- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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LAS VEGAS -- When a fight between Erik Morales and lightweight champ Juan Manuel Marquez wound up not being finalized because Marquez decided to sit out, waiting for a possible fight with Manny Pacquiao, Morales had an idea.
He and Golden Boy Promotions matchmaker Eric Gomez were on the phone going over possible opponents and, one by one, they were either not available or not to Morales' liking.
Finally, Morales told Gomez he had an idea. He wanted to fight "that guy from Argentina, that good puncher. I know how to beat him."
Morales was talking about brawler Marcos Maidana, who had knocked out Victor Ortiz in 2009 in a big upset and pushed junior welterweight titlist Amir Khan to the brink in a decision loss in a fantastic December slugfest that was named the Boxing Writers Association of America fight of the year in 2010.
Gomez thought Morales was crazy. The staff at Golden Boy thought the same. But Morales insisted. He wanted the fight.
Maidana was a willing participant and that is what they did. There were cries in some quarters that it was a slaughter, that Maidana would crush the once-great former three-division champion and Mexican icon.
Morales, after all, retired in 2007 after four consecutive losses. And when he came out of retirement in 2010, he fought three times, won three times, but did not overly impress anyone.
But he sure impressed on Saturday night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, where 7,154 fans (mostly of Morales) watched him turn back the clock -- despite losing a majority decision in a clear fight of the year candidate that lived up to the HBO PPV card's "Action Heroes" billing. (The fight, along with the Robert Guerrero-Michael Katsidis and Nobuhiro Ishida-James Kirkland undercard bouts, will be replayed on HBO Latino at 10 p.m. ET Friday.)
Morales lived up to that old boxing adage that is not always true, but was on this night: Every great champion has one more big performance left in him.
"A lot of people said this was a mismatch and a wipeout, but Morales said he saw something in Maidana and he was right even though he didn't get the decision," Golden Boy promoter Richard Schaefer said. "It was a great fight."
The drama began immediately because Morales had to fight virtually the entire bout with a badly swollen right eye, which blew up after getting nailed with an uppercut in the opening minute of combat.
But Morales, a former champion at junior featherweight, featherweight and junior lightweight, has always been a warrior.
He was undeterred.
"I fought with my heart and with Mexico," Morales said.
"This was my toughest fight ever," Maidana said. "But I knew it would be, so I prepared for that."
There was outstanding action throughout the bout. There was great ebb and flow. Maidana won the early rounds, but Morales got into a rhythm as the fight wore on. He opened up big-time in the fifth round, when he got Maidana in serious trouble along the ropes as he snapped his head back.
As they traded fierce shots, the crowd was on its feet and chanting "Mexico! Mexico! Mexico" as Morales (51-7, 35 KOs) peppered Maidana (30-2, 27 KOs) with hard right hands.
He also hurt Maidana with an uppercut at the end of the sixth round and had him in trouble again.
If you did not know it was 2011, you could swear you were watching the Morales of old, the one who waged a sensational trilogy with Marco Antonio Barrera and Manny Pacquiao -- whose last loss was to Morales in 2005.
"He turned back the clock and he showed what he still has," Schaefer said. "He went toe-to-toe with one of the hardest punchers in the sport. We saw the old Erik Morales tonight, no question about it."
The upset seemed to be brewing and the crowd seemed to be able to sense it. Morales wobbled Maidana in the eighth round, but Maidana, despite breathing heavily, continued to press forward as he closed out the fight winning the final two rounds on all three official scorecards, which read 116-112, 116-112 and 114-114. ESPN.com also had it 114-114.
The crowd was not happy with the decision, raining boos down, but Maidana, who earned $500,000, was overjoyed as he picked up a vacant interim junior welterweight title for the second time in his career.
"I wanted a strong fight, but I trained to fight," Maidana said.
"Morales is a good, strong fighter. He should continue to fight. The fight was close, but I came out strong at the end. He had a lot of technique."
Morales, who made $250,000 in base purse but will make more from Mexican television revenue and a percentage of the American pay-per-view profits, did not sound like a fighter headed back to retirement after such a spirited performance.
"I'm gonna do what the people want me to do -- a rematch," Morales said.
Maidana, standing next to him in the ring, was open to the idea.
"I'll give you a rematch," he said. "Any time. Tomorrow."
But Maidana also said he wanted a fight with Marquez, who put the kibosh on his trainer, Nacho Beristain, training Maidana. That forced Maidana to find a new trainer in Rudy Perez, another of Mexico's top cornermen, just as he was supposed to open training camp in Mexico.
Morales thought he should have won.
"I'm a good fighter from Tijuana," he boasted. "I think it was a close fight, but to give him a clean win is ridiculous. What did you see? I think I won the fight. My punches were crisper and they were better. I threw better punches."
So what the heck did Morales see that made him want to fight Maidana?
"I still have speed and velocity and, more importantly, dignity and heart," he said of his decision. "I thought I was better than him."
It could have gone either way.
"Some have Morales winning, some have Maidana," Schaefer said. "But it was definitely a fight of the year candidate. The people who saw this were treated to something special."