Lee Groves

10: Erik Morales’ greatest fights

September 6, 1997, KO 11 Daniel Zaragoza – County Coliseum, El Paso, Texas, WBC super bantamweight title

At age 39, Zaragoza was boxing’s oldest reigning champion and he was in the midst of one of the greatest Indian Summers boxing had even known. Following a hotly disputed draw against then-champion Hector Acero-Sanchez in June 1995, Zaragoza won the WBC belt for the third time in the rematch five months later, then proceeded to turn back Joichiro Tatsuyoshi twice, the 20-1 Tsuyoshi Harada and the heavily favored Wayne McCullough. The 21-year-old Morales was young enough to be Zaragoza’s son, and the grizzled veteran hoped he would end up treating “El Terrible” as such inside the ring. His 222 championship rounds alone dwarfed the 131 total rounds Morales had logged.

Still, Morales exploited his youthful gifts in winning his first 26 fights, 21 by knockout, and he intended to rush the old champ to test his durability. But once he got a look at Zaragoza’s textbook lefty stance, smooth in-and-out movement and strong overhand lefts, Morales could do little more than stay at long range and poke harmless jabs.

From time to time Morales attempted to overwhelm Zaragoza with multi-punch bursts but he discovered that physical skills alone couldn’t crack this tough nut. He tried fighting southpaw but that didn’t work, and Zaragoza buzzed Morales with a winging right to the ear in the fourth.

Erik’s trainer/father, a former fighter, guided his son toward the answer: Engage Zaragoza at close range, which gave the older fighter less time to react to Morales’ quicker punches. By the seventh Morales muscled Zaragoza backward with assertive jabs and punishing body shots that slowed the veteran’s movement. A crushing hook-cross in the eighth sent Zaragoza stumbling and cut his left eye. A right to the body caused a tiring Zaragoza to double over in the 10th and another one later in the round dropped Zaragoza for a six-count. Only his wiles allowed him to make it to the bell.

Morales withstood a final stand by Zaragoza in the 11th, then delivered a straight right to the chest that sent the soon-to-be-ex-champ tumbling to the floor. As if to say, “nice job kid, you’ve earned it,” Zaragoza turned to referee Laurence Cole and silently asked him to complete the count – and pass the torch.

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