LAS VEGAS — Fight fans know they are watching something special when they have to continually ask themselves, "How did he do it?"
Even the most diehard fans of Erik Morales had to ask that question during the Mexican legend’s hard-fought 12-round battle with Marcos Maidana at the MGM Grand on Saturday.
Maidana won a majority decision, but Morales — who was counted out by nearly every boxing writer and by most fans — made a huge statement by not only going the distance with the murderous-punching Argentine but by engaging in a hotly contested bout that some are calling a fight-of-the-year candidate.
How did he do it? And how the heck did he do it with one eye?
After absorbing a beating for most of the opening round, Morales (51-7, 35 knockouts) walked back to his corner with his right eye nearly swollen shut.
Maidana (30-2, 27 KOs) continued to pound on Morales in Rounds 2, 3 and 4, by which time the 18-year veteran’s right eye was completely shut.
So what does a half-blind Morales do against the sport’s hardest-punching junior welterweight? The 34-year-old future hall of famer starts winning rounds.
How was this possible?
“I have something called dignity and heart,” Morales said after the fight, which he lost by scores of 116-112, 116-112 and 114-114.
No one will ever dispute that, but the Tijuana native also has considerable skills and technique, attributes that were often overlooked during his prime because of his fierce fighting spirit.
However, in what could arguably be his most impressive performance given the circumstances with his eye and the advanced stage of his career, Morales put it all together against Maidana in Rounds 5 through 10.
Round after round, Morales found his distance and teed off with accurate jabs, hooks and straight right hands. The supposedly faded veteran landed more than 40 percent of his punches in some of the middle-to-late rounds, all the while surviving the continual onslaught of Maidana with cagey defensive moves along the ropes.
Morales did enough to win the fight in his opinion.
“I thought I landed the better punches,” he said.
Morales was the more accurate puncher, and he even rocked Maidana on a few occasions, but he was outworked by the bigger, stronger, younger man, who took the final two rounds with sheer aggression.
Maidana wasn’t surprised that he had to rally in order to beat the 6-to-1 underdog.
“We knew that Erik Morales was a great fighter and that he was going to give us a great fight,” Maidana said at the post-fight press conference. “I never thought it was going to be an easy fight. I expected a war, and that’s what happened.
“I felt it was close (going into the final two rounds). I knew I needed to close strong. (My trainer) Rudy Perez told me that I needed to win those rounds.”
The fact that Maidana, who overwhelmed Victor Ortiz and almost beat Amir Khan in a close decision loss last December, had to dig deep to defeat a half-blind Morales begs a few questions:
What would have happened if Morales had both eyes?
How good is he at this stage of his career given that he almost beat a fighter who THE RING magazine ranks No. 3 among junior welterweights? Was it just a matter of styles making fights, or could Morales compete with other world-class fighters?
Oscar De La Hoya believes Morales should be considered a contender.
“Erik Morales can compete with any 135- or 140-pound fighter out there today,” said De La Hoya, whose company, Golden Boy Promotions, staged Saturday’s show. “He faced the most dangerous 140-pound fighter tonight. The fighter who beat Victor Ortiz, who gave Amir Khan all he could handle. Morales demonstrated that he’s here, and he’s here to stay and can fight the very best.”
Maidana thinks Morales is just as good as Khan, a current titleholder THE RING ranks No. 2 in the 140-pound division.
“He’s on the same level, pretty much, as Khan,” said Maidana. “The only difference between the two is that Khan is a little faster, but he runs. Morales doesn’t run.”
That’s why he’s so beloved by Mexican fans and hardcore fight fans around the world.
Some of those fans would like to see Morales get another crack at Maidana. Morales, who skipped the post-fight press conference to have his right eye examined at a nearby hospital, also welcomes a rematch.
“Of course I’d like a rematch,” he said immediately after the fight. “I’m better than him.”
That may or may not be true, but there’s really no need for Morales to go through another grueling, punishing fight with Maidana. He proved his point on Saturday.
He showed that he can still thrill a crowd. He showed that after so many ring wars with some of the best fighters of the past 15 years, he still has the ability to make fans shake their heads and ask “How did he do it?”
The answer is simple. He’s Erik Morales, and he’s a great fighter.
Photos / Naoki Fukuda