In the opening years of the 21st century, a mutual antipathy between two future Hall of Fame fighters festered and then flourished down Mexico way. As Marco Antonio Barrera and Érik Morales rose triumphantly through the weight divisions, so their dislike for one another appeared to increase exponentially.
Unusually for professional boxing, this shared enmity was both absolute and entirely genuine. Nothing was manufactured and media hyperbole was rendered redundant as the rivalry reached an intensity that is relatively, and mercifully, rare in a sport whose most prized goal is to temporarily relieve an opponent of their consciousness.
The most beautiful paradox of boxing is that the bonds forged and respect earned through mano a mano ringed conflict tend to douse any flames of hatred before they can fully consume either protagonist. Twelve three minute rounds generally provide time enough to settle personal or professional differences and agree a bilateral truce, however fragile, uneasy or grudging that peace agreement may be.
For Morales and Barrera, however, even thirty six stanzas of furious, gloved negotiations proved hopelessly inadequate and when the final chapter of their four year fistic trilogy was complete, the two fighters still hated each other’s guts.
The genesis of the animosity is disputed to this day. Barrera, the older man by almost three years, turned pro at 15 and claimed the world super bantamweight title at a time when Morales, who didn’t fight professionally until the ripe old age of 16, was still knocking out unknowns in Baja California.
With the light of the iconic Julio Cesar Chavez’s star finally beginning to dim, heir apparent Barrera was looking forward to assuming the mantle of Mexico’s premier pugilistic hero. Morales’s emergence, coupled with a brace of chastening defeats to the American Junior Jones, threatened this coronation and some believe the seeds of rancour were sown and germinated in the fertile soils of this mini career crisis.
For others, it was simply the inevitable result of the two boxers’ distinct backgrounds: an unavoidable class war with the added spice of regional rivalry thrown in for good measure. Morales, the working-class street kid from the ghettos of Tijuana was never going to get along with an educated, middle-class, big-city boy like el Distrito Federal’s Barrera, they say.
Whatever the spark that ignited the fire, both men played their full part in fanning the blaze. Months before their first encounter, an altercation at a football match in Mexico almost became physical. Barrera then referred to Morales using the racially sensitive term, Indio, while Morales was never slow to unleash personally insulting verbal volleys of his own in which neither mothers nor wives were off limits. Blows were exchanged before their second fight when Érik called Marco Antonio mariquita and later futile attempts at reconciliatory handshakes were met with flying water bottles.
Even more telling than these highly visible manifestations of the bad blood coursing through both fighters’ veins was the look in the eye when they met, and the tone of the voice when forced to speak of the other. Such body language can’t be faked: it had all become very, very personal.
But if their behaviour outside the ring left a lot to be desired, it was impossible to fault them once inside the squared circle.
The first fight took place in the Mandalay Bay Hotel on the 19th of February 2000 and was immediately recognised for what it was: a standalone classic tear up. In starting off quick and aggressive and then getting faster and more furious, it set the tone for the trilogy. Ring Magazine crowned it Fight of the Year and the fifth stanza was awarded Round of the Year. At the end of 36 relentless minutes, Morales took a split decision victory to add the WBO super bantamweight strap to the WBC belt he’d won three years earlier.
Part two, 26 months later and one weight class up, moved a mile down Las Vegas Boulevard to the MGM Grand and is regarded as the most tactical of the three bouts. That may be so, but keep in mind that everything in life is relative. To suggest that either boxer performed quiescently is akin to describing Usain Bolt’s 9.72 second 100m in New York in 2008 as “rather pedestrian” compared to later runs in Beijing and Berlin. Make no mistake, Barrera Morales II was again ferocious and this time Barrera received a unanimous nod to snatch the WBC featherweight belt from around his foe’s waist.
One all it lay, but the boxing world was certain that neither man would settle for a draw. All the ingredients for a classic finale were already in the pot but just like the best slow-cooked tinga poblanas, it was set aside for an extended simmering period to allow all the competing flavours to infuse and intensify.
Over the next two years, Barrera beat stellar names like Johnny Tapia, Kevin Kelley and Paulie Ayala, but lost to a young up-and-comer from the Philippines named Manny Pacquiao. Morales was even busier and a six-fight winning streak included the scalp of Jesus Chavez and a world title in a third weight class.
That WBC super featherweight title was on the line when Marco Antonio and Erik returned to the MGM Grand on the 27th of November 2004, but it was almost an aside. Legacies, pride, bragging rights and national standing in a country that holds their little fighting men in such high esteem was what made this conclusion so highly anticipated.
Morales, the younger and naturally bigger man, was the favourite going into the decider. This was Barrera’s first contest at 130 lbs and when the opening bell rang, Morales was said to be 11 lbs heavier than his opponent. To put that weight advantage into some perspective, only 10 lbs separates flyweight from super bantamweight, with the super fly and bantamweight divisions in-between.
Nevertheless, Barrera was the aggressor early on as he immediately took the fight to Morales. This move was both tactical and instinctive. As the shorter man with a distinct reach disadvantage, Barrera knew he had to fight at close quarters to deny the rangier Morales the space to fully leverage his punches. But it is equally true that he simply loved an old-fashioned, toe-to-toe dustup.
It is often difficult to neatly pigeon-hole the characters of great fighters and they rarely abide by the clichés prepared for them. Barrera may have enjoyed a comfortable upbringing and studied law in Mexico City, but once in the ring his approach was more emotional than cerebral. Morales was from the other side of the tracks yet was a boxer-puncher rather than innate brawler. Regardless, strip both to their core and the same spirit was evident: they were natural born warriors.
Five seconds before the beginning of the 11th round, referee Kenny Bayless was already positioned in the centre of the ring, looking from one corner to the other with his arms outstretched, like an anxious and overworked lion-tamer who had misplaced his chair and whip.
The two fighters rose in unison to await the bell. As Morales stepped forward he quickly blessed himself in a silent offering that may have been seeking guidance, giving thanks, begging forgiveness or some combination of all three. He knew that his rally in the 7th and 8th had been thwarted by Barrera in the 9th and 10th and the fight was slipping away from him.
Morales shot out a rapier left jab that Barrera ate before immediately responding with two of his own. They circled and feinted, both eager to get off first but both equally wary of the counters that would inevitably be thrown in return.
Again Morales forced the issue and followed another incisive jabbed lead with attempted right hooks and uppercuts as Barrera burrowed in close for momentary refuge. Almost every other boxer on the planet would have held on at this point and, conscious of this fact, the daintily-gloved Bayless swooped in like an attentive maître d’ seeing to the whims of his most important guests. Upon arrival he found his services unrequired, however, as a visibly exhausted Barrera preferred to punch his way out of danger.
A tired and wild uppercut from Barrera then missed its intended target by such a distance that both men briefly paused as if to check and recalibrate their equipment. Bayless then waved them in to commence a thirty second burst which surged upward in intensity throughout.
In and out of range they bounced and jabbed until Morales landed one with a little extra bite. The sight of Barrera’s head snapping back further than the norm was all the invitation Morales needed to attack. A flurry of yellow fists blurred the centre of the ring and only the occasional violent jolts of Barrera’s head told us Morales was landing the cleaner.
The Tijuanese, sensing the stoppage their man needed was on, suddenly found their voice inside the MGM. Yet despite Morales catching Barrera repeatedly and shipping little in the way of meaningful punishment in return, it was he who found himself being backed up towards the ropes. A dog-tired Barrera was, incredibly, continuing to move forward. It was as if his fight or flight mechanism was faulty and had stuck fast on one setting.
Bayless was now a passer-by trying unsuccessfully to break up a street fight. Morales threw ambidextrous hooks to the head while Barrera dug into the body. Morales needed a knock out while Barrera just needed to hang in there. The latter decided that his best chance of achieving his goal was to stay close and limit the possibilities of catching a big one. In doing so he guaranteed he’d absorb a higher volume of punishment but he backed his chin and heart to cope. They did. And then some.
Each time Bayless pushed the men apart, they were immediately drawn back to one another like a pair of oppositely charged molecules in an ionic bond. They were doomed lovers seeking one final embrace before being separated forever.
As the seconds ticked down, the action became more desperate. Every time Morales hit his target and gave himself hope, Barrera thumped in a liver shot to keep his opponent honest. With 17 seconds left, it was Barrera who landed big upstairs as a left hook crashed into the side of Morales’s jaw.
In a sure-fire indication that he had felt the full force of that blow, Morales dropped his hands to his midriff, banged his gloves together, and brazenly beckoned Barrera in for more. Barrera obliged with an overhand right before technique went out the window in the final few corybantic seconds spent careering across the ring, blindly swinging Hail Marys at each other. There was still a round to go but, deep down, both men knew. Three minutes later, Barrera was awarded a majority decision.
Objectively speaking, there may well have been better rounds than this one over the course of the three fights: but context is everything. This wasn’t an 11th round, it was a 35th. This wasn’t a standalone fight, it was an equal third of a series. A series in which no comfort would ever be taken from having claimed one victory out of three. You only need to look at the desolation in Morales’s expression as he stood in his corner listening to Michael Buffer announce the result to understand that. In the end, these three minutes were the most decisive.
Perhaps today, 11 years on, enough of the disappointment has subsided to allow Morales to appreciate the fact that he was 50% of one of the greatest trilogies boxing has ever seen. Better than Ali Frazier whose second fight was not actually all that special. Better than Graziano Zale who never went past the 6th round together. Better than Griffith Paret whose ending was too tragic to truly celebrate their battles. Better even than Gatti Ward who delivered comparable passion, action and entertainment but were operating at a level well below the elite echelons of the two Mexicans.
For many, that is what gives the Barrera Morales saga the edge. In those moments when the stakes were highest and a slightly more circumspect approach may have been forgiven, they simply went all out and blessed us with three fiestas of that special brand of paradoxically frenetic, yet controlled and accurate, aggression that the great Mexican fighters specialise in.
There even appears to be a heart-warming end to the tale. Amidst sporadic rumours, thankfully unfounded, of a fourth meeting, the two men made their peace, six years after the final punches were traded.
“Things happened but we are friends,” confirmed Morales before adding that, “time heals all wounds.” Echoing those sentiments, Barrera insisted that all the ill-feeling from the past had been forgotten. “I respect Érik Morales,” he said, “he is my friend.”