Tonight in Las Vegas, WBC 122 lb. champion and pound for pound entrant Erik Morales headlined his first pay per view event. The card, broadcast on TVKO, was supposed to give Irishman Wayne McCullough his second shot at the WBC super-bantamweight diadem. However, when McCullough was injured in training, Top Rank subbed in rugged Juan Carlos Ramirez on 18 days notice. On paper it didn't seem to be a pay per view caliber fight, but in execution Ramirez provided an exciting main event on a night that certainly needed one.
After entering the ring to a chorus of "Tiajuana!" cheers, Morales opened the fight with his trademark patience. Stalking Ramirez around the ring, Morales displayed his usual economy of punches. Only when Ramirez would react to a feint would Morales throw, and when he threw he landed. Like a sharpshooter practicing at the range, Morales would calmly and cooly fire a single shot and watch as it hit it's target dead on. Blasting single right hands directly through Ramirez's guard, Morales showed his power and poise with each landed blow. Tasting success with his single shots, Morales became more fluid in the second half of the opening stanza, firing three and four punch combinations in bursts. Increasing his output did not detract from his accuracy, and Ramirez looked relieved when the bell sounded.
In the second round, Morales continued his onslaught. Although he landed freely with both hands, his right cross was especially strong...occasionally even lifting Ramirez's feet off the canvas. Ramirez tried to retaliate under fire, but Morales' defense was superb. Blocking most of Ramirez's shots on the gloves and elbows, if not slipping the punches altogether, Morales was on his way to a 10-8 round when a uppercut followed by a double left hook buckled Ramirez's back leg, sent him down to one knee, and sealed the score. By the time referee Jay Nady had reached his mandatory eight, the round was over and Ramirez survived again.
Morales was dishing out a steady stream of punishment and making it look easy. In the third it got even worse. Morales, now warmed up and in control, attacked Ramirez ruthlessly. If Ramirez would charge (and he often did so headfirst), Morales would make him pay. If Ramirez would stand still, the distance would be filled with Eric's superior jab. And when Ramirez retreated, Morales pursued, landing punches each step back. Ramirez was down again halfway through the round when a chopping Morales right took his calves out from under his thighs, and again 30 seconds later when Morales launched a giant right hand to the body. Ramirez beat the count on both occasions, and kept eating punches until the end of the third round. It was surprising that Ramirez survived the round, more surprising when he stood up for the fourth having looked content to resign on his stool after three, and completely astounding when the tide began to turn in fourth.
Up by six points after three rounds, Morales continued his dominance to open the fourth. Ramirez dug deep, and midway through the round began finally landing some clean shots of his own. It began with a left hook that Morales caught on the side of the head. Ramirez backed Morales to the ropes by reaching around his tightly held elbows and finding the body, and then got Erik's full attention with a flush uppercut that bloodied the champion's nose. Morales slipped off the ropes into a corner, and again Ramirez caught him with some big shots, including two overhand rights that drew cheers from the crowd. Morales steadied himself and fired back before the end of the round, but the rally was on.
In the fifth, Ramirez was in full comeback mode, firing a steady stream of punches to Morales' body and head for the full three minutes. Tired from pummeling his charging opponent and distracted by a still-bleeding nose, Morales tried in vain to land the single punch that would halt the incoming. Although he countered with straight one-two's to end the round, Morales had given up the momentum to the challenger after five, and the fight was on.
One of the things that separates pound for pound fighters from other champions is an ability to adapt, and Morales did so wonderfully in the sixth. Coming to grips with the fact that the rugged Ramirez would not fold under his onslaught, Morales segued into a boxing mode. Using footwork for most of the frame, Morales bookended the round with a series of rapid succession jab-right crosses. In between these flurries, Morales also concentrated on the body for the first time, feinting Ramirez out of position and then firing to the solar plexes.
Ramirez showed true grit, and continued to press the pace. As Morales began the seventh round with his nose still bleeding, and not completely back in control, Ramirez pressured the champion into throwing punches. Clearly Ramirez hoped to tire Morales in the second half of the fight and then attempt another rally. At various points, it looked like a sound plan. As Ramirez pursued, Morales would punch. When Morales would stop punching, Ramirez would answer. It made for some great action. Twice in the eighth, Morales' flurries backed Ramirez to the ropes, and twice Ramirez would wait for a respite and then punch Morales back across the ring. With both fighters tired, the lead Morales certainly held on the scorecards seemed irrelevant.
In the ninth, Morales relied on his jab and lateral movement to disrupt the back and forth pace. Saving up a bit of energy in the first two minutes of the round, Morales suddenly flurried late in the ninth and sent Ramirez onto the seat of his trunks for the fourth knockdown. Looking beaten but determined, Ramirez beat the count, lasted another twenty seconds to the bell and returned to his corner for the last time.
Sitting on his stool, Ramirez was clearly worn out from the punishment, but looked more willing to continue than he had early in the fight. The physician was in his corner briefly, but made no overt motion to stop the fight. But when referee Jay Nady looked into Ramirez's eyes, he quickly waved his arms over his head to signal that the fight was over. Shocked and upset at this poorly-timed decision, Ramirez's corner doused Nady in water and had to be restrained from further assault by security. Although a stoppage after the fourth knockdown, or even at the end of the ninth, might have been appropriate, calling the fight after the one minute break was odd, and the crowed booed in disapproval. Nonetheless, Morales TKO9.
Bruised and swollen from headbutts and punches, Morales (33-0/27) was gracious in victory and announced that he would next like to face fellow-Mexican Marco Antonio Barrera in a WBC/WBO junior featherweight unification bout. Such a matchup has topped the list of current dream-fights for awhile, and with both men under contract to HBO should be an easy fight to make.
For his part, Ramirez dropped to 17-2/7 but raised his profile with a gutsy and determined performance. His post fight comments, however, were lost to those who don't speak Spanish, as nervous translator Ramon Zayas stated his question in English, translated it to Spanish for Ramirez, but then never translated the answer back to English. Suffice to say that Ramirez felt the stoppage was premature.
Prior to the main event, Nestor Garza retained his version (WBA) of the 122 lb. title in a dramatic come-from-behind knockout victory. Facing the inexperienced Carlos Barreto, veteran of only 13 pro fights, Garza was a heavy favorite to win. And then the fight began.
Tall and lanky, Barreto used his superior reach and a stinging jab to establish the distance between the two men in the opening round. Garza, unsure of how to get inside, tried in vain to get past Barreto's stick. But it was more than Barreto's jab that was troubling Garza, as that jab was often followed up by a razor sharp right hand...a punch Barreto landed repeatedly in the first half of the fight. While both men snapped each other's heads in the first and second rounds, it was Barreto who controlled the exchanges and injected increasing urgency to Garza's gameplan.
After two rounds of staying on the outside to little effect, Garza pressured his way inside only to find that Barreto had an answer for him there as well. Once Garza ate a jab and right as toll to get inside, Barreto would immediately whack him with a short left hook or sneak uppercut before Garza could make his charge pay off. Barretto was most impressive in the first three rounds, as Garza took punishment and seemed unable to retaliate.
In the fourth, Garza pressured Barretto to the ropes, and again couldn't follow up as the slick Barretto would simply whack Garza flush upside the head and then spin back out to center ring with ease. The dominance continued into the fifth as Barretto showed patience and poise, slowing the pace down and forcing Garza to stand at distance and contemplate a way to turn it around.
In the sixth round, Garza's pressure began to catch up with Barreto, and the champion finally landed some shots. But having found a wonderful rhythm of his own, Barreto was landing his right hand whenever he pleased, which was often. After half the fight was in the books, my scorecard reflected a 60-54 shutout for the previously unknown challenger.
But in the seventh, Garza stormed out of his corner and attacked Barreto, who went from controlling to pace to completely exhausted between rounds. Now too tired to use his jab to keep Garza off of him, Barreto became a sitting duck. Garza's left hook, which to this point had been held masterfully by Barreto when the fighting was inside, could not be stopped, and it repeatedly found it's target on Barreto's body and head. For over two minutes, Garza let his hands go and pummeled the challenger, who was now too weary to even hold for a break. Slumping in a corner, not firing back, and absorbing a steady stream of punches, Barreto was finally rescued by referee Mitch Halpern. Garza KO7 in one of the more exciting finishes of the year. Garza, now 36-1/28, preserved not only his WBA title but future paydays in the talent rich junior featherweight division.
Also on the undercard was the final fight of Jorge Paez. The Clown Prince of Boxing announced his retirement, with unusual conviction, after being knocked cold by up-and-comer Augie Sanchez in the seventh round. Sanchez controlled most of the early rounds with a busier pace, although his power was suspect. In the ring, Sanchez looks stiff and thusly throws mostly arms punches. His most effective punch all night was the left hook, although Sanchez only threw the hook with his whole body when he dropped the punch to the body. Paez's best shots were overhand rights that Sanchez unknowingly walked into. Paez bloodied Sanchez's nose in the seventh before catching a left hook on the chin while leaning back with his hands down. The blow sent Paez backwards to the canvas. Although the punch certainly hurt Paez, even more damage came when Paez's head crashed into the ring mat and bounced up so hard that his shoulders even levitated momentarily. Paez lay perfectly still as referee Richard Steele counted all the way to ten for the KO. Paez remained on the canvas for several minutes after ten was called, leaving many to wonder why Steele needed to complete his count before waving the bout over. Having claimed before the fight that he would retire if he didn't win, Paez confirmed this after the bout. While Paez has already extended his career beyond it's natural course for a few extra paydays, his firm contention that his career was over sounded final. We'll see.
Also on the undercard, Kevin Kelley looked flat footed and in need of a real challenge during his ten round unanimous decision over late sub Hector Velaquez. Although Kelley won most every round, the movement, jabbing and boxing flair that brought him to the top were hard to find. Opting instead to look for knockout opportunities, Kelley turned in a routine performance that had longtime trainer Phil Borgia exasperated. Kelley, now 50-3-2/33, is looking for one more big payday before completing his transition to boxing broadcaster.
Included with the pay per view was a woman's bout that would have turned off even the strongest proponents of women's boxing. Mia St. John needed only 90 seconds to dispose of her opponent, Kris Vado. Vado's record coming into this fight was 0-3. St. John threw some nice punches towards the camera during her introduction, and then embarrassed herself by winging off-balance and technically awful punches once the bell rang. Luckily for her, Vado was even more poorly equipped to box. Referee Kenny Balis, who seems to referee all the women's bouts in Vegas, stopped the fight as soon as Vado took more than a couple punches in succession. Had the entire fight not been so atrocious, protests of an early stoppage would have rung through the hall. Fortunately, Balis spared us from further torture. After the fight, Vado called out "This fight isn't over!" and looked ready to meet St. John in an alley after the bout. It's unclear how this fight was sanctioned in the first place, and even more unclear why these two unskilled fighters are getting airtime over Lucia Rijker, Melissa Salamone and Bridget Reilly.
Finally, in an untelevised bout, Danny Romero needed 10 full rounds to dispose of an opponent who was not named until the week of the fight. The fighter Romero beat is destined to remain anonymous, as this fight was not only not aired on the telecast, but fought in front of a virtually-empty house. Romero, still a title contender at 122, has a long way back to the top.
-Thumbs up: Giving Genaro Hernandez a chance as expert commentator. Once he loosened up, Hernandez gave some good insight to the bouts and was a welcome addition to the broadcast team
-Thumbs down: Giving Sean O'Grady another chance as color commentator. I'd nearly forgotten how awful O'Grady can be on the mic before he chimed in with "You gotta punch a boxer and box a puncher"...one of the many clichés he repeated weekly on the defunct USA Tuesday Night Fights. Get some new material, Sean.
-Thumbs up: The return of Al Bernstein to the play by play position. ESPN2 would be wise to add Bernstein to the FNF lineup.
-Thumbs down: Translator Ramon Zayas. Not only did Zayas often forget to translate the Spanish answers to his English questions, but when he did translate he often misquoted the fighter or omitted large parts of their answer. At one point, during his interview with Paez, Zayas seemed to be making up Paez's response, as it hardly matched the answer Paez had given him.
-Final note: Between fights, a brief interview was aired with the President of the Las Vegas Hilton. When asked about rumors that Caesar's Palace (recently bought out by the same corporation, Park Place Properties, that owns the Hilton) would host Holyfield-Lewis II, the Hilton Prez simply said: "There are plans for November and we will be involved."