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Old rivals meet as dear friends at Nevada Hall of Fame dinner

Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales pose for a photo during an L.A. press conference for their anticipated rematch. The vacant Ring Magazine featherweight title was on the line. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
Fighters Network

LAS VEGAS – There were memories. There were few a tears. There were laughs. There was no bitterness. No punches either. The fifth annual Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame dinner was a lot of things, including a friendship unimaginable about 15 years ago.

Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera are buddies long after a rivalry as contentious and bitter as any in boxing’s modern history.

But there they were, old enemies in an alliance as unlikely as ever at Caesars Palace. Barrera introduced Morales, one of nine fighters inducted to the Nevada Hall Saturday night.

“I want to congratulate a great champion and my dear, dear friend,’’ said Barrera, who lost a wild split decision at junior featherweight to Morales in 2000 and went on to win rematches at featherweight in 2002 and junior lightweight in 2004.

Then Morales countered with gratitude instead of a left hook. Among other things, each inductee was awarded a ring. Morales turned to Barrera and said he wanted to give his ring to his dear friend. In the spontaneous exchange, the ring tumbled out of the box through their hands and onto the floor. Quickly, they both reached down to recover it. Then, they smiled, this time laughing like old friends instead of sworn enemies.

It was that kind of a night, which continued with Sugar Ray Leonard’s introduction of Thomas Hearns.

“He’s a guy who has been my dear friend for a long time now,’’ said Leonard, who stopped Hearns in an epic welterweight fight in 1981 on back lot, also at Caesars. “”I won that fight.’’

But Leonard then conceded that his friend paid him back in a forgettable rematch at super middleweight in 1989.

“He beat my ass,’’ Leonard said.

Hearns smiled at the memory and Leonard.

“My roughest fight, but now my best friend,’’ said Hearns, the last inductee in a 2017 class that also included Michael Carbajal, Richie Sandoval, the late Ken Norton, Lucia Rijker, the late Salvador Sanchez, Michael Spinks and his brother Leon.

Rapper Flavor Flav introduced an ailing Leon Spinks, who is best remembered for his 1978 upset of Muhammad Ali.

For Sandoval and Carbajal, the ceremony was a fitting moment. Their careers were linked in 1988.  Twenty-nine years later, they were together again, linked by their inductions to the same Hall on the same night.

It was Sandoval who talked Top Rank promoter Bob Arum into signing Carbajal, who had won a silver medal at the Seoul Olympics. Arum was reluctant.

Carbajal, a junior-flyweight from Phoenix, fought in a division that in those days was hard to sell. But Sandoval, a bantamweight, told Arum there might be a big future at a weight as forgotten as it was diminutive. Turned out, there were also some big bucks at the small end of the scale too.

Carbajal became the first fighter at 108 pounds to collect $1 million for a 1994 rematch with rival Humberto Gonzalez, who won a controversial decision and went on to collect $1 million in the third step of a trilogy that began with Carbajal getting up from two knockdowns for a dramatic stoppage in THE RING’s 1993 Fight of the Year at the then Las Vegas Hilton.

Their purses still stand as the record for the sport’s little guys. No fighter at 108 pounds, or 112 for that matter, has ever collected $1 million since then.

Top Rank publicist Lee Samuels told the story about how Sandoval persuaded a skeptical Arum to sign Carbajal.

“Michael turned out to be one of the great, great fighters in Top Rank history,’’ Samuels said in his introduction of Sandoval to the dinner crowd. “Thank you, Ritchie Sandoval.’’

In the end, it was that kind of night. There were thanks all around for a fifth Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame class, which also includes publicist Debbie Munch, cutman Rafael Garcia, late matchmaker Mel Greb, late referee Davey Pearl and Dr. Elias Ghanem, a 14-year member of the Nevada State Athletic Commission who died in 2001.