On March 22, Mexican ring legend, Erik Morales, will enter the ring for the first time in almost 18 months, to once more ply the trade that has brought him fame and glory, but which his 37 year old body seems increasingly ill-suited to pursue. When he steps through the ropes at the Monterrey Arena in Mexico, on March 22nd, Morales will not simply be facing battle with fellow Mexican Jorge Paez Jr., he will be battling the debilitating effects of being a professional fighter for 21 years, and all the wars and punches, that those 21 years have entailed.
Unlike arch rival Marco Antonio Barrera, ‘El Terrible’ has never changed his style in order to adapt to the aging process, or prolong his career, instead, he has remained the aggressive boxer-puncher he has always been since the earliest stages of his career. While this devotion to the warrior-way has cemented his popularity with the fans, it has also has caused a steady corrosion of Morales’ skills, a decline that can be seen reaching as far back as the past decade.
Morales’ record of 5-8 in his last 13 fights, stretching back to 2004, exposes the length and depth of ‘El Terrible’s’ decline. True, some of these defeats have been to the best fighters in the world pound-for-pound; it could be seen as harsh to hold Morales’ defeats to the likes of Manny Pacquiao, Marco Antonio Barrera, Marcos Maidana and Danny Garcia against him. It isn’t so much that he lost to these fighters, but how he lost to them that has been so revealing. In each one of his defeats, Morales has looked a little more chipped and frayed, a little more removed from the sleek sharp-shooting, gunslinger of a fighter that he was at his peak.
But… boxing is a hard place to leave.
The cracks could be first seen in the third fight of his bitter trilogy with Barrera on November 27, 2004. Like their first two fights, it was a close battle, but it was the first of their three fights to have a clear winner, and Barrera won it with a freshness that a relatively lethargic Morales seemed to lack. For the first time in his career, Morales seemed to be a little slower at pulling the trigger than in the past.
Any suspicion of decline would be dismissed as foolish when looking at Morales’ next fight. Four months after the Barrera defeat, he had his first encounter with Manny Pacquiao, and came away with a point’s victory, after yet another classic war. However, in retrospect, this was to be one of the final great bursts of the flame and Morales’ last great victory.
In his very next fight, against awkward, but unheralded Zahir Raheem, Morales found himself out-paced and out-boxed, with his reflexes suddenly looking like those of a man who has been in a string of never ending ring wars. Suspicion became sad fact over the course of Morales’ next three fights, all of which he lost, as the roof of his boxing career fell in upon him. Two consecutive losses to Manny Pacquiao showed a quickening decline in Morales’ abilities. In what was their second encounter, on January 21, 2006, Morales was comprehensively beaten, and stopped in the 10th round, handing Morales the first stoppage defeat of his career. 10 months later, Pacquiao simply crushed Morales, knocking him out in the 3rd round.
When Morales fought David Diaz for the WBC World Lightweight championship, on August 4, 2007, it was supposed to be Morales’ farewell fight. Unfortunately, few sportsmen make longer farewells than boxers. Against Diaz, ‘El Terrible’ mustered some of his old magic and lost a close decision. Morales kept to his word and announced his retirement after the loss to Diaz. It would have been a fitting finale to Morales’ career, and it was for over two years. But then he came back.
The comeback in boxing seems to be as inevitable as rainy Sundays. Often the bigger a fighter’s legend, the harder it is for that fighter to stay away, and see himself become part of history and the past.
Starting in March 2010, Morales’ comeback fulfilled all the usual clichés of the aging warrior stepping back into the ring after his time has past. Weighing in at welterweight, he was slow and flabby against Jose Alfaro and Willie Limond.
Then, like so many greats before him, Morales reached back into his past, got into better physical condition, and pulled out two performances that had strong echoes of the fighter he had once been. His fights with Marcos Maidana and Pablo Cesar Cano (when he won the vacant WBC world light-welterweight championship) showed that, while he was past his best, his heart was still that of a warrior. While these were great performances by Morales, the knowing-eye would still see these performances as more the case of a warrior’s heart pushing a faded body to its limits and beyond, rather than a rediscovery of past youth.
Glory turned to farce and embarrassment when Morales lost his title on the scales in his next fight against Danny Garcia. His technical loss outside the ring, was followed by a point’s loss in the ring. Morales’ aging body will no longer shed the weight that he wants it to lose.
However, the worse was to follow. In a rematch with Garcia on October 20, 2012, ’El Terrible’ was just terrible. He was plagued again by weight problems and looked to be a shell of the fighter he had been in their first fight, as he was knocked out in the 4th round. To add insult to injury, Morales failed the post-fight drug test, testing positive for a diuretic, and clearly exposed Morales’ ever-increasing inability to hone his body into fighting shape.
Now Morales is coming back again and the results are not likely to be pretty. Time is not on the side of ring worn warriors over the age of 35, who come back after almost 18 months of inactivity. Morales has spoken of this latest ’comeback’ as being his ’farewell tour’, but boxing unlike tennis or golf, isn’t kind to farewells.
Morales’ opponent on March 22nd, Jorge Paez Jr., is the son of the talented and flamboyant former World Featherweight champion, Jorge Paez Sr., who in his prime would have been a worthy opponent for Morales in his Featherweight days. Paez Jr. is a different proposition to his father; he is a good, but not exceptional fighter. Paez Jr.’s best wins have been his two victories over Omar Chavez, one of the fighting sons of Julio Cesar Chavez Sr.
Even the Morales of two or three years ago would have been a solid pick to beat Paez Jr., but in 2014, and with his last appearance in the ring being his flabby 4-round collapse to Danny Garcia, ’El Terrible’ has reached the point of his career where any punch coming his way is filled with danger, no matter whom is the thrower of that punch. Fighting at welterweight Morales’ body is likely to be carrying the unsightly handlebars on his sides, which seem so sad and incongruous, on the man who was once rake thin in his warrior prime. How close to really being fighting-fit Morales can be at this stage of his career remains to be seen. On the plus side, Paez Jr. is not a noted puncher, however, he is known to be durable, and so this is unlikely to be a short night for Morales, but rather a long and grueling fight that will test the conditioning of his aging body.
The biggest worry is what will happen if ‘El Terrible’ does win and gains the misplaced confidence to go for one more big fight. One more… yet again.
After over 21 years of taking and giving punishment in the ring, the reality is that Morales’ body has already retired on him, even if he refuses to acknowledge it.
All that is likely to be left now is the heart of the warrior he once was, and that is a dangerous thing for a 37 year old with over 21 years in the ring behind him. Unfortunately, long goodbyes seldom have happy endings.