- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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LAS VEGAS -- The first fight between junior lightweight stars Erik Morales and Manny Pacquiao here last March had been a spectacular brawl and a commercial success, generating almost 350,000 pay-per-view buys.
A rematch was a given.
Top Rank promoter Bob Arum envisioned it being even bigger and better than the first fight, and despite himself, he might get what he wished for when Morales and Pacquiao meet at the Thomas & Mack Center in a 12-round rematch Saturday night (HBO PPV, 9 ET).
However, rather than go directly to a second fight following the March classic, Arum, like any good promoter, wanted to stoke as much interest in it as possible.
So he convinced HBO to go along with his idea of putting Morales and Pacquiao in separate fights in September as a prelude to the rematch. In essence, Arum would get an additional payday for his company and the fighters and a two-hour-plus infomercial on HBO advertising a January rematch.
Despite two fights that figured to be walkover victories for the star attractions, the card dubbed "Double Trouble" drew a large crowd to the Staples Center in Los Angeles and a sizeable HBO audience.
Opening the broadcast, Pacquiao impressively stopped Hector Velazquez in the sixth round, rebounding from his loss to Morales and clearing his way to the rematch.
So far, so good.
Next up was Morales, who was making his debut as a lightweight against slick former U.S. Olympian Zahir Raheem.
But barely two rounds into the fight it was obvious this was not going to be Morales' night. He looked out of shape and became increasingly frustrated as Raheem toyed with him.
"I was embarrassed by the way I fought," Morales said. "After the second round that was not me. It was my worst performance."
Throughout Morales' stunning decision loss, the HBO cameras would catch glimpses of a downtrodden Pacquiao and his promoter, Gary Shaw, both of whom looked sick as their big payday rematch appeared to be going out the window.
Sitting in the front row, Arum also looked ill during the fight.
"We thought, 'Gee, this might kill it,'" said Shelly Finkel, Pacquiao's co-manager. "We didn't think going in that Erik could lose. I was worried that the rematch wouldn't happen."
In the ring afterward, however, Arum had a change of heart. Why not do the rematch anyway?
"I was obviously devastated watching the fight, but then I reasoned with myself that people would perceive the fight how I saw it -- that Erik was just out of shape and not prepared," Arum said.
"The first [Morales-Pacquiao] fight was great and I thought that Erik losing to Raheem wouldn't impact the rematch because people would figure it would be just as good as the first fight."
Just before the press conference following Morales' loss, Arum briefly met with Finkel.
"I sat down with Bob and he said, 'We'll work it out.' We agreed and we are just glad that the rematch is happening," Finkel said.
Morales' loss actually wound up benefiting Pacquiao. Instead of Pacquiao receiving a guaranteed $1.75 million to Morales' $2.75 million, Finkel negotiated an additional $250,000 guarantee, bringing Pacquiao's minimum for the rematch to $2 million.
"I gave it to them. I wasn't going to argue," Arum said. "I figured the rematch would still be a hot fight."
So the rematch is on and Arum's reasoning might prove to be accurate.
Host casino Wynn Las Vegas is buzzing with patrons, including many from Pacquiao's native Philippines, anticipating a great fight.
Arum said more than 13,000 tickets already have been sold -- and that's before the expected large walk-up crowd of Morales fans that typically arrives from Mexico on the day of his fights. And all indications from HBO PPV are that the fight is headed toward robust sales figures.
Morales said what happened in the fight with Raheem has no bearing on the rematch with Pacquiao, whom he narrowly outpointed after nearly being knocked out in the 12th round.
"It was just a bad night," Morales said of the Raheem fight.
"Nothing I tried worked. His style was tough. I knew he was a difficult fighter but I didn't think he was that difficult. But Raheem never wanted to fight. I just didn't have it that night. I blame the guy's style and a lot of movement. He would never stop and trade. If I didn't go after him, there would have been no fight.
"But Pacquiao and myself always want to fight, so it will be another great fight even if I did lose."
Other reasons have been given for Morales' poor performance: The move to lightweight; Morales' impending marriage; a balky elbow; and disharmony in training camp with his father/trainer Jose Morales, who has since been replaced by Jose Lopez Sr.
Whatever the reasons, Morales manager, Fernando Beltran, said the problems are behind him.
"The people from the Philippines think that they have a chance to see the same Erik they saw against Raheem, but that's not happening," Beltran said.
"Erik took this fight very seriously and he is healthy. I think he took Raheem lightly. I didn't see the Morales I always see. Probably, the [additional] weight hurt, too. But today he is very focused."
Arum believes Morales' loss, and the uncertainty about him, make the rematch even bigger than had he defeated Raheem.
"Erik was over his normal weight and out of shape," Arum said.
"Unless he's really motivated he won't give a good performance. Well, he's motivated as hell for this fight. And the Filipino fans are emboldened by Morales' loss, and they really believe their guy will win this fight.
"I think Erik losing actually makes this a better fight. I wouldn't have thought that standing in the ring after the fight in September, but because Erik lost and Manny won that night, a lot of people are giving Pacquiao a much better shot in this fight."
Should Pacquiao defeat Morales to even their series 1-1, the contract does call for a third fight. But rather than tempt fate again, it calls for an immediate one this time.
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.
Coming off a stunning September loss to Zahir Raheem, Erik Morales has even more motivation to beat junior lightweight rival Manny Pacquiao again in their rematch.