Having spent six weeks training at a mountaintop ranch without electricity, Erik "El Terrible" Morales embarked on the 2 1/2-hour drive to Mexico City, where he caught a flight to his hometown of Tijuana. After a night there, he drove to Los Angeles, arriving at his hotel Tuesday at 2 a.m.
Later that afternoon, four days before he would defend his World Boxing Council featherweight title, a sleepy-eyed and soft-spoken Morales didn't look so much terrible as terribly tired in his suite at the Wilshire Grand Hotel.
"I've been training hard and taking care of things," he said. "I will be ready."
In what will be only his third fight in the Los Angeles area, Morales (40-0, 31 knockouts) will put his championship on the line Saturday against Korean Injin Chi (24-1, 14), the WBC's No. 1-ranked contender, on the undercard of the Roy Jones Jr.-Julio Gonzalez light-heavyweight title fight at Staples Center.
There have been whispers that despite efforts to fine-tune his training regimen and a change in weight class, Morales is no longer the same fighter, the lethal puncher whose vicious knockdowns helped him win a split decision over Mexican rival Marco Antonio Barrera in their epic Las Vegas battle on Feb. 19, 2000.
Morales disputes those claims.
"It's true that there have been some changes in the way I train," he said. "But . . . I'm fine and everything is good."
The Morales-Barrera bout was selected fight of the year by Ring magazine and the action-heavy fifth round was selected round of the year.
It was also the last time Morales fought as a super-bantamweight.
"I don't think he could have fought again at 122 pounds," said Bob Arum, Morales' promoter. "He was dropping so much weight it was killing him."
Besides moving up in weight class, the 5-foot-8 Morales also replaced his father, Jose, with Fernando Fernandez as Team Morales' top trainer while, in an unorthodox move, Morales began to oversee his own training regimen as a 126-pounder.
In his next fight, Morales, 24, made his featherweight debut in Los Angeles on the undercard of the Shane Mosley-Oscar De La Hoya fight at Staples Center on June 17, 2000. Morales knocked out Mike Juarez in the third round.
After knocking out Kevin Kelley in the seventh round at El Paso and Rodney Jones in the first round at Tijuana in his next two bouts, Morales had another somewhat controversial victory, a 12-round unanimous decision over Guty Espadas to take his WBC title in Las Vegas on Feb. 17.
Caught and stunned by an Espadas lead right to the head in the 12th round, Morales, ahead on the scorecards, ran from Espadas for the last minute, a la De La Hoya against Felix Trinidad.
The strategy elicited boos.
"I was disappointed in his preparation for the Guty Espadas fight," Arum said. "He had put on so much weight [between fights] that he spent most of his time dropping weight for the fight rather than training for the fight."
Barrera beat up Prince Naseem Hamed for 12 rounds on April 7, winning a unanimous decision and blowing a potential large payday for Morales against Hamed.
Should Morales get by Chi, there are tentative plans to have Morales and Barrera split a card in December, with Morales giving Espadas a rematch and Barrera possibly facing Julio Pablo Chacon, the World Boxing Organization featherweight champion from Argentina.
A rematch between Morales and Barrera could take place May 4, 2002, taking advantage of Cinco de Mayo weekend.
But first things first.
"[Chi] is a very strong fighter and he has a lot of bulk to him," said Morales, who is 12-0 in title fights. "He's too bulky, very technical and fights straightforward. In this fight, his style, I think, means there will be a lot of hitting, a lot of exchanges. It will be a very fast and hard-hitting fight. It should be over early."
Chi, 5 feet 7 1/2, lost his professional debut, a four-round decision in 1991, as a 114-pounder but has run off 24 consecutive victories. Chi, 28, has never fought in the United States, though, and has fought outside his native Korea only once, when he won a 10-round decision over Ronnie Belaro in the Philippines in 1993.
"I know the importance of this fight," Chi said. "If I can beat a great champion like Erik Morales, I will be a hero in my country."
Morales is already one in Mexico and hopes to tap into the Mexican fans here.
"I think I have a lot of fans in Los Angeles, I know there are a lot of Mexicans here," said Morales, who made his Southland debut in Anaheim, scoring a second-round knockout of Pedro Torres on Oct. 12, 1996. "It's very, very important for me to put on a good show for them."
Boxing at Staples Center
Saturday, 6 P.M.