The year of 2011, which featured many notable comebacks, reminded boxing fans to never completely write off a fighter, especially one as valiant as Erik Morales.
The 35-year-old Mexican legend was the clear favorite in the RingTV.com readers’ choice poll for Comeback of the Year, which he won with 35.4 percent of the votes.
Morales (52-7, 36 knockouts) beat out an impressive list of candidates for the honor, including runner-up James Kirkland, who received 24.6 percent of the votes; Brian Viloria (21.5), Jorge Arce (14.8) and Antonio Tarver (3.5).
Kirkland bounced back from two years of inactivity, which included more than a year of incarceration, and a stunning and embarrassing first-round TKO loss in April, to score a brutal stoppage of Alfredo Angulo in November and return to title contention.
Viloria, who was forgotten after losing to Carlos Tamara last January, won a flyweight title in July and defended that belt with an upset TKO of Giovani Segura in December.
Arce, a former 108-pound beltholder whose best days appeared behind him, won a 122-pound title with a thrilling 12th-round TKO of unbeaten Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. in May and then grabbed a vacant 118-pound belt in November for good measure.
Two years removed from back-to-back decision losses to Chad Dawson, Tarver traveled to Australia at an age most fighters are retired and stopped native son Danny Green in July.
Each comeback was inspirational in its own way but none were as compelling as Morales’ improbable return to the world-class scene. The former three-division titleholder was not just counted out in his April 9 fight with Marcos Maidana, he was given absolutely no shot of beating the hard-hitting junior welterweight contender.
Fans feared for the 35-year-old veteran’s safety. Boxing writers penned scathing columns condeming Golden Boy Promotions, the promoter of the HBO Pay Per View card. Some called for a boycott of the show.
Morales, who was considered a spent bullet following back-to-back TKO losses to Manny Pacquiao in 2006 and completely shot after dropping a decision to David Diaz in ‘07, laughed off the criticism and the concern.
And then the future hall-of-famer, who has been involved in more 12-round slugfests than any other active fighter, turned in one of the most breathtaking performances of his 18-year career.
Morales’ right eye was completely closed by the end of a rough opening round against Maidana, who battered Victor Ortiz into submission in 2009 and nearly overwhelmed Amir Khan in a close decision loss last December.
Most fans and media watching the fight figured it was essentially over but feared the beating the proud warrior would absorb before succumbing to the younger, bigger, stronger fighter.
Morales took his share of punishment, but he dished it out as well, and by the middle rounds the more experienced and better technical fighter was rocking Maidana with beautifully timed counter punches and combinations.
Maidana had to rally in the final two rounds against his one-eyed antagonist to narrowly win a close, majority decision. Morales did not win the fight but he proved that his comeback was serious and he earned his way back into THE RING’s rankings after a three-year absence.
However, he wasn’t done.
Morales returned to boxing in 2010 to make history by becoming the first Mexican-born fighter to win major titles in four weight classes, and 2011 was his year to accomplish that goal.
He got his opportunity against Pablo Cesar Cano, an unbeaten but unproven 21-year-old prospect who was a late substitute for formidable contender Lucas Matthysse. Morales faced Cano on the Floyd Mayweather-Victor Ortiz undercard on Sept. 17 for the vacant WBC 140-pound title that was unjustly stripped from Timothy Bradley.
It was typical Morales fight. The young man showed skills and guts and the two the Mexicans engaged in a brutal back-and-forth battle that the legend won by systematically chopping Cano’s face into a gruesome, bloody mask.
The fight was stopped by Cano’s corner after the 10th round. Morales, who has won titles at 122, 126 and 130 pounds, had his elusive fourth belt.
Hardcore fans and boxing scribes will debate the legitimacy of world title no. 4, but nobody will dispute the incredible heart and fighting spirit of Morales, who – after recently undergoing gall bladder surgery – is scheduled to defend his WBC belt against 23-year-old contender Danny Garcia on March 23.
Don’t expect the boxing world to count him out this time. They know the comeback isn’t over yet.
Today’s RingTV.com readers’ choice year-end awards poll category is “Knockout of the Year.” Go to the poll section on the right side of the homepage to cast your vote now
Photos / Chris Cozzone-Fightwireimages.com