As the calendar rolled over from 1999 to 2000, HBO's Boxing After Dark opened its fifth season with a fight that over-delivered on the excitement it promised. At Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Erik Morales and Marco Barrera provided a brawl as stirring as any of the modern classics from the program's brief history.
Pre-fight plotlines mostly centered around the ongoing search for the "next Julio Cesar Chavez," a tag that was given to Barrera in the mid-'90s, taken away when he lost a shocker at the hands of Junior Jones and then transferred to Morales when "El Terrible" ran his record to 35-0 heading into this meeting with Barrera. It was a clash for Mexican superiority, and there was no shortage of bad blood flowing. Barrera is from Mexico City, Morales from Tijuana, and a natural geographical/class rivalry developed. And that rivalry became amplified when the two boxers appeared in a celebrity soccer match six months before their bout and had to be separated by their teammates.
The odds opened around 5-1 or 6-1 for Morales, but as fight night neared, many fans wondered whether Barrera's two losses to Jones were more the result of an unfavorable clash of styles than anything else, and those odds were bet down to about 3-1. Still, Morales was a deserving favorite, having just come off a tremendous 1999 campaign that included a knockout of Jones and an exciting win over Wayne McCullough. Plus he was in his absolute prime at age 23. Barrera was hardly a retread at age 26, but there was a school of thought that wondered if, with more than 50 fights on his odometer, he'd seen better days.
Barrera heard the whispers and viewed this showdown with Morales as a make-or-break affair.
"When I took the fight," Barrera told HBO.com, "I knew that it was the most important fight of my career. Erik's record didn't have any losses. He could afford one. I believed that I couldn't afford one."
Barrera certainly fought like a man who couldn't afford to lose, playing the role of aggressor from the outset while Morales did his best to stay controlled and measured. A scene that was repeated throughout the fight emerged in the opening round: Both fighters would freeze, staring at each other, looking to feint the other into making a mistake and leaving an opening. Then within a second or two, one man would start letting punches fly and the other would punch in rhythm with him.
Through the first three rounds, it was underdog Barrera whose rhythm was better. He scored with pounding body blows in the second round and also scorched Morales with a left uppercut. The action reached another level in the final 30 seconds of the third round, with the supremely skilled boxer-brawlers exchanging combinations, and the shock of seeing Barrera race out to a possible 30-27 lead was equaled by the awe over the level at which both men were competing.
"There was constant surprise, moment to moment, round to round, that two guys could fight at that level of sustained intensity and that level of skill," HBO blow-by-blow commentator Jim Lampley recalled. "I've seen brawls, but I had not previously seen, with the sole exception of Julio Cesar Chavez vs. Meldrick Taylor, a boxing match that intensely violent where the action was so consistently sustained from second to second. And from a commentary standpoint, there's not much you can say. It was awe-inspiring. It was breathtaking."
Lampley's broadcast partner, Larry Merchant, picked a different classic bout between rivals to compare it to.
"As the fight unfolded, it became so intense I can only think back to Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier III for a fight that had that kind of intensity, those kinds of exchanges," Merchant said, "where one fighter would take punishment and the next thing he did was to deal it out. And it kept building to a kind of crescendo."
Indeed it did. As entertaining as the first three rounds were, it only got better from there, partly because it got harder to tell who was winning. Morales came out firing in the fourth, backing Barrera into the ropes, and soon thereafter clinched the round with a pair of right uppercuts.
The fifth was named "Round of the Year" by The Ring magazine – though it proved difficult to score. The Mexican marvels engaged in one wild exchange after another, and about a minute into the round, Morales seemed to hurt Barrera, backing him up with a right hand. But just as Morales seemed to be cinching control of the fight, Barrera lashed out with a right that sent El Terrible lurching into the ropes. A couple of power shots later, Morales was barely able to avoid the first knockdown of his career. Although CompuBox stats for the round favored Morales—he landed 51 of 95 punches, to 24 of 50 for Barrera—it was Barrera who enjoyed the best moment and seemed to do the greater damage.
The pace slowed a bit in the sixth as both warriors tried to recover from the previous round's action, but it picked right back up again in round seven. Barrera opened with a salvo of lefts and right that bent Morales over the top rope, but the unbeaten titleholder from Zona Norte steadied himself and did excellent work up against the ropes, scoring flush with a thudding right uppercut. Morales seemed to have renewed energy in the eighth, bouncing on his toes, but Barrera came on strong as the clock ticked down, winning a phenomenal exchange over the final five seconds with a sensational right hand.
Barrera picked up where he left off in the ninth, opening the round with his best individual punch of the fight, a huge left hook to the jaw. But Morales wouldn't be deterred and stood his ground, leading to the best action since round five. The momentum swung back and forth, with Barrera suffering a cut under his left eye, but just as it seemed Morales was about to lock up the round, Barrera scored with a left-right-left combo in the closing seconds, then landed two more lefts, hurting Morales and stealing the round.
In the 10th, Morales slammed the hardest right hands he could muster into Barrera's head, and the young veteran took them without flinching. A tremendous left by Barrera wobbled Morales for a moment late in the round, but it didn't seem to be enough to steal the point away from El Terrible. Barrera appeared to edge the 11th by hurting Morales with body shots, and to most observers, the outcome was undecided entering the final round.
As expected, the fighters came out slugging, and early on it was Barrera punishing the favored fighter. Later, two left hooks wobbled Morales, and in what seemed to be a crucial moment, Barrera missed a punch, Morales touched the canvas, and referee Mitch Halpern made an incorrect knockdown call. Facing a 10-8 round in his opponent's favor, Morales desperately emptied his guns in the final 20 seconds, but Barrera was right there with him every step of the way, and at the final bell, it seemed apparent to most that Barrera had scored the upset.
"Most," however, didn't include two of the judges. Duane Ford had it 114-113 for Barrera, but he was overruled by Carol Castellano, who scored 114-113 for Morales, and Dalby Shirley, who inexplicably gave Morales seven straight rounds along the way and saw it 115-112 for Morales despite the 10-8 round in the 12th.
It was as good a fight as fans could have hoped for, with an ending as disappointing as the sport (which so often shoots itself in the foot) could have delivered.
Sadly, in the immediate aftermath of the fight, the talk was mostly about the decision, rather than the stirring action that preceded it.
"In reality, it was a very close fight, I thought I won it because the knockdown was not a real knockdown," Morales opined.
"I really don't know what you have to do in Las Vegas to win a fight," Barrera offered. "The people are the best judges of all, they know who won the fight … I want to let HBO know that their champion is not that good."
Contrary to the emotionally charged comments from Barrera, the reality is that neither fighter was "HBO's champion." And the on-air team certainly didn't believe that Morales won.
"It could have been the first prize fight you ever saw in your life," Lampley reflected nearly a decade later, "and instinctively you would know that neither guy won seven rounds in a row. That didn't happen. You gotta be blind. I'm sorry, it didn't happen."
"I was told the story of a guy in the stands who was a bettor and who had bet on Morales but refused to accept any money," Merchant added. Further indicating who the public believed was the winner, it was expected going in that the victor would soon challenge Prince Naseem Hamed for the featherweight title, and it was Barrera who got that shot in 2001.
Speaking about the Y2K Fight of the Year in 2009, Barrera said he no longer cared that the judges sided with his opponent.
"Now I am happy, I feel different," he said, "because how many years ago was the problem? Now I am happy because we fight three times, the people like it, and I am happy to only say to Erik Morales, 'Thanks for giving me the opportunity.'"
Indeed, Barrera and Morales fought twice more, with Barrera winning a disputed decision in the second fight and a clear-cut decision in the Fight of the Year rubber match. But the legacy left by this fight went well beyond these two fighters and their intensifying rivalry, as Lampley explained:
"The biggest thing that Barrera-Morales did, because of the nature of the fight, it elevated the images of two Mexican fighters, neither of whom spoke English at that time, it elevated these two fighters from Mexico in the United States in a way that couldn't otherwise have been done. And so it really began the process by which they were transformed into American boxing stars without speaking English, and exciting foreign-born fighters have continued to build on that since and become major attractions in America."
Morales-Barrera I ushered in a Golden Age of foreign featherweight fighters. It used to be that little guys who didn't speak English didn't have a chance of breaking through to that next level of stardom. But fights like this speak a universal language that all boxing fans understand.