HOUSTON – The last time Erik Morales and James Kirkland shared a fight card was a pay-per-view event entitled “Action Heroes.” The show was aptly named because that’s what Morales and Kirkland are and always have been.
However, that card last April told us what tonight’s HBO Championship Boxing show at the Reliant Arena confirmed – that their days are numbered.
Morales lost a majority decision to Marcos Maidana the main event of last April’s main event. Kirkland suffered a shocking first-round knockout to Nobuhiro Ishida on the undercard. Both warriors exhibited the spirit that makes them fan favorites during those losses. Morales fought with one eye. Kirkland got up from three knockdowns and begged the referee to let him continue after the fight was finally stopped.
Both men bounced back as true fighters do. Morales won the vacant WBC 140-pound belt – and became the first Mexican fighter to win major titles in four weight classes – by stopping Pablo Cano last September. Kirkland got up from a first-round knockdown to brutally beat up Alfredo Angulo to a sixth-round stoppage last November.
Those inspirational bouts led to tonight’s show, but they also took their physical toll on Morales and Kirkland, as most of their previous fights have. Everyone loves a blood-and-guts warrior but at some point those kind of fighters have nothing more to give.
That was clearly the case in Morales’ loss to Danny Garcia on Saturday. The Mexican legend had just enough left in his battle-worn body to compete with the 24-year-old contender in the early rounds of their scheduled 12 rounder, but he faded in the middle rounds and suffered a hard knockdown in the 11thround on his way to losing a one-sided unanimous decision.
It was less clear with Kirkland’s 10th-round disqualification victory against fellow junior middleweight contender Carlos Molina, but it was obvious that the two-fisted brawler was not himself on this night.
Kirkland won the fight when he scored a knockdown just before the end of 10thround, which prompted one of Molina’s cornermen (who thought the round was over) to briefly climb through the ropes to assist the fallen fighter back to his stool. That action cost Molina the fight when veteran referee Jon Schorle DQ’d him after conferring with Texas boxing officials.
It was an unpopular ruling. Most observers believed that Molina – who stifled Kirkland’s aggression with crafty footwork, counter punching and by tying up the southpaw on the inside – was in firm command of the fight going into the 10thround.
Kirkland (31-1, 27 knockouts), who thought Molina did too much holding, claimed that he was coming on strong and would have scored a late-rounds TKO had the bout continued.
“That decision (by Schorle) didn’t mean s__t to me,” Kirkland said after the fight. “I wanted to win fair and square. My plan was to progress slowly and take him into deep water.”
It’s hard to envision the 28-year-old Austin native taking Molina into deep water when he fought the first half of the bout like he was under water. Kirkland may have rallied late, but he did not look like the punishing whirlwind that battered Angulo into submission a few months ago. His reflexes were almost as slow as Morales’. His punches lacked snap. And he wasn’t able to resist Molina during the many instances when the gutsy Chicago native tied him up and pushed him into the ropes.
These are signs that Kirkland, who trains just as hard as he fights, might be slowing down. However, the proud fighter says he merely faced an awkward boxer with a difficult style. Now that he knows what to expect from Molina, Kirkland believes he would exhibit his usual punishing form in a rematch.
“(Molina) did a hellafide job of holding and head butting,” Kirkland said at the post-fight press conference. “That’s part of the game and I love it. We can do it again any time and the second time around I’m gonna pick him like a chicken.”
When asked if he would face Molina in an immediate rematch, Kirkland said he’s willing but must defer to the plans of his team, which includes trainer Ann Wolfe, co-managers Mike Miller and Cameron Dunkin, and Golden Boy Promotions.
Molina, who is promoted by Leon Margules of Warriors Boxing, said Kirkland is copping out.
“I don’t have to ask my team if I want a rematch,” said Molina (19-5-2, 6 KOs). “I know I want a rematch. I was winning the fight. I was doing what I trained to do, which was apply pressure, work (Kirkland’s) body and push him back. I wanted to do a little bit of everything and I did. I was not hurt in the 10thround. I was ready to fight the full 12.”
Margules said both fighters were cheated of a decisive ending to the fight and fans were robbed of a satisfying conclusion thanks to Schorle’s call.
“This is what’s wrong with boxing,” said Margules. “Carlos’ trainer thought he heard the bell ending the round and jumped into the ring to help his fight as a good trainer should do. He wasn’t in the ring for more than a second and he didn’t touch Molina. He didn’t do anything to affect the outcome of the bout.
“Why couldn’t the referee use some discretion and allow the bout to continue? Why couldn’t he make that decision? Why did he have to talk to the commissioners? At the end of the day, they cheated both fighters of a fight.”
Although Kirkland did outwork Molina in the late rounds and was able to hurt the savvy veteran before dropping him in the 10th, it did look like he was being saved on a technicality. And if Schorle’s call didn’t make fans think that the “house fighter” was being looked after, the awful card that was turned in by veteran judge Gale Van Hoy, who had Kirkland leading by a point (86-85) after nine rounds, certainly did.
The other two judges – Dave Moretti and David Sutherland – had Molina comfortably ahead by respective scores of 88-83 and 87-84.
Margules called Van Hoy’s card “a crime.”
“I’ve known Gale Van Hoy for many years,” Margules said. “He was once a fine judge but based on the last two years and tonight’s card, it’s obvious that he can’t see.”
Morales (52-8, 36 KOs) thought the judges for his fight also suffered from impaired vision, especially Samuel Conde, who scored the first five rounds for Garcia, and Oren Shellenberger, who scored the first three for the young challenger.
“For the first four rounds, it was very close, I thought I was winning,” Morales said during the post-fight press conference. “The judges’ scores for those rounds are not right.”
Morales, who landed 93 of the 307 jabs he threw during the fight (for a 30 percent connect rate, according to CompuBox), out-jabbed Garcia in the early rounds, but he admits that he wasn’t active enough over the second half of the bout and deserved to lose.
However, the 35-year-old veteran blamed his inability to take over the bout on his age as opposed to anything Garcia did.
“I should have thrown more punches. I probably could have done more. I thought I was capable of doing more, but maybe I’m getting old. I couldn’t make weight (which is a sign of getting old). Normally, I can do it, but not this time,” said Morales, who was stripped of his WBC title when he weighed in at 142 pounds (two pounds over the junior welterweight limit) on Friday.
“Toward the end (of the fight), yeah, I felt like I was losing. But with all due respect, Danny is a good, strong, young fighter, but he’s not a great fighter. (Garcia and his team) were laughing at me at the weigh-in because I was a little bit chubby. But when I was his age, the old veterans weren’t competitive with me. I was competitive with him. He didn’t dominate me.
“He won the fight but I fought with dignity, with a lot of pride. I put on a good performance, so I’m not sad.”
There’s no reason for Morales to be disappointed. He got the most out of a body that was physically burnt out years ago. He competed with a 24-year-old contender with speed and power on sheer guts, experience and muscle memory. If Morales had just a little bit of the athleticism that served him so well during his prime, he could have pulled off one last ring miracle. As it was, he bloodied and lumped up the young man’s face.
But Morales couldn’t do more than that. His legs had no spring. His reflexes were shot, and his body looked deflated, almost like a half empty heavy bag. He wasn’t able to hurt Garcia or take advantage of the Philadelphia native’s careful counter-punching style and willingness to fight at the older man’s pace.
Garcia (23-0, 14 KOs), to his credit, acknowledged the skill and ability of the future hall of famer.
“He has a great jab,” he said. “He busted me up with it. It was hard to throw more punches because he was crafty when he was on the ropes. He wasn’t easy to hit and I didn’t want to get too greedy when I did hit him. He never hurt me but he hit me with some good shots.
“I’m just happy my dream came true and that I went 12 rounds with a legend.”
A legend who will likely fight at least one more time – probably in his native Tijuana.
Kirkland will also be back, but don’t expect to see him in with Molina. Kirkland’s management is targeting one of the 154-pound beltholders, probably Cornelius Bundrage, who holds the IBF strap.
Morales’ faithful will buy tickets to witness what might be his last fight and hardcore fans will tune in to watch Kirkland on TV, but after Saturday’s performances they won’t be shocked if the two warriors fail to provide action or even come up short.
Photos / Naoki Fukuda
Email Doug Fischer at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @dougiefischer