LOS ANGELES — Few believed that Erik Morales would beat lightweight champ Juan Manuel Marquez when a bout between the Mexican legends was being discussed for April 9.
Even fewer believe Morales has a shot against the fighter who will replace Marquez on that date — bruising junior welterweight contender Marcos Maidana — but that’s who the 34-year-old veteran wanted to face and their fight will headline a stacked HBO Pay-Per-View card from the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
The overwhelming question fans and media have for Morales is why? Why fight a 27-year-old puncher who has knocked out 27 of 31 opponents and even punished the two men who barely beat him on points? Why come back at all?
The obvious answer is pride. It’s what made the former three-division titleholder and future first-ballot hall of famer special.
“Why should I come back?” Morales, speaking through a translator, asked rhetorically during a press conference Tuesday. “It’s simple. I didn’t deserve to go out the way I did, losing the last few fights I had in the U.S.”
Morales (51-6, 35 knockouts) lost four consecutive fights — to Zahir Raheem, David Diaz and two bouts to Manny Pacquiao — before his brief retirement.
No fighter wants to hang up his gloves after a string of losses, especially one as proud and accomplished as Morales. The Tijuana native believes he could have gone out on a stronger note had he better managed his weight.
Morales, who beat Pacquiao by a unanimous decision in their classic first fight, says his difficulty making weight was a major factor in his disappointing performances in the two return bouts with the Filipino hero.
“It’s a long story,” Morales said of his weight problems. “I began struggling to make junior featherweight in 1994. My promoter [Fernando Beltran] told me ‘Don’t worry, Erik, win a title (at 122 pounds) and we’ll move you up (in weight),’ but I didn’t change (weight classes) until 2000.”
Morales stopped 122-pound titleholder Daniel Zaragoza in the 11th round in 1997 to claim his first major title. He defended it nine times, including a fourth-round KO of Junior Jones, a points win over Wayne McCullough and an unforgettable 12-round split nod over arch rival Marco Antonio Barrera in THE RING’s Fight of the Year for 2000.
Morales says he punished his metabolism beyond its limits to make the junior featherweight limit for those fights, so much so that rising four pounds to the featherweight division following the first bout with Barrera wasn’t enough to replenish his depleted body.
“After so many years of working like a dog to make (122 pounds) my body didn’t accept the new weight (126 pounds),” Morales said.
Even when Morales moved up in weight again, to the junior lightweight division in late 2003, he had to work hard to make the 130-pound limit, but at least he didn’t feel drained.
That was a good thing considering the high quality of his opposition. In 2004, Morales unified two 130-pound titles by outpointing rugged beltholders Jesus Chavez and Carlos Hernandez and then engaged in another 12-round thriller with Barrera, who won their third bout by a razor-thin majority decision.
Morales took on Pacquiao and beat the heavy favorite less than three months after the Barrera rubbermatch. The brutal four-bout schedule took its toll on his body.
“I fought Chavez, Hernandez, Barrera and Pacquiao in less that a year and a half,” Morales said. “Each fight was a hard 12 rounds.”
Is it any wonder he lost his next four bouts?
“My body was so tired in the second Pacquiao fight,” Morales said of the rematch, which he lost by 10th-round stoppage, “I did my best until my tank was empty.”
Morales says he could no longer force his punished body to make 130 pounds after putting it through those 58 grueling rounds in five consecutive hard fights. It’s the reason, he claims, that he had nothing to offer Pacquiao in their third fight, which was contested at junior lightweight. Morales lasted only three rounds in the rubbermatch, which took place in November 2006.
He had one more fight, a close decision loss to Diaz in August of 2007, before his brief retirement.
Morales returned last year and scored three victories over second-tier fighters at what he says is a natural weight, 140 pounds.
However, there is still concern about the opponent he chose to face in this new weight class. Maidana does not have Pacquiao’s speed, technique or overall talent, but he’s a bigger, stronger and arguably harder-punching fighter than the version of the “PacMan” that Morales faced in 2005 and 2006.
Even the staff of Golden Boy Promotions, which is promoting the April 9 event with Morales’ Latino Box company, cautioned him about fighting Maidana.
“The people at Golden Boy gave me other names to fight but I wanted someone big, someone to make a fight that fans wanted to see,” Morales said. “When I told them I wanted Maidana, they said, ‘Are you crazy? He hits too hard, Erik.’ I told them don’t worry. I’m fighting him, not you.”
Oscar De La Hoya , who shared many fight cards with Morales when both were fighting under the Top Rank banner, understands the come-backing veteran’s mindset.
“We know it’s a dangerous fight, but how can you say no to a warrior like Erik Morales?” said De La Hoya, president of Golden Boy Promotions. “We can’t say ‘We think you’re wrong.’ He knows what he’s getting into. He feels refreshed. He’s in a weight class where he feels comfortable.
“He wants to be champion again, and who’s to say he can’t do it. He’s been in with the best.”