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To Barrera, Mind Matters

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It seems almost everything written or said about Marco Antonio Barrera refers to him as well-mannered and well-spoken, being from a well-to-do middle-class family in Mexico City and, of course, being well-educated because he spent time studying in law school.

But with the mind games Barrera has been playing with Erik Morales leading up to their featherweight fight Saturday night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, one has to wonder if Barrera took some psychology classes along the way.

After repeatedly stoking the fires of the regional rivalry--Barrera being from the supposedly more cosmopolitan capital city while Morales is from the reviled border town of Tijuana--Barrera has backed off of late.

Barrera is now paying back-handed compliments to the darker-skinned Morales, claiming that both fighters are “puro Mexicanos,” pure Mexicans, after earlier saying that the only things that come out of Tijuana are “Indios and burros,” Indians and donkeys.

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In one breath at the fight’s final news conference Wednesday, Barrera said he looked forward to the conclusion of the fight so that the backbiting and bad-mouthing would cease along with the country-polarizing rivalry.

Yet 15 minutes later, with another reporter, Barrera was again ripping into Morales, referring to the high-school dropout who was born above a gym in Tijuana’s red-light district as “ignorant.”

Perhaps what caught the tone of Barrera’s mind games best, though, was what he didn’t say after Morales embarked on a diatribe in Spanish about how he was going to win the fight.

As if he was suddenly above the fray, and perhaps to show that he is indeed that well-rounded, Barrera addressed the gathering in English and dismissed Morales’ presence by not even mentioning his name but rather congratulating the Mexican soccer team on its run in the World Cup.

Morales did a slow burn afterward, though Barrera insisted the slight was not intended.

“I was speaking English because I’m trying to learn a little, that’s all,” Barrera said in Spanish. “It had nothing to do with him. Our work, as Latino fighters, is to cross over to the side of the United States. I need to be able to work on both sides.”

Barrera, it appears, also is schooled in the art of marketing. But even while pleading ignorance, Barrera was sticking it to Morales.

“It helps with my image because we are in different times now,” Barrera said. “To be able to [thrive] we have to be able to go over to the other side and not just stay [popular] in our home.”

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Barrera has a point. He is already revered in his native land and, in many corners of Mexico, is seen as the heir apparent to Mexican legend Julio Cesar Chavez.

But Barrera blushes when such comparisons are made and points to the accomplishments of 108-pounder Ricardo Lopez (50-0-1, 37 knockouts), saying he is Mexico’s best fighter.

That Barrera is in position to receive and defer such praise amuses and angers those in Morales’ camp. After all, they say, Morales is the World Boxing Council 126-pound champion and an unbeaten fighter (41-0, 31 KOs) while the legend of Barrera (54-3, 39 KOs) has grown after each loss and with a dominating unanimous decision over marketing-machine creation Prince Naseem Hamed on April 7, 2001.

There was a time, however, when Barrera was contemplating retirement.

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Having endured consecutive losses to Junior Jones--by disqualification on Nov. 22, 1996, after his corner ran into the ring when he was knocked down for a second time in the fifth round, and by unanimous decision on April 18, 1997--Barrera fought only once in a 15-month stretch.

After much soul-searching, Barrera returned to the ring and later reclaimed his World Boxing Organization junior-featherweight title with a third-round technical knockout of Richie Wenton on Oct. 31, 1998.

While he sat out, Barrera was hounded by the Mexican press, which wondered if he was thinking of returning to school to chase his elusive law degree. The question arose again Wednesday and Barrera seemed surprised.

“That was all in the past,” he said. “I don’t even remember it or the experience. I think I went four or five years. I don’t know. Ancient history.” More mind games? Only Barrera knows for sure.

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