-8-3, 28 KOs). The bout took place in El Paso, Texas for the WBC Super Bantamweight (122) championship.
Even at 39 years of age, Zaragoza gave Morales all he could handle. Youth eventually prevailed when Morales landed a straight right hand to the body on Zaragoza. The Mexican veteran was unable to get up before the referee made the count of ten giving Morales his first world title via knockout.
At 122-pounds there have been few fighters as good as Morales. The Tijuana, Mexico native would go on to make nine successful defenses of his title with seven of those victories via stoppage. It was in this portion of his career that Morales laid down the foundation to what would end up becoming a Hall-of-Fame worthy career.
In September 1998, Morales would earn one of the most significant victories of his career when he faced Junior Jones at the Plaza de Toros in his hometown of Tijuana. Morales was able to score a fourth-round stoppage that sent the crowd in attendance into a wild frenzy in one of the most memorable atmospheres the sport had seen in quite some time. The win over Jones was seen at the time as the official inauguration of Morales becoming the true successor to Julio Cesar Chavez. However, Morales would not be given this title; he would have to fight for it in what would become the rivalry in which his career would be defined.
When Morales first stepped in the ring against Barrera in February of 2000, it was more personal than business. In many respects, the first bout between the two men could be seen as the first hardcore boxing fans fight of the Internet news age. Those who covered the sport at the time were more excited for the first Morales-Barrera fight than the self-proclaimed fight of the century between Felix Trinidad and Oscar De La Hoya that took place a few months earlier.
Morales and Barrera traded insults in the media in Mexico, and in some respects, the bout was turned into a fight between Mexico City and Tijuana. The perceived bourgeoisie versus the working class. The promise that Morales-Barrera would deliver a match that would be remembered for years to come was almost a guarantee. However, fans and pundits alike may not have expected a fight that could be compared and even surpass the fights that took place in boxing’s golden era of the 1980’s and 1950’s.
On February 19, 2000, at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera faced off in a unification bout for the WBO and WBC 122-pound titles and produced a fight that will never be forgotten. The bout was filled with memorable back and forth moments. The fifth round, in particular, is one of the greatest rounds in the history of the sport. In the 12th and final round of the bout, the fight was up in the air with Barrera ahead with a slight edge. The Mexico City fighter was able to score a dubious knockdown when he threw a left hook that Morales ducked under with his knee touching the canvas.
After twelve rounds, Morales was given a controversial split decision victory over Barrera by a razor-thin margin. The judges scored the bout 115-112, 114-113 in favor of Morales with one judge scoring the bout for Barrera with a score of 114-113. The match played out with Morales throwing a higher volume of punches, but Barrera landing the harder punches. The punch stats highlighted how tightly contested the fight truly was. Morales landed 319 out of 868 total punches at a 37 percent connect rate. Barrera landed 299 out of 618 total punches including 272 out of 511 power punches at a 53 percent connect rate.
After the fight, the two men’s roles reversed with Barrera now being seen as the underdog who was cheated by the judges out of a victory. Morales was no longer the darling of Mexico. That was now Barrera. Even in victory, one can still be defeated. The public perception of both fighters took a 180-degree turn.
While Morales became the unified WBO and WBC 122-pound champion after getting the decision over Barrera, the WBO did not recognize Morales as the champion due to disagreement over the decision. Many may not remember that Morales was just 23 years old at the time of the first Barrera bout and would immediately move up to featherweight. Morales at featherweight struggled against some opponents and at just 23 years of age looked like his best years may already be behind him.
In 2001, Morales won the WBC featherweight title from Guty Espadas Jr. in a fight where many observers had him losing. He would then have a much more stringent than expected bout with Korean contender In-Jin Chi. By the time the anticipated rematch with Barrera took place in the summer of 2002, Morales was now the underdog. Since their first encounter Barrera had transcended into a significant star in the boxing landscape. His victory over Prince Naseem Hamed in April 2001, made him into one of the sports biggest attractions. With many observers feeling like Barrera should have gotten the decision in the first bout along with a decline in Morales’ performances it seemed like a Barrera victory was set in stone.
The rematch played out differently than the first encounter with Barrera electing to box from the outside. This worked out to his detriment in the eyes of observers who felt Morales was able to use his jab and length to outpoint Barrera. In the seventh round, Morales landed a straight right hand to the body that could have been scored a knockdown, however, the referee ruled the knockdown a slip. It was not until the second half of the fight that Barrera came alive, and the actual battle began. The 12th round, in particular, was memorable with both men putting it all on the line.
The second fight was not without controversy, but this time it would fall on the opposite end of the spectrum. After twelve rounds it seemed that Morales might have done enough to get the decision as Barrera may have started too late. The judges disagreed and gave Barrera a unanimous decision victory with scores of 116-112 and 115-113 twice. Morales left the ring in disgust after the decision was read feeling that he was robbed of his victory. Even after twelve rounds of viciously attacking one another, the grudge between Barrera and Morales did not die down.
Morales seemed motivated by the defeat at the hands of Barrera and would go one of the best runs of his career following the rematch. In his following fight, Morales faced off against Texas native Paulie Ayala. That night Morales looked as good as he ever has dominating Ayala and putting the boxing world on notice that he was still one of the sports best fighters.
A move to the Super Featherweight (130 lbs.) division was next for Morales when he fought a rematch with Espadas Jr. for the WBC 130-pound title. This time there would be no controversy. Morales would score an emphatic third-round knockout over Espadas Jr. to put an end to the debate of the first match. The next two fights for Morales would put him back in the pound-for-pound discussion when he faced Jesus Chavez and Carlos Hernandez in 2004. Both fights were the conventional wars that Morales was known for. The fight with Hernandez, in particular, was also one of Morales’ most complete performances. In the fight with Hernandez, Morales won the second unification fight of his career winning a unanimous decision to become the IBF and WBC 130-pound champion.
By November of 2004, it was time for the rubber match to take place between Morales and Barrera. Similar to the circumstances before the first fight between the two, Morales was now seen as the favorite. Barrera had come off a severe loss to then rising star Manny Pacquiao where he was systemically beat down over eleven rounds.
The third fight between Morales and Barrera started off with the Mexico City fighter surprising Morales who looked unprepared for a peak Barrera. Morales in the first six rounds took a beating with Barrera landing power punches on the inside and the outside. Barrera may not have won all of the first six rounds, but he certainly won the majority of them.
The second half of the fight was all in Morales’ favor as he took over the fight with Barrera looking more winded and tired with each passing round. The eleventh and twelfth rounds much like the 5th round of their first match could be placed as some of the best rounds in the trilogy. Barrera who at times looked like he could barely stand up willed himself to battle on almost even terms with Morales. The crowd erupted in celebration of the great fight they had witnessed when the final bell rang.
After 36 rounds of action, Morales-Barrera would be ranked as one of the greatest trilogies and rivalries in the history of boxing. The judges scored the fight in Barrera’s favor giving him a 2-1 edge in the trilogy.
The bad blood was still in effect after the fight with Morales throwing a water bottle towards Barrera’s camp and Barrera flashing the number two right in front of Morales after the decision was announced. The third-fight won fight of the year honors for 2004 and in the eyes of many was just as good as their first match. Morales landed 231 out of 808 total punches at a 29 percent connect rate. Barrera ended up landing 290 out of 765 total punches at a 38 percent connect rate and landed almost 50% of his power punches.
As if wanting to get back at Barrera immediately, Morales decided to take on the last man to defeat Barrera in Manny Pacquiao. The two men met in March 2005 with Pacquiao as an extremely heavy favorite. In the first round, it was made clear by Morales that he would not be wiped out in the same fashion as Barrera and fought on even terms with the Filipino. Morales was able to utilize his jab and right hand to offset many of Pacquiao’s attacks.
By the twelfth round, Morales thought he was so far ahead in the scorecards that he decided to fight in a southpaw stance allowing Pacquiao to unload massive right hooks on him. Morales would be given the unanimous decisions victory. The victory over Pacquiao was the crowning jewel of Morales’ career. Much like Barrera’s victory over Hamed in 2001, the win over Pacquiao almost guaranteed Morales’ induction into the Hall-of-Fame. Not only was Morales able to get the better of one of the men that defeated Barrera but it was also a victory over a fighter that was known for beating Mexican fighters. If it were not for the incredible fight between Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo, the first Morales-Pacquiao match would have been given the fight of the year award for 2005.
Morales would go on to face Pacquiao two more times and lose those subsequent bouts by stoppage. Morales would retire from the sport for the first time after losing a close decision to David Diaz for the WBC lightweight title in 2007.
Never one to quit or leave any unfinished business, Morales would return in 2010 against three non-descript opponents. Morales would then challenge Argentinean power puncher Marcos Maidana in 2011 in a fight that many felt was the Mexican veteran leading himself into a slaughter. However, Morales saw Maidana’s fight with Amir Khan and thought he could take advantage of the Argentineans’ technical flaws. The fight started off negatively for Morales with his right eye closing in the first round. Despite the eye being closed, Morales fought on even terms with Maidana and at times saw him fully take over the match. Morales did not end up getting the decision from the judges, but the Tijuana fighter won the event. The fight with Maidana only added to Morales legend for a fighter whose best years were at featherweight to be fighting with one of the top contenders at 140-pounds spoke volumes of his greatness.
After the fight with Maidana, Morales would make history by becoming the first Mexican fighter to win titles in four divisions when he defeated Pablo Cesar Cano for the vacant WBC 140-pound title in September 2011. Morales would defend his title in two bouts with Danny Garcia that were somewhat a passing of the torch matchups. Morales would do well in the first encounter against Garcia and was ahead on many scorecards at the midway point. Morales lost his title by decision to Garcia and in the rematch was blown out in four rounds, officially putting an end to his career.
Few fighters can say that they have had a perfect career. In boxing, at times it is just as important as to whom you faced versus just your wins and losses. In retrospect, the only fight that was missing from Morales' career was one with Mexico’s Juan Manuel Marquez. It is debatable who would have won that matchup, but looking at both men’s track records, it would have been another fight of the year contender.
Boxing is a sport that can be just as beautiful as it is deadly. Fighters willingly put their lives on the line every time they step into the ring. There are not many fighters who have put their own safety as a secondary concern to giving boxing fans a memorable night at the fights. It was an obligation that Morales lived up to every time he put on a pair of gloves.
In Morales’ crowning moment after his first fight with Pacquiao, HBO’s Larry Merchant asked Morales why he chose to fight southpaw in the final round? Morales, simply responded, “Did you like that?”
For those who witnessed Morales’ career from beginning to end, they would all agree with Merchant that they “loved it.” Not just his encounters with Pacquiao, but the whole scope of his career. It was an honor to witness the career of a fighter who gave so much of himself inside the ring. A warrior, a king and now a Hall-of-Famer, Erik “El Terrible” Morales will not be forgotten.
(Featured Photo: HBO Sports)