Seconds Out

Fights Of The Decade: Morales – Pacquiao 1

By Matthew Hurley: When creating a list of the best fights of the decade there are usually two or three front-runners for the top position. This past decade one would have to point to four particular bouts that exceeded all expectations: Marco Antonio Barrera – Erik Morales 1 (2000), Arturo Gatti – Micky Ward 1 (2002), Jose Luis Castillo – Diego Corrales 1 (2005) and Israel Vazquez – Rafael Marquez 3 (2008).

But as a fight fan sometimes your heart sways your opinion and that was the case for me as this decade comes to a close. The four aforementioned battles were, for the most part, better overall fights than my favorite, but the 2005 first meeting between Erik Morales and Manny Pacquiao had all of the tension, drama and violence necessary to at least be included in that “best of” list. Plus, for me, it pitted my personal favorite fighter, Morales, against a fighter who would supplant that position as time wore on, Pacquiao.

The buildup to the fight was enticing. You had two highly skilled but flawed fighters who consistently provided mega-tough action in nearly every bout they participated in. Morales had already been in two acknowledged Fights Of The Year – the first and third of his epic trilogy with Barrera. In fact that third brutal bout with his arch nemesis, which he lost by a point, came only four months prior to his first go round with Pacquiao.

Initially a rematch between Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez of their first dramatic bout (another deserving candidate), which ended in a draw, was being negotiated. When that fell apart over money squabbles Morales, still smarting from that majority decision loss to Barrera, jumped into the mix.

Pacquaio was surging going into the fight. He was not nearly the fighting machine he is now, trainer Freddie Roach was still tweaking and enhancing, but he had destroyed Barrera and knocked Marquez down three times in the first round of their to do ten months earlier.

So perfectly matched at that particular point in time were Morales and Pacquiao that before the opening bell HBO’s Larry Merchant said, “Given the high expectations everyone has for this fight, it’s almost as if the loser will come out bigger than before.”

The anticipated brawl was on almost immediately. A striking habit that both fighters share is an absolute unwillingness to be outdone in a two-fisted exchange. Both men resort to pounding their gloves together in defiance and leaping headlong into the fray. And that’s just what happened when Pacquiao caught Morales and sent him stumbling backwards into the ropes. Yet, just as you thought you were about to see a replay of Pacquiao’s first round blitzkrieg of Marquez, Morales jumped right on top of his attacker and drove him back and almost through the ropes.
The tone seemed set, and Pacquiao found a home for his left hook to the body, which would hurt Morales several times over the course of the bout. But Erik was a bit more seasoned at this point in their respective careers and he had studied tapes of Manny’s bout with Marquez and noticed that a stiff jab and the ability to keep the fight in the center of the ring broke Pacquiao’s rhythm. On top of that Erik, who had only suffered one dubious knockdown in his career (truly a slip against Barrera in the twelfth round of their first fight) had a cast iron chin. His ability to take a punch and counter back immediately kept Pacquiao on guard. He didn’t rush in as he had against Barrera, who he knocked out in the eleventh round, or Marquez.

The intensity remained high, with Morales boxing smartly, picking his spots, mixing it up when Pacquiao tagged him and using a deliberate, educated jab to keep the Pac Man at bay.

Manny would land in spurts, particularly to the body, but there was a hint of frustration as Morales began to put rounds in the bank.

Between rounds trainer Freddie Roach cautioned Manny. “We’re not taking this guy lightly. Don’t play with him. When you get him on the ropes take advantage of him.”

In round five a clash of heads tore open a gash over Pacquiao’s right eye. (The cut was ruled caused by a punch, but replays showed an accidental clash of heads.) Now Morales had a target and Pacquiao, for the first time in years, appeared uncomfortable and hesitant.

“Manny didn’t deal well with the cut,” Roach admitted later.

As the bout wore on Morales would continue to measure his man with the jab, while Pacquiao tried to compose himself.

In the tenth round Manny had reestablished his rhythm as both men fell into each other’s punching range, pounding away furiously as the electrified crowd alternated chants between “Mexico!” and “Pacquiao!”

With ten seconds left in the eleventh round Morales, his machismo getting the better of him, switched to southpaw, daring his left-handed opponent to hit him. Without hesitation Manny clocked Erik with a right hook to the side of the head. It was a curious, brazen move by the Mexican warrior. One his father/trainer immediately picked up on in the corner.

“You’ve got the fight in the bag!” he screamed. “Please don’t get overconfident! Be careful!”

But being careful is something Erik Morales has either never understood or simply refuses to entertain. And that refusal to play it safe is what made him so compelling to watch.

The twelfth round was one of those time capsule three minutes of fistic brutality. Both men were exhausted, yet swinging for the knockout punch. The crowd was on their feet and then, with two minutes remaining, Morales stepped back, switched to southpaw yet again, leaving himself wide open for Pacquiao’s straight left hand.

And Manny wasted no time in crashing left hands onto Erik’s jaw, wobbling him all over the ring. But Morales refused to switch back to an orthodox stance. It was as if he were saying to Pacquiao, “Go ahead! I’m going to give you a chance! Come on, try and knock me out!”

With the fight all but won, Morales went to war with Pacquiao for two straight minutes of hell, eating power punch after power punch, giving no quarter.

As the two men swapped blows until the final bell a nearly hoarse, appreciative Jim Lampley barked into his HBO microphone, “There is nowhere else in sport where you will find greater passion, greater courage, greater commitment, greater sheer guts than what these two guys are showing. This is boxing at its best!”

When the decision was announced all three judges scored the bout 115-113 for Morales.

After the fight a stunned but composed Manny Pacquiao said that he would fight Morales again, “anytime, anywhere.” He would in fact get that opportunity twice. With his skills more refined in both return bouts he would stop Morales in the tenth round of their memorable rematch and then destroy him in three rounds in the rubber match.

For Morales this would be his final great performance before seemingly all of the ring wars he had suffered through caught up with him. Battle scarred and often weight drained he would lose his next four bouts before a two year layoff. In a recent comeback against marginal opposition in Mexico he’s collected two victories.

But on the night of March 19, 2005 Morales literally left it all in the ring. All of his best traits were on display – boxing ability, an insatiable urge to brawl, that sometimes misguided Mexican machismo, a rock solid chin and a fiery will to win.

As Larry Merchant stood beside him in the aftermath of that great fight Morales, exhausted but elated, sucked on a water bottle and then turned to face his inquisitor. His beak-like nose, a fighter’s nose, the nose Pacquiao would nearly smash to bits in their rematch, his most striking feature.

“You really liked to stand toe-to-toe with him in the twelfth round even if you thought you won the fight, didn’t you?” he asked.

A smiling Morales returned, “Did you like that?”

Merchant nodded. “I loved it.”

We all did.

December 16, 2010
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