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Fight #28: Erik Morales vs. Manny Pacquiao

Fight #28: Erik Morales vs. Manny Pacquiao, March 19, 2005, MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas, NV Watching this fight today left me almost speechless. So I don't have any clever intros to write here. What I need to say, instead, is that Erik Morales is a real fighter, a man who during his career loved to fight and was really good at it. This needs to be said because people often assume that because fighters come from poverty, that fighting is the burden of their class, a sign of the ways in which they are degraded by a cruel world and the wealthy sharks who enjoy watching them fight. That is the case sometimes, but seldom is it true for anyone at the top of the sport. Erik Morales was born in Tijuana, Mexico, and his father was a fighter. He first started boxing at the age of 5. For comparison's sake, I was five years old when I developed my lifelong fear of bees, after a bee stung me in the ear while I was swinging a Whiffle bat in my backyard. Morales had a successful amateur career, then turned pro at the age of 16. Again, for comparison's sake, when I was 16 years old I was still too scared to go on a roller coaster. By the time Morales faced the 26-year-old Manny Pacquiao for the first time, Morales had fought 49 times, winning 47 of those contests. His only two defeats came to arch-rival Marco Antonio Barrera by 12-round decision. 16 months before facing Morales, Pacquiao had knocked out Barrera. That alignment of outcomes made Pacquiao the betting favorite going into this matchup, and for good reason. Pacquiao was younger than Morales, stronger than Morales, and quicker than Morales. But he was not smarter than Morales, and at least at that moment in his life, he was not as experienced a fighter as Morales. And in the end, that made the difference. At the time of this fight, Pacquiao had only gone the 12-round distance twice, finishing with one loss and one draw. Morales had done it 14 times, winning 12 of them, with the two losses coming against Barrera. So from the beginning, it seemed that Pacquiao was looking for the knockout. Jab his way inside, rip Morales with the whirlwind southpaw combinations that had already made him a legend in the Philippines, and call it a night. Morales had other plans. Outgunned by Pacquiao, the Mexican fighter nonetheless had a very durable chin, and used his experience to effectively pick his spots, knowing when to lay back, when to come forward, when to counterpunch, when to initiate. Round one was a feeling out round which Pacquiao took with his right jab and quicker hand speed. In the second round, the Filipino drove Morales into the ropes, and hurt him with a left hand. Now, it has become a bit of a truism to say that great fighters are at their most dangerous once they've been hurt. It's been true of several fighters already covered on this list. But it is most true for Morales. Because when he was hurt on the ropes, several times throughout the fight his response wasn't merely to punch back. No, his response was to bullrush Pacquiao, who seemed clearly stunned by the maneuver, and immediately took to the back foot. I've scarcely ever seen anything like it. Morales would get tagged, and then suddenly like an insane person he would be charging at his assailant, sending him to heel and driving him across the ring. That seemed to put some hesitancy into Pacquiao's gameplay, as at times he seemed to be actually afraid to go for the kill against Morales because it seemed to unleash a demon in his opponent that he wasn't prepared to handle. And so Morales fought his way back into the contest, slowing the pace and controlling the range with a strong right jab. In the fifth round, an accidental head-butt (which referee Joe Cortez mistakenly ruled came from a punch) opened a nasty gash over Pacquiao's right eye, and from there on Morales played target practice with it, repeatedly opening his opponent's wound and bathing both of them in blood. In the corner of Pacquiao, as the rounds progressed and that right eye got worse and worse, panic started to set in. Their fighter had never won a 12-round decision, and yet Morales was standing up to Pacquiao's assaults and effectively controlling the ring and the pace of the fight with his jab. Over and over again, Pacquiao's trainer Freddie Roach exhorted him to take the fight to Morales. To his credit, Pacquiao never stopped trying, and in fact kept the fight very close with a high level of activity that Morales matched by being more precise with his punches, and being especially unforgiving with the cut above Pacquiao's eye. It was a very close fight, and Pacquiao won at least five rounds. But you never got the sense that he was winning the fight, because Morales seemed measured and composed throughout the storm. Going into the 12th and final round, Roach told Pacquiao that he needed to at least knock down Morales. Morales's father, who served as trainer, told Morales to stay away from Pacquiao, because he already had the fight won. That would have been the best tactical decision. But Morales had something else in mind. Rather than stay away from Pacquiao, he switched from his natural orthodox posture to southpaw for the first time in the fight. Tactically, this was almost a galactically stupid thing to do. Pacquiao is a southpaw. He is one of the hardest punching southpaws in the history of boxing. Orthodox fighters "switch" to southpaw when they need to change up a fight and confuse their opponent. But you don't do it against a southpaw, because now you are trying to slug it out using a posture that your opponent has already mastered. The moment Morales switched to southpaw, he got badly rocked by a left hand and a right hook. I mean, he got staggered. And then Pacquiao went in for the kill, and suddenly Morales was trading leather in the center of the ring, precisely against the advice of his corner. He managed to stay on his feet, as the fight ended in spectacular fashion with both men going for broke. It made for a thrilling finish, but it also exposed Morales to real damage and cost him the round. Why did he do it? I don't really know, but I suspect that he wanted to prove to Pacquiao that he couldn't put him down, even when Morales gave him a golden opportunity to do so. It was almost like he was saying, "You need a knockout? Here, go for it, motherfucker." That's a born fighter. Morales won the bout by a narrow unanimous decision, as all three judges gave it to him by identical 115-113 scores. I had it for Morales as well, 115-114 (I had one round even). In his corner, Morales was exultant, while Pacquiao stood across the ring in tears. This was Morales's last great moment in a boxing ring. He would fight Pacquiao two more times, losing both by knockout. He would retire in 2012 with a record of 52-9 and would gain induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame on his first try. As for Pacquiao, the loss seems to have been a major point of maturation for him as a fighter. After his defeat to Morales, Pacquiao would not lose again for over seven years. On this night, he learned that he had the toughness to gut out a difficult fight in which he had suffered a nasty wound. Soon thereafter, he would learn not only how to survive those wars, but how to win them. Here is video of the fight:




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