By Matthew Hurley: Watching a great athlete slowly fall apart at the seams is heartbreaking for any fan. Sometimes the weary old warrior can resurrect the glories of his past, if only for a brief moment, leading him and his fans to delude themselves into thinking he is all the way back. But he’s not. He is simply putting off the inevitable through sheer force of will, and, perhaps, an inability to satisfy his own inflated ego.
Boston Celtics fans still shake their heads sadly at the image of a bruised and battered Larry Bird lying down by the bench on the parquet floor, trying in vain to relieve the pain in his aching back towards the end of his career. Bird, by his own admission played on longer than he should have in hope of meeting his arch rival Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers one more time for the NBA championship. It never happened and Bird openly worried that the further physical damage he had done to himself would leave him crippled in middle age. Fortunately that didn’t happen, but it could have. His fierce competitiveness and love for the game blinded his better judgment. But all is well for the “Hick from French Lick”.
Boxing rarely sees its broken down heroes sail off happily into the sunset. Its history is littered with fighters great and small suffering mightily for their art.
The parade of aging boxers, their reflexes slowed, their minds a bit less sharp continuing to fight on when every indication should lead them to hang up the gloves is endless. And it continues marching on.
Some young, up-and-coming boxers insist they will retire before thirty and sometimes we believe them. Unfortunately for many elite fighters boxing is all they know, it defines who they are and the idea of carrying on outside the ropes, outside the gym is an existence too difficult and lonely to bear.
The list of personal favorites who continued to take punches when all the requisite evidence that it was over includes, Muhammad Ali, Matthew Saad Muhammad, Bobby Chacon, Thomas Hearns and Evander Holyfield. Now Erik Morales, a certain first ballot hall of famer and a fighter who engaged in one brutally thrilling fight after another has joined that list by engaging in a comeback that began in March of this year.
There are several images of Erik Morales that his fans hold dear. The most common is of him boxing effectively, then getting hit and hurt and suddenly fighting back as if his pride had been stung; pounding his chest in defiance or thumping his gloved fists together, goading his opponent to try and hit him again. That blatant machismo was exhilarating to witness. It made him not only a hero in his native Mexico, particularly on the mean streets of his hometown of Tijuana, but must see TV for American audiences. You were never hesitant in paying to see Morales fight because you knew something dramatic was going to happen.
Much like Thomas Hearns, Morales was a fighter determined not only to win, but he also fought to please his fans. He did so, again like Hearns, often to his own detriment. So desperate was his desire to entertain that he would willingly put himself in harms way when it was completely unnecessary.
How else to explain his switching to southpaw in the final rounds of his first match with Manny Pacquiao? It was a fight he had in control, but that warrior spirit and entertainer in him demanded he beat his southpaw opponent at his own game. It almost got him knocked out in the final round, but it made the bout even more thrilling than it already was. It was as if he said to himself, “I’m going to give this guy one last chance to take me out. And if he does, so be it.”
That last great effort came only months after his grueling third fight against Mexican rival Marco Antonio Barrera. It seemed Morales was in one fight of the year candidate after another and you always wondered, how long can this guy last?
After taking a unanimous decision over Pacquiao, the last time the Pac Man has lost a fight, a weary but proud Morales smiled knowingly at HBO commentator Larry Merchant.
“You really liked to stand toe-to-toe with him in the twelfth round, even if you thought you had won the fight, didn’t you?” Merchant asked.
“Did you like that?” Morales returned.
Merchant smiled and nodded. “I loved it!”
That conversation neatly encapsulated both Erik’s fistic style and his entire professional career. It also speaks to his rapid descent after that one last great performance. He would go on to lose his next four bouts, including two brutal knockouts at the hands of Pacquiao.
After a spirited, but losing effort against then WBC lightweight champion David Diaz the proud Mexican fighter walked away from the sport for over two years. His longtime promoter Bob Arum expressed relief and even said that should Morales continue to fight on he would do so without the help of Top Rank, which had promoted most of his professional career. Arum, who once famously said, “I was lying yesterday, but I’m telling the truth today,” seemed genuine in his concern for the fighter and his feelings resonated with many boxing insiders and fans. Erik’s legs appeared shot and his once granite chin had fissures running all through it. Where he once sneered at an opponent’s punches, he now wobbled.
The third round knockout loss to Pacquiao in their rubber match was particularly disturbing. Much like an overwhelmed Alexis Arguello in his rematch with Aaron Pryor, Morales, beaten from pillar to post, crumpled to the canvas and allowed himself to be counted out. It was sad to watch, considering how much he had given to the sport. But that’s usually how aggressive, heart-on-their-sleeve type fighters end up – beaten down by a faster, younger version of their very selves.
Now, after one hundred and seventeen amateur bouts and fifty-five professional battles Morales is attempting a comeback. Even though he’s only thirty-three years old, it’s a very old thirty-three in relation to all the wear and tear his body has gone through in all of those bouts.
According to Morales he wants to fight four or five more times and has even called out Pacquiao for a fourth go round. That declaration is indicative of just how delusional ‘El Terrible’ is. Or it is nothing but ego and that desperate need for the applause of an adoring crowd.
Still, it’s his choice and if we have learned anything from say, Evander Holyfield, it is that a fighter’s heart and desire never truly leaves, even when everything else that once made them great has abandoned them.
It’s a sad, endlessly repeated situation and one can only hope that all of the residual damage Erik Morales has suffered won’t come back to cripple him in later years. But the last thing this great champion needs are more punches to the head or another loss to a fighter he would have schooled years ago on his ledger. Unfortunately, that’s probably what will happen, and Morales will be just another participant in the ongoing parade of boxers fighting on long past their expiration date.
August 27, 2010