Morales hits new gig out of the park

One of the biggest ovations on Saturday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas came when the director of parks and recreation in Tijuana, Mexico, was shown on the giant video boards in the arena just prior to the start of the super featherweight title fight between Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez.

This was no ordinary 9-to-5 employee, though.

The crowd recognized him not as the guy who organizes youth soccer leagues, but rather as one of the greatest boxers ever and a slam dunk Hall of Fame choice.

Erik Morales, who became one of Mexico's best-loved fighters during a 14-year career filled with epic battles, now spends his time managing a $3.5 million budget running the parks and recreation department in the poor Mexican border town of Tijuana, just south of San Diego.

Morales, who was born in 1976 in a cramped apartment above a ramshackle boxing gym in Tijuana, loves his job so much that he donates his salary back to the department to further help fund it.

"I have no need to hold a job, but I truly enjoy what I'm doing," said Morales, who was 48-6 with 34 knockouts and was involved in the Fight of the Year in 2000 and 2004, both times against Marco Antonio Barrera. "I made a lot of money in boxing and I didn't waste it, so I don't need to take money for this. I really enjoy helping the people here, especially the kids.

"If I can help someone learn to love sports and do better, it makes me feel good, too, so I think everybody is coming out ahead. This is just a way for me to be able to thank the people who have been so good to me all my life."

Morales had one of the most passionate followings of any Mexican boxer other than Julio Cesar Chavez. Despite speaking little English and fighting in weight classes that the American public largely ignored, Morales managed to become not only one of the game's most popular fighters but also a successful pay-per-view attraction.

In large part, it was because of his fearlessness and his willingness to take three punches to deliver one.

That reckless style, though, betrayed him toward the end of his career. After unifying two of the major super featherweight belts on July 31, 2004, against Carlos Hernandez at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas, Morales was 47-1 and musing about moving up in weight to fight pound-for-pound kingpin Floyd Mayweather Jr.

Morales, though, had little way to know that his glory days were all but over. In his next outing, he lost a brutal battle to Barrera, his long-time bitter rival, in what remains one of the fiercest bouts of the last 50 years.

That was the start of a downward spiral in which Morales lost five of his last six bouts. He seemingly retired after the last when he was beaten by David Diaz in Chicago on Aug. 5 for the WBC lightweight belt.

Morales complained after that fight of an odd feeling in his head and suggested he was done fighting.

But Morales says now that he plans to fight again, though not for a while. He said his problem was that he kept such a hectic pace over the years and didn't allow time for his body to recover.

He's going to fight again, he insists, but perhaps not until late 2009 or early 2010.

"I think I rushed into fights at the end of my career that I shouldn't have taken," Morales said. "I have pride, and I regret that in a way because I look at my record and I see those losses and I truly believe that wasn't me who lost those fights.

"If I had done what I should have done and taken a break and given my body a rest, I would have won those and I would have been talking to you a lot differently now.

Technically, I'm still a sound boxer, but my body wouldn't let me do what I knew how to do."

So, Morales plans to take off the rest of this year and all or most of next year and then come back to pursue another major bout. It wouldn't seem to be a bright move given the risk, but Morales insists he'll be fine.

"This is what I love to do and this is who I am," Morales said. "I just need to give my body the rest it was telling me to take for so long. I'm going to do that now and you'll see a big difference in me when I am back after I am rested."