Erik Morales has heard the whispers, the ones that question whether his fights with Marco Antonio Barrera have taken so much out of him that he’s not the same boxer he was before the two bouts with his hated Mexican countryman.
El Terrible has heard the whispers, sure. And Morales waves them off, angrily.
Morales is quick to point out that it was he who was awarded a split-decision victory over Barrera in their epic first meeting in February 2000. And while Barrera won a unanimous decision in their June 2002 rematch, many ringside observers had Morales as the winner.
In Morales’ mind, he has more of a need for redemption against Guty Espadas, another rough-and-tumble Mexican fighter who gave him fits in a fight Morales also won in a controversial decision.
Morales (44-1, 33 knockouts) will get that opportunity Saturday night at Staples Center in a rematch with Espadas (37-5, 23) that serves as a World Boxing Council featherweight eliminator and the main event of the pay-per-view card.
“I thought I did a good job, did enough good things to win” against Espadas, Morales said, “but I could have done a lot better, and this second fight, I want to show how much better I could have been.”
Morales, the WBC 126-pound champion who will vacate his title if he beats Espadas in the 130-pound weight class bout, said that “when I get criticism for being up and down for all my fights, I don’t think that’s true.”
“It was just one fight. I don’t have any ups and downs. That’s what bothers me, when people say it’s been up and down. It’s not -- that one fight, maybe.”
Morales plowed through Mike Juarez (third-round knockout), Kevin Kelley (TKO in the seventh) and Rodney Jones (first-round knockout) in his immediate matches after the first Barrera fight, a 122-pound bout.
But the whispers began after Espadas gave a less-than-sharp Morales more than anyone expected in a fight for Espadas’ WBC 126-pound title, stunning Morales with a lead right midway through the 12th round. Morales ran for survival for the remainder of the fight and took Espadas’ title with a unanimous decision.
Unknown Korean Injin Chi then took a sluggish Morales the distance, Morales looking the worse for wear but winning a unanimous decision. Morales took nearly a year off before facing Barrera again, this time at 126 pounds.
When Barrera refused to pay the WBC sanctioning fee for the title he took from Morales, a bout between Morales and Paulie Ayala took place in November for the vacant title. Morales pounded Ayala for 12 rounds, reclaiming the belt, then stopped Eddie Croft in three and Fernando Velardez in five.
Which brings the Tijuana-born Morales to this weekend and his first fight in nearly three years at 130 pounds, a weight class that is quickly becoming the most competitive in the sport today, with Morales, Espadas, WBC champion Jesus Chavez, International Boxing Federation champion Carlos Hernandez, Steve Forbes, Acelino Freitas, Joel Casamayor and Diego Corrales.
Morales’ promoter, Top Rank Chairman Bob Arum, admitted he is gambling with the 5-foot-8 Morales not having to shed as many pounds as in past camps.
“I really don’t know; you never know which Erik is going to show up for the fight,” Arum said, recalling that Morales had allowed his weight to balloon to 160 pounds before the first Espadas fight. “But my feeling is that he’s probably more of a natural 130-pounder than he is at a lighter weight.”
Should everything fall according to Arum’s plan, Morales will follow the Espadas fight with a match against Carlos Hernandez for his International Boxing Federation belt in February, should Hernandez beat Steve Forbes on Saturday night.
Morales would then meet Chavez for his WBC belt in late spring and then fight Barrera for the third time in September. That would set up an interesting negotiation, because Arum would have to go against Oscar De Le Hoya, Arum’s biggest draw and Barrera’s promoter, after he clears up legal trouble with former promoter John Jackson.
Fernando Beltran, Morales’ manager, said the fighter has plans beyond winning a title at 130 and joining Julio Cesar Chavez as the second native-born Mexican to win championships in three different weight classes -- namely, jumping to 135 pounds and facing WBC lightweight champion Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Still, Morales and his camp know that he’s forever linked to Barrera. Beltran said that Barrera missed his window at meeting Morales at a compromised weight of 128 pounds, and any future fight between the two would be at 130.
“The only thing I wish,” Beltran said, “is that we do the fight soon.”
Morales said that their respective careers should not be truly compared until each was retired.
In Mexico, Barrera is “still the favorite of a lot of people who still put him higher than me,” Morales said with a sneer. “If the people want the fight, I will fight him a third time. It’s just a question of if he wants to fight. I don’t think he wants to fight me a third time.”
If that’s true, and until the trilogy is complete, the whispers will grow louder.