TEMOAYA, Mexico -- Erik Morales' return to the ring is about to become one of the biggest boxing headlines of 2011. His road back began 23 months ago, when the 35-year-old Morales, who had been retired for two and a half years, realized he needed and wanted to continue fighting. And now, the man known as "El Terrible" has a shot at making history.
On Saturday in Las Vegas, Morales will try to become the first boxer born in Mexico to be crowned world champion in four different weight classes, and he has made it clear, inside and outside the ring, that he did not put the gloves back on simply because, as the saying goes, he felt the "little worm" to continue boxing.
Outside the ring, he is a sober and self-reflective man, who says he is no longer limited by his own shortcomings. He maintains that he has not returned for money; and he seems to live well. He doesn't seem to be motivated by vanity; in fact, he barely ranks himself among the 10 best Mexican boxers of all time. He hasn't rushed into his decision, having fought four increasingly difficult tuneups since coming out of retirement. Instead, with straightforward conviction he says he just wants to regain his place as a fighter and show that he can still compete with the best.
Morales returned in March of last year, after six months of hard work to get in shape. He won three straight fights in Mexican territory and then he challenged his fellow countryman, Juan Manuel Marquez. When Marquez said no, Morales asked for a fight with knockout artist and world champion Marcos Maidana, to whom he lost in a contested decision. And despite that loss, he remains confident, saying he has not even contemplated the possibility of defeat at the hands of Pablo Cesar Cano on Saturday night in Las Vegas in a fight for the vacant WBC junior welterweight title. (Cano was confirmed as Morales' rival on Saturday after Argentinian Lucas Matthysse withdrew Thursday.)
No, it does not seem that Erik Morales is anywhere near leaving boxing for good.
"It's part of the dream," Morales said in an exclusive interview with ESPNDeportesLosAngeles.com during the final phase of his training camp. "The most important thing is winning the title, returning to the level of boxing world champion."
Those are the words Morales could not have spoken on the night of Aug. 4, 2007. On that night, the judges had not favored him in a fight for the WBC lightweight title that took place on the outskirts of Chicago against local David Diaz, a Mexican-American. In what was his first attempt at becoming world champion in four different divisions, Morales, a native of Tijuana, went home with his fourth defeat in a row while suffering an implosion.
"I was starting to see my career crumble, even though that should not have been happening," Morales remembered. "We always fought as best we could but the bad decisions started to come and we began to lose control of situations."
Those bad decisions included having accepted a contract with his promoters to complete a trilogy of fights with a rising Manny Pacquiao in the super featherweight division. Morales beat "Pacman" in March 2005 -- the last time that someone else's arm was raised in a ring also occupied by Pacquiao -- but was knocked out by him in each of their next two fights, in 2006. Morales believes he should have gone on to fight in the lightweight division, but remained a featherweight to fulfill the contract, and paid the price. He later went on to break off relations on poor terms with Top Rank and his manager, Fernando Beltran.
"I can say that my toughest fights have not been in the ring," Morales said. "These are issues that lead you to losing in [the ring]. The stumbles came one after another; it was best to take a break, think, analyze, wake up. I had been fighting against the best for many years."
That night in Illinois, when he lost to Diaz, Morales promised his wife, Andrea, that he would quit fighting.
"I gave her my word," Morales said.
But that promise would not prevent Morales' life from undergoing further turmoil. His time in service to the Tijuana government as the municipality's director of sports taught him many difficult, though valuable, lessons, particularly at home.
"I set out working and it involved long hours. I started to have problems at home, in many places," Morales said. "I think that it wasn't until I reached the limits of my relationship with my wife, the limits of my personal life, with a focus on having fun, of drinking, eating, gaining excessive weight I believe that it led me to reach important decisions and reflect upon what I wanted to do with my life."
It was then, late in 2009, that El Terrible got the idea of coming back to boxing. And the first step for him was that his wife return to him "the key" to come out of retirement.
"She understood that boxing was an essential part of my life," Morales said. "I trained for six months, I had to change many things in my life and then I had to improve with the psychologist, the therapist a thousand important things and work on myself, my habits, my way of thinking.
"I only learned from having made one mistake after another and here I am."
Those who go to the MGM Grand Arena on Saturday to watch the fight card headlined by Floyd Mayweather and Victor Ortiz could witness history if Morales bests the unbeaten Cano for the vacant WBC junior welterweight title.
Cano, known as Demoledor (Demolition Man), is 21 years old with a 22-0-1 record, and this would be his first shot at a world title. He is the latest in a series of challengers Morales (51-7, with 35 KOs and wins over more than a dozen world champions, including Daniel Zaragoza, Junior Jones, Wayne McCullough, Marco Antonio Barrera, Kevin Kelley, In Jin Chi, Jesus "Matador" Chavez, Carlos "Famoso" Hernandez and Pacquiao) has faced on the road to claiming world crowns in the super bantamweight, featherweight and super featherweight divisions.
"I think he is a very intelligent fighter, above all. It is hard for me to see him fight because it makes want to come back," said a laughing Hernandez, the Salvadoran great who retired two years ago. "I admire him greatly for what he is doing."
Morales defeated Hernandez by unanimous decision in July 2004 in a super featherweight title unification bout. That fight took place in the same ring where the Mexican will face Cano. Hernandez, who now trains young fighters, says he motivates them by telling them they have to fight with heart, like Morales does.
"I am not Mexican; I am Salvadoran, but I like that. I want my children to have that heart," Hernandez said. "If he keeps up that discipline, similar to how Bernard Hopkins does it, he can go much farther."
What place does El Terrible occupy?
"After September 17th, the best boxer that Mexico has ever had," said Hernandez.
But boxing is a sport that, by its nature, does not offer guarantees, and even with all the work put in by Morales in Mexico City and at altitude in Temoaya, which makes him confident he will be in better shape than he was for his fight against Maidana, El Terrible will always go into the ring with the possibility it will be for the last time.
Joe Chavez, one of the most renowned and experienced cut men, who gave himself a name working for Oscar De La Hoya, was impressed by Morales' performance in April, when he flaunted his quality as he faced Maidana, despite the fact that his right eye became swollen like a tennis ball after a hard blow in the first round. Chavez says that he could not have done a better job than Morales' corner did that night and that in those cases, it is a matter of luck if the fight is not stopped by the ring doctor.
But Chavez, who has lived in Los Angeles since his days as a boxer in the 1950s, prefers to be cautious regarding Morales' return, since El Terrible has received many punches in a professional career that started when he was 16 years old, and has been involved in numerous bloody battles, such as the three against Barrera in one of the best trilogies in boxing history.
"It's the tough fight; you're not the same for the next one," Chavez said. "A boxer who is already 35 can get old from one day to the next. It has happened to many, like Oscar De La Hoya."
When asked what would happen if he loses, Morales said, "I am not preparing myself to lose, I cannot see and have not even taken that version into account; I have focused on winning and when I fought Maidana, I believed I could do it. Now I don't believe, but rather am sure that I can do it, that I can be the best fighter in the ring."
England's Amir Khan, one of boxing's hottest sensations, has expressed interest in facing Morales in December. Morales insists, "Let's wait until September 17th."
But then everything goes back to the starting point and the reason why Morales is about to take a new jaunt into the ring.
"There is an endless list of things to explain why we came back to boxing, but the main one is because it's what I like, in truth it is what I have done my entire life," Morales said. "I'm at a stage where I feel strong, I feel well, with the necessary experience to be in the ring, so I have come to prove that I can do it."
His objective is to fight the best once again, and he states that he is very close and it is only a matter of time before he attains once more the level that one day allowed him to become the favorite son of Tijuana, of all Baja California and one of the great boxers of Mexico.
"Erik is an important figure of Mexican boxing and if he wins the fourth title [in a different weight class], it will all be normal, to tell you the truth, because all of us think he is one of the greats and deserves to be a quadruple champion," said Fernando Montiel, one of the six Mexicans who has been crowned world champion in three different weight classes.
"There is no turning back here," Montiel added. "Morales is seeking his fourth world title and he has a great chance of winning. He will put on a great show."
To be the first to accomplish the feat from a country with a boxing tradition as rich as Mexico's is something that Morales could value forever.
"It's not the money; it's the recognition, the glory," said Morales, who if he succeeds in this second phase as a professional, might eventually focus on another goal -- an opponent who has put together 14 straight wins since being beaten by Morales.
"Whether I see myself [fighting him in the future], I am not sure; but whether I would like to, yes," Morales admitted. "Whether I am working for people to see that I am still capable, I am doing so; I am putting in a great effort. I am more of a thinker; I have more options in the ring and what I will do is convince people to see that I really have the caliber to be fighting against the best. And let them tell me which fight is next."
Morales knows that at this moment, there is only one next fight. The one on Saturday.