A hero in Mexico, WBC 122-pound champ Erik Morales storms the U.S.
Erik Morales was born in a gym, or so his personal mythology goes, and he certainly fights as if he grew up in one. Just 22, the undefeated WBC super bantamweight champion is being hailed as the next Mexican fight legend, the heir to Julio C�sar Ch�vez. He's a hawk-faced knockout prodigy who's been packing arenas south of the border and is now poised to capture the North American audience.
Morales's recent performances in Las Vegas won't hurt him any as he reaches for a broader constituency. In February he sent Angel Chacon through the ropes on the undercard of an Oscar De La Hoya fight. Then, last Saturday, headlining a pay-per-view card for the first time, he dropped Juan Carlos Ramirez four times in a one-sided bout. When referee Jay Nady visited Ramirez's corner after the ninth round to ask if he was O.K. after a furious beating, Ramirez said, in English, "I'd like to go to lunch." Nady stopped it on the spot.
It was a typical performance for Morales, who has crammed 33 victories (and 27 KOs) into his six-year career. Promoter Bob Arum promises we're going to be seeing a lot more just like it as he sends Morales on a U.S. campaign that may someday cross the Atlantic if he's successful in baiting WBO featherweight champion Prince Naseem Hamed (whom Arum calls the "English fraud") into a bout. "Not only can Erik fire," says Arum, "but he's a warrior and can take a good punch. He's right up our customers' alley."
Morales has much beside a powerful right hand and an iron chin to make him salable. He's got a brilliant smile, plenty of charisma and great intentions. In Tijuana, where he was born and fought until Arum discovered him, he is as famous for his charity work as for his KOs. Morales, modest enough that a visiting boxing official confused him for a luggage handler (Morales, who has a three-year, $10 million contract with Arum, carried the bags but refused the tip), has been a steady contributor to youth causes in his hometown. The $10,000 bonus he got from Arum went directly toward the purchase of computers for area schools. He now sponsors about 70 sports teams, paying for equipment, coaches and fees.
To make it in the United States, Morales will have to do more to spread his word, and Arum already has him scheduled for English classes, something that Ch�vez disdained. Even without English, Morales tells a pretty good story, one that fans ought to be lapping up. Beginning with that canvas cradle angle, which even he laughs at (he was actually born above the gym), Morales spins quite a yarn. "My father didn't want me to fight," he explains, "and he did everything to discourage me."
This is strange, considering that the father was a fighter himself, a flyweight who worked under the name of Jose Morales Damian. But even with his boxing career, and steady work as an air conditioning repairman, the father could not get his family out of a horrifying area of Tijuana that Morales calls No Man's Land. Like any father, he wanted something better for his son. "He wanted me to go to college," Morales says.
Stranger still, it was Morales's mother, Isabelle, who encouraged her son's interest in boxing. Morales had a fine amateur career, but when it came time to turn professional, only his mother backed him. His father tried to discourage him, while insisting he make the matches for his son. He picked the toughest opponents he could find, hoping to make a college man out of his son yet After Morales knocked out his first three opponents, however, the old man came around and has been, literally and figuratively, in his corner ever since.
Morales built a steady fan base in Tijuana but remained only a local legend until 1997, when he knocked out Daniel Zaragoza in the 11th round to win the title. Arum, though he had signed Morales, wasn't sold on him until the next year, when his fighter defended his championship against Junior Jones in Tijuana's famed bullring. "To my mind, he was just another good fighter," says Arum. "But when I saw him destroy Jones in a sold-out bullring, I went crazy in my usual way."
Morales, though, has kept his head. His only extravagances so far are a home in the best section of Tijuana for himself and another for his parents, and a splurge on computer equipment. "I'm an expert in air conditioners," he says, laughing, acknowledging his technical training, "but also computers. I've spent about $15,000 on them. I'll have my new Web page up soon." He's come a long way in his young life—which, no matter where it really began, seems sure to flourish inside the ropes.