Prizefighters, like soldiers go to war so we do not have to. We can live vicariously through their efforts. All of the excitement with none of the consequences. As we watch our servicemen liberate people in foreign lands, we may cheer patriotically from the "front line" of our local bar. We watch our fighters perform in the most brutal and dangerous sporting arenas of all from the safety of our fireside or ringside seats. As in ancient Rome, the only honest participants in the whole spectacle are the gladiators. When reviewing any fight involving those two most noble of modern day gladiators, Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales, we constantly harp back to their epic first encounter in 2000. On that night at the Mandalay Bay Casino in Las Vegas, they gave so much more than we were ever entitled to ask of them. These two Mexican warriors went to places that we would never consider visiting. What we witnessed that night was a fight that would have been a contender for fight of the year in any year. To quote the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, referring to the onset of an Irish independence movement: "A terrible beauty was born." For all the enjoyment we gained from watching the war unfold, there was something both compelling and uncomfortable in equal parts.
The problem for both fighters since that night is that all subsequent performances have not and will not be judged on their own merits. Every complimentary statement or testament to their abilities will at some point be qualified by reference to their first encounter. It is tantamount to extolling the accomplishments of Moses, but at the same time noting that it was not as miraculous as parting the Red Sea. As fitting and valid as the tributes to the "terrible beauty" may be, the timing could have been better. The dilemma that both boxers find themselves in is that a legacy is something to be savored from the comfort and detachment of retirement. It should not be something that is held up as a constant reminder of heights you will never reach again before your career is over.
Many top-level fighters would be proud of a career that contained the post-2000 accomplishments of Barrera. In the last six months, he made three defenses of his title via a points win and two KO's. The following summer, Barrera destroyed the myth of Naseem Hamed. Deftly moving out of range and counter punching early on, by the end Barrera was the aggressor and won a lopsided points victory. He did such a job on the Prince that Hamed was put into virtual retirement. Then June 2002 saw Marco escape with a rather fortuitous points win in the first rematch with Morales.
Early in 2003, Barrera KO'd veteran Kevin Kelley in four rounds. Then at the end of the year, he was stopped after taking a severe beating from the emerging world star Manny Pacquiao. Just when questions were being asked about his future as a top draw fighter, Marco came back with a tenth round KO of the respected Paulie Ayala. In 2004, he won a narrow, but in my opinion deserved victory over his old rival Morales. All this had happened in the four years after he had supposedly peaked. What some fighters would give for such a decline.
Since his first battle against Barrera, Erik Morales has compiled a record of 9-2 with six KO's. The two defeats were of course against his old nemesis. Among his other opponents were world-class operators such as Wayne McCullough, Injin Chi and Paulie Ayala. Many top fighters would swap this eleven-fight resume for their whole career records. Personally, I could never chose between these two warriors. I believe Barrera deserved the victory in their last fight, but it was far too close to be called decisive. I am sure that as I write this, speeches are being prepared for the pairs induction into the Boxing Hall of Fame at Canastota. Their rivalry would stand comparison to the Ali-Frazier trilogy, the Robinson-Lamotta wars and the Hearns-Leonard fights.
But, all that is in the future and the best way to give these two modern day gladiators the respect they deserve is to judge them on their current merits and stop comparing them to their past exploits. That night at the Mandalay Bay, a "terrible Beauty" was indeed born, but please let us save the eulogies until a more appropriate time.
Patrick Gibbons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org