Thursday, March 17, 2005 | 10:35 a.m.
Supporters of Manny Pacquiao in Saturday's 130-pound showdown against Erik Morales point to their man's electrifying performance in the early going of his most recent fight in Las Vegas.
In a featherweight world title bout last May at the MGM Grand, Pacquiao used his left hook to send defending champion Juan Manuel Marquez to the canvas three times in the first round.
But Pacquiao's detractors counter that he neglected to finish the job. Marquez recovered, rallying down the stretch to escape with a draw in a highly entertaining fight.
Pacquiao (39-2-2, 30 knockouts) said he is prepared to go the distance again, if need be, on Saturday against Morales (47-2, 34 KOs) in a super featherweight fight at the MGM Grand Garden Arena that's shaping up as one of the best matches of the year.
Even Pacquiao acknowledged the action in the ring could rival Morales' three memorable brawls, encompassing 36 rounds, with Marco Antonio Barrera.
"I know he's ready to fight, and I am too," Pacquiao said Wednesday at a news conference at the MGM. "Both fighters are in 100 percent top condition. It could be like Barrera-Morales, about who has the harder punches."
The scheduled 12-rounder will be available on HBO Pay Per View ($44.95 suggested retail price).
Pacquiao, who doesn't waste words, didn't want to talk much about the Marquez fight or its hotly disputed decision, saying it's better left in the past. He did say he plans to leave no doubt this time.
"I'm not thinking about losing at all, no way," Pacquiao said. "I'm not thinking about anything but victory."
Freddie Roach, who trains Pacquiao, studied his fighter's performance against Marquez with an eye toward making some adjustments.
"We want to make him a two-handed fighter," Roach said. "We're working on developing his right hand more. Manny has so much confidence in his left that he ended up relying on it too much in the Marquez fight.
"He's got good power in his right, but he didn't have the same kind of confidence in it. We've worked on building up that confidence."
No official title belt is at stake Saturday, although the bout is being hailed in general terms as the "world super featherweight championship," and as a clash between two proud, fighting cultures.
Pacquiao, 26, is from the Philippines. Morales, 28, of Tijuana, has become emblematic of the hard-charging Mexican style of boxing so popular with the sport's fans.
"It would be an honor for my country and my countrymen to beat one of the world's top boxers," Pacquiao said.
Morales, whose two losses have come to Barrera, has never been stopped.
"I know (Pacquiao) is a warrior," Morales said. "People from his country are very strong people. But a Mexican never retreats. We're gonna (stand) right in front of him all night."
Murad Muhammad, Pacquiao's promoter, said the bout was made because both fighters said they wanted the toughest opponent available, regardless of rankings by the sport's sanctioning bodies.
Fans approve: More than 12,500 tickets have been sold in the arena, which will be configured for 14,500.
"(Morales) does not give a damn who he fights, as long as he fights the best," Muhammad said. "My boxer feels the same way."
Pacquiao, a southpaw, made his pro debut as a 106-pounder in 1995. He won world titles at flyweight and super bantamweight, and made a big-time name for himself when he dismantled Barrera in 2003, a victory that led to the title shot against Marquez.
"There's a big difference in Barrera's and Morales' styles," Pacquiao said. "Morales' (strength) is his long arms and his left hand. Barrera's a counterpuncher; he's got good footwork, good defense and a big uppercut."
It's possible Pacquiao's victory against Barrera provides extra motivation for Morales -- surely he'd like to beat "the man who beat the man." Morales, however, downplayed that notion as well as the idea he's out to settle the score for his fellow Mexicans, Barrera and Marquez, on Saturday.
Morales is looking to rebound after losing to Barrera in his most recent fight last November at the MGM.
"I'm not thinking about revenge for the other two guys," Morales said. "Of course I want to fight well for my country, but I'm not doing it for those guys. ...
"The other two guys have different styles than I do. I'm willing to box (Pacquiao) if I have to, and I can also exchange with him."
Roach predicted it'll be the latter.
"Morales is hittable," Roach said. "Let's face it, he's not a hard guy to find in there. He'll stand there and he'll fight back."
Bettors have a slight lean toward Pacquiao. According to odds at the MGM Grand sports book, Pacquiao is a minus-135 favorite after opening at minus-120 earlier this year. Morales is a plus-115 underdog.
Morales' longtime manager Fernando Beltran offered to bet $100,000 on his fighter straight-up after he said he got wind of some brash talk from Camp Pacquiao -- predictions of a knockout in the first or second round.
"Erik Morales has been cut, he's been hurt, he's been in fights," Beltran said. "He will never back down. He will never say, that's the end."
Beltran's challenge went unaccepted, but perhaps not unacceptable to Pacquiao, a sporting type who evidently feels at ease amid Las Vegas gambling.
A report in a Manila newspaper said he won a few bucks at a blackjack table this week. And after Wednesday's news conference, Pacquiao -- who hustled pool in his leaner years and owns fighting roosters in the Philippines -- held a couple of glossy photos as if they were playing cards and said, "Hey, ace-king suited."
On the record, Pacquiao and Roach expressed only respect for Morales.
"We're ready to go 12 hard rounds if that's what it comes to," Roach said. "I don't know where that (trash talk) came from. It didn't come from me."
Likewise, Morales has been complimentary of Pacquiao -- a contrast to the personal animosity that simmers between Morales and Barrera.
"I have nothing against him," Morales said. "I can't be thinking about that. All I know is he represents a very important part of my career."
*Exact weight to be determined at official weigh-in Friday