Not too many years ago sports fans not only admired their heroes’ exploits on the field, they also felt a deep-rooted emotional connection that ebbed and flowed with every monumental achievement or catastrophic failure. They reacted to events in his life almost as if the athlete was a family member, and this held true even if neither party had exchanged a single word.
For boxing fans, Erik Morales is such a fighter. For those fortunate enough to witness his 19-year career, the mere mention of his name is enough to ignite waves of adulation that are impossible to ignore. His appeal is three-fold: First, the talent level during his prime was beyond question and his numbers will guarantee him first-ballot induction into the International Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y. Second, his is the classic boxing story of up-by-his-bootstraps success; he overcame childhood challenges in Tijuana and his ex-fighter father’s deep objections to achieve worldwide fame and enormous wealth.
But the third aspect is the most powerful of all. Standing 5-foot-8 and possessing a 72-inch reach, Morales had the physical equipment to dominate solely by playing it safe. But Morales decided to go a different way; he put pleasing his fans above his personal safety. He knew that being a great Mexican champion also meant fighting with the passion, power and pride that made legends of Olivares, Zarate, Cuevas and Chavez. It meant taking risks that few would ever dare attempt and more often than not he came out the other side as the winner.
One of the most memorable demonstrations of his machismo unfolded during the final round of his first fight with Manny Pacquiao. Suspecting he had built a big enough cushion on the scorecards, Morales could have lifted his foot off the gas and coasted to victory. Instead, he tore into Pacquiao with a two-fisted assault – from a southpaw stance. The HBO commentators were amazed at his bravado and when Larry Merchant addressed it during his post-fight interview, Morales asked with a twinkle in his eye “Did you like that?” Merchant’s reply: “I loved it.”
On Saturday, this 35-year-old legend will walk the tightrope once again, this time against undefeated 23-year-old challenger Danny “Swift” Garcia. The Philadelphia native with Puerto Rican lineage will enter the lion’s den at Houston’s Reliant Arena, for most of the crowd will be adoring Mexican fans who will scream for his blood. The reasons why are based on Morales’ storied history, which will be retold here in the form of his 10 greatest fights. This list is based on a combination of performance level, quality of competition and other intangibles. Not all of them were victories, which is a statement in itself. Morales’ greatness lies not in whether he won or lost but how he plied his trade.