Sept. 6, 1997: Zaragoza vs Morales

It was the classic confrontation: age and experience vs youth and raw talent. Southpaw Daniel Zaragoza was the grizzled veteran, a survivor of 65 professional battles and some 21 world title fights with champions such as Carlos Zarate, Paul Banke and Jeff Fenech. In the opposite corner stood Erik Morales, the 21-year-old sensation, viewed by some as the next great Mexican champion. At stake was Zaragoza’s WBC super-bantamweight crown. Broadcast on HBO, Zaragoza vs Morales was regarded as Morales’ coming out party, his first chance at a world title and his introduction to American boxing fans. Most anticipated a changing of the guard.

Zaragoza
Daniel Zaragoza

The opening rounds were close. Morales fought conservatively, respectfully, while Zaragoza threw looping left hands, a few of which landed. In the third Morales started picking up the pace, forcing Zaragoza back and connecting with jabs and sharp rights. At the end of the round he drove the champion into the ropes with his attack but the veteran returned fire, landing a hard left just before the bell.

Morales appeared content to outbox Zaragoza in the fourth, his straighter punches dictating the terms, but that changed near the end of the round when one of the champion’s haymakers finally got home. A wild right hand came over the top and landed flush on the younger man’s jaw, buckling his knees. Zaragoza pounced and the two traded with abandon until the bell, both men landing. In the fifth an emboldened Zaragoza pressed the action, forcing Morales to fight off the back foot as he kept attacking, slinging wide, arcing punches and adding in a few head butts for good measure. Somewhat surprisingly, after five rounds, Zaragoza had the edge.

But thirty seconds into round six Morales stole back the momentum with a vicious counter left hook that put the old champion on the run. The fight was becoming wild. An accidental clash of heads opened a small cut on Zaragoza who was drawing warnings for low blows and hitting on the break. The champion kept rushing Morales, forcing him back, but another hard left hook at the end of the round stunned the veteran.

daniel-zaragoza-vs-erik-morales-09-06-1997

Morales appeared to take a breather in round seven, allowing Zaragoza to press and launch more of his haymakers, but the challenger came out hard in round eight, throwing potent right hands, one of which had the older man in serious trouble. Staggering about the ring, badly hurt, the proud champion simply refused to buckle as the crowd roared and Morales pounded him from one side of the ring to the other before, amazingly, Zaragoza launched a counter-attack just before the bell.

In the ninth it was clear Morales was slowly but surely gaining control of the fight. Losing respect for the champion’s power, he began to open up, battering Zaragoza with inside uppercuts and hooks. Halfway through the round a thudding right forced the champion to hold. “El Terrible’s” advantages in power and strength were more and more evident, but the older man never stopped slinging shots as the crowd, exhorting him to dig even deeper, chanted “Zar-a-go-za! Zar-a-go-za!”

But the well was dry. A tired champion visibly slowed in round ten, Morales beating him to the punch again and again. Three sharp rights to the head and then a thunderous right to the body forced the champion to take a knee. Zaragoza rose and, showing astonishing courage, tried to force the fight again, coming forward behind those overhand swings.

HBO's Larry Merchant interviews the new champion
HBO’s Larry Merchant interviews the new champion

But he had nothing left. Morales was connecting at will and just before the bell, with his opponent on the ropes, he paused his attack, reluctant to mete out further punishment. At round’s end the two Mexican warriors, for the first time in the bout, touched gloves, as if to mark or acknowledge something. As they did, Morales appeared fired up and confident, while Zaragoza’s visage, lined and seamed like an old chunk of limestone by years of hard battling, bore a look of grim resignation.

Round eleven found the young challenger in complete control. The only question now was whether the proud old warrior, Mexico’s first four-time world champion, might hear the final bell. Morales couldn’t miss with either his right hand to the body or his right uppercut and with a minute left in the round the fight turned into what it had been threatening to become, a one-sided thrashing. Finally, mercifully, Morales landed one last huge right to the pit of Zaragoza’s stomach, the force of the blow launching the old warrior off his feet and onto his back. Rolling up to a sitting position, the soon-to-be ex-champion smiled and gestured with his fist at Morales as if to congratulate his conqueror. He didn’t bother to try and beat the count.

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And so youth was served and the torch was passed. Following the bout Zaragoza admitted he had reached the end of the road, ruefully remarking that while “today was bad,” if he kept fighting, “probably tomorrow will be worse.” He had made a gallant stand against his younger, more powerful opponent but it was time to move on. Meanwhile, the legend of “El Terrible” was just beginning and momentous showdowns against Marco Antonio Barrera and Manny Pacquiao awaited Morales. Like Zaragoza, he would eventually win four world titles and Hall of Fame status and when he fell to a young Danny Garcia in 2012, he had come full circle and it was his turn to finally walk away.

— Robert Portis

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