Lee Groves

10: Erik Morales’ greatest fights

March 22, 2002, L 12 Marco Antonio Barrera II — MGM Grand, Las Vegas, Nevada, WBC featherweight title

Despite the still-bubbling animosities (Barrera slugged Morales at the press conference announcing the rematch after Morales called him a sissy), their second act couldn’t have been more different than their initial classic in terms of action and strategy. That’s because of what transpired in the two-and-a-half years since.

Starting with his sixth-round TKO over Jesus Salud, “The Baby Faced Assassin” transformed himself into the Mexican Professor. Five months later, Barrera’s precision boxing carved up the wildly unorthodox Naseem Hamed and served up a stunning upset. After disposing of the cut-prone Enrique Sanchez, Barrera signed to fight Morales, who had won five straight and had won the WBC belt by unconvincing decision over Guty Espadas Jr. two fights earlier. Based on recent results, Barrera was installed as a 2-to-1 favorite.

Seeking to duplicate his success against Hamed, Barrera fought in what Larry Merchant described as a “tactical trance” in the first five rounds. Morales was more than pleased with the tepid pace because it allowed him to impose his height and reach advantages while also initiating almost every exchange.

Trailing badly on points, Barrera finally started moving forward in the sixth and Morales appeared taken aback by the sudden strategic shift. Morales rebounded strongly in the seventh and appeared to score a knockdown with a long right to the stomach. But referee Jay Nady waved it off because the fighters’ feet briefly brushed together right before Barrera fell. Still, Morales had found an excellent rhythm as he stabbed with jabs and beat Barrera to the target with rights.

The tide turned again late in the eighth as a Barrera hook cut and swelled Morales’ right eye and in the ninth his mouth was bloodied. A Morales double-jab buckled Barrera’s knees in the 10th while the 11th saw both men enjoy several strong moments. The final round was the only one that approached the original in terms of drama and action, but Barrera, strongly suspecting he needed to win it, produced his most sustained attack of the night. His instincts proved correct, for all three judges gave him the round and the fight (116-112, 115-113, 115-113). Had Morales won, he would have saved his title – and his undefeated record – with a majority draw.

For the second straight fight, fans and media believed the judges rewarded the wrong fighter and a disappointed Morales initially bolted the ring, only to return. In a quirky way justice had been done; the overall score of one fight each was correct but the route in getting there produced heartburn and angst. Only a third fight could settle the questions of who was the best fighter in a historical sense.

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