By Sean Waisglass and weigh-in pic by Tom Hogan
: Can it be done again? When Marco Antonio Barrera, 58-4 (41 KO) and Eric Morales, 47-1 (34 KO), lace 'em up for the third time later today, we're gonna find out.
Their February 2000 12 round war for the WBO and WBC 122lb belts was an astonishing display of everything that makes the sweet science great. In a year that's had many good scraps, but only two clear "Fight of the Year " candidates - Pacquiao vs. Marquez and Trinidad vs. Mayorga - can Barrera and Morales repeat the blazing glory of their first battle and beef up the category's list?
With the ghost of their Modern Classic first meeting haunting tonight's rubber match at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, the question is relevant for both Barrera alone as well as Barrera/Morales, the two-headed boxing beast we've come to know and love. Because the fact is, the pressure's on Barrera, since the answer can only be "Yes" for the latter if it's the answer for the former: to recreate their awesome first match, Barrera's going to have to recreate the awesome comeback performance that resurrected his career and returned him to boxing's top tier.
From top flight skills to guts and iron will, we saw it all in that time-capsule worthy first bout. It was a display of two masters of the craft utilizing all the sport's wares at maximum ferocity. There were momentum shifts in every breathtaking round, climaxing when a razor thin margin of victory seemed to swing Barrera's way with a body shot knockdown of his foe in the final round.
But Barrera, who scaled 129.5lbs for tonight's fight, was robbed of what most thought was a sure-fire and phoenix-like win after being written off as canon fodder for Morales, the rising-star gym-rat from Tijuana. Barrera, the would-be lawyer from Mexico City, lost the controversial split decision, but resurrected his ruined reputation as a successor to Julio Caesar Chavez - a title Morales had inherited after Barrera's back-to-back losses to Junior Jones.
Prior to his first fight against Jones in November '96, Barrera, who had become a star in Mexico, was dealing with the distraction of having kidnapping threats levied against his family members. It was a shocking upset when after getting put down twice, the favoured Barrera's corner jumped into the ring during the fifth round and stopped the fight as their man was getting pounded. The Mexican faithful had to wonder: was it an anomaly? Was the man many thought would inherit the mantle of Mexican Boxing Hero after his well-known HBO-televised punch-out with Kennedy McKinney really a bust? When Barrera fought much better in the immediate rematch against Jones five months later, going toe-to-toe with his conqueror in the furious final round but still losing a close unanimous decision, it looked like he wasn't going to be able to live up to the hope and hype after all.
Instead, the up-and-coming Morales, who scaled 130lbs dead for tonight, became the new Mexican wonder boy, beating the human-windmill veteran Daniel Zaragoza for the WBC 122lb title five months after Barrera lost the Jones rematch, and impressively and ruthlessly defending it eight times, including a four round dismantling of Junior Jones less than a year and a half after Jones' second victory over Barrera.
A match was made between the former heir to the Mexican Favourite throne and the new heir in a crossroads bout to be televised on HBO. Barrera had got back on track with some solid wins after the second Jones loss, but sure hadn't shown anything that would indicate he'd be able to hang with the brutal but well-schooled Morales, who was looking better with each outing. Morales had destroyed Barrera's rival Jones, for chissakes! How the hell was Barrera going to hang with this guy?
And the rest is, of course, history...
The two were forever intertwined after that first bout - it was that kind of fight. And it was one of those fights that was so good, and so close, that you knew it had to happen again. The second bout, which was contested a division north at 126lbs, took place in June of 2002, with Barrera winning the disputed decision this time. Barrera had adopted a crafty boxing style after their first brawl, and tried to outfox the pressing Morales in the early going rather than outwork him. It wasn't as amazing - but it was heated enough, and again, close enough, to keep the rivalry alive.
But things seem to have come full circle in the two years since.
Barrera had evened things up with Morales in their rematch, and when you combined that feat with his career climax - a stunning upset of heavy-handed featherweight champ Naseem Hamed in 2001 - it looked like the Pound for Pound player was well on track to a hall-of-fame career. But all that forward momentum was rudely derailed a year ago when he faced off against Manny Paquiao.
The match was a disaster for Barrera. He was dominated by the Philippine southpaw whirlwind. After being overwhelmed for most of the rounds, and being knocked down in the third and eleventh, Barrera's corner jumped in the ring during that second-last frame and saved their fighter from further punishment.
There has been speculation that Barrera was thrown off his game prior to the match by the public announcing by his freshly fired management that he had a brain operation after the second Jones bout. Although the surgery-requiring problem was not boxing-related, and the many bouts after his operation - including the brutal first Morales fight - seemed to show that no further problems had come of it, the revelation that Barrera had his cranium cracked open by doctors was shocking news, and became the main focus of all the hype leading up to the crushing loss against Paquiao.
The similarities with the first Junior Jones fight were eerie: Both had serious distractions leading up to the fight that seemed to sap Barrera's focus, and both ended with him helpless and pinned to the ropes, having to be rescued by his corner.
In his comeback bout against former bantam champ Paulie Ayala this June, Barrera retuned to his stone-cold aggressive boxing ways. He totally out-classed the feisty and skilled Ayala, stopping the big-hearted little man for the first time in his career, one-upping Morales, who went the distance with Ayala two years ago. But that bettering was tainted, since Ayala was younger and fresher against Morales, a fact confirmed when he promptly retired after the Barrera bout.
And although many observers thought Barrera was back, many also noted that he didn't look all the way back.
Meanwhile, his archenemy has regained the stature he had leading up their first bout. After a rough patch at featherweight, Morales moved up to junior lightweight this year and very impressively became a three-division champ by winning and unifying the IBF and WBC belts with rugged but dominant victories over Jesus Chavez and Carlos Hernandez.
Things have come full circle. Once again, Barrera, who's been looking vulnerable, is up against Morales, who's looking like he's in peak form.
Morales is bigger - he's carrying 130 pounds naturally, whereas Barrera, who's moving up for this one, was still comfortable at 126. Morales, the semi-unified champ in his new division, got that way by overwhelming his opponents. Barrera was overwhelmed by Paquiao. And remarkably, Barrera, who's only two years older than Morales at 30 years of age, is in his fifteenth year of fighting pro, and has three years and fifteen fights of wear and tear over his nemesis.
The odds and picks are decidedly in Morales' favour. The set up is appetizingly similar to their first meeting.
Can Barrera do it again?
I'm willing to bet that when that first bell rings tonight, and Barrera comes out of his corner and crosses the ring towards Morales for their 25th round, even the most hardboiled sceptic's heart will be pounding as they wonder.