EL PASO, Texas — Boxing can slip in and steal your heart, your soul.

The El Paso Times (http://bit.ly/2ddwhij ) reports it is a hard knock life, a Spartan life and it is not for everyone. But for those special few, it is everything. Everything.

It was another time, another place. But the memories are vivid. All those years ago, the boxing would come on the television and the small boy would slip socks onto his tiny fists and hit anything in sight — doors, walls, anything. Boxing took his heart, his soul.

Fernie Morales, that little boy in Mexico, is 51 today. He is one of the truly nice people in this world. He works with children, works with families and he honestly cares about them all. He is a happy man living a happy life. But he still has boxing in his soul. And he will never forget the moment that he will never remember.

It was 25 years ago last Wednesday. It was Sept. 21, 1991. It was that special dream moment, the moment he had dreamed about since he was that little boy pounding his sock-fists into doors and walls and such. Everything in his life led him to that moment.

And that moment almost took his life.

“I was supposed to fight a guy by the name of Raul Perez somewhere … I forget where,” Morales said. “He backed out of the fight and so I took some time off. It wasn’t too bad because I didn’t drink or smoke or have any bad habits. But I relaxed, took some time off and I gained some weight. Then we got the call. I got the opportunity to fight Orlando Canizales for the IBF bantamweight world championship in Indio. In two weeks.

“My dad (father Frank was trainer and manager) didn’t want me to take the fight on such short notice,” Morales said. “But I just kept begging him. Please, Dad, please. I can kick this guy’s butt. When am I going to get another chance? Please, Dad.”

And so the fight happened. And the world of Fernie Morales was flipped upside down.

He fought Canizales on a scorching hot Saturday afternoon in the California desert town of Indio. Canizales was one of the greats, a young man from Laredo, Texas, who went on to set the record for most title defenses by a bantamweight champion; 16 consecutive defenses. Canizales won a unanimous decision and dropped Morales twice along the way. It was the only time Morales was ever knocked down in his boxing career.

It was a good fight and the two men went their separate ways. But Morales, who was complaining of a bad headache in his locker room, collapsed in the parking lot. He was rushed to John F. Kennedy hospital in Indio and lapsed into a coma. Everyone feared for his life.

Dr. Ali Tahmouresie, who removed a blood clot from Morales’ head, told the El Paso Times, “We put him on medication to reduce the swelling of the brain. At that time, we had no idea how much body movement or brain damage there would be.”

Remember, though, boxing was and is in Fernie Morales’ soul. He is a fighter.

Miraculously, this little fighter with the giant heart came out of the coma one week later.

Miraculously, he returned home to El Paso one month to the day after the fight. A crowd of more than 200 greeted him at the airport. Some wore T-shirts proclaiming El Paso’s Campeon. Morales greeted everyone. He saw one friend and reached a hand out over a row of chairs and said, “Come around here and give me a hug.” After the hug, he said softly, “Well, I’ll never fight again. But, at least I’m here.”

And, despite the heartbreak of a career lost — a love affair lost — that was everything to his family, his friends, his fans.

“I’ve never been able to remember anything about that fight,” Morales said recently. “I remember running in someplace really hot. But that’s it. I’ve watched the tape of the fight and it’s like I’m watching someone else — only it’s me. I remember when the doctor told me in the hospital that I would never fight again. It broke my heart. There’s not a day that I don’t think about boxing. I know I could have been a world champion one day. I know it.”

No one will ever know.

Immediately after the fight, Canizales said, “He’s a tough fighter. You can’t say he’ll never win a world title.”

Mike Marley, a boxing writer for the New York Post back then, told the Times after the fight, “Fernie put himself on the bantamweight map.”

Lester Bedford, a longtime fight promoter and one who promoted some of the earlier Morales fights, said, “It looked like he had a chance. He was such an exciting little fighter. You certainly thought that he might win a world championship someday. You knew one thing. It was going to be a rough night for whoever he fought — win or lose.”

Morales was bred for it, pouring his soul into that sport he loved. His family moved from Gómez Palacio, Mexico, to East Los Angeles and then to El Paso. Morales graduated from Jefferson High. But he was gone a lot. He was so gifted he was picked up by the U.S. National team. He trained for periods of time at the National Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

He traveled the world, fighting the best from every nation. He was named fighter of the tournament on more than one occasion, earning that honor over celebrated teammates like Mike Tyson and Meldrick Taylor.

He put together an outstanding amateur record of 101-7 and he lost in the 1984 Olympic Trial finals to Robert Shannon — despite dropping Shannon twice. A disappointed Morales turned professional in 1985 and began to put together an equally impressive professional record. He was 28-4, losing three split decisions, going into that fateful, scorching afternoon in Indio — the afternoon that he would be forced to bid farewell to boxing.

Life changed for Morales on that day 25 years ago. Twenty-five years. It whips past in the blink of an eye … it crawls past one tough day at a time.

Morales had to stop boxing. But he never stopped fighting.

He went through a long and tedious and sometimes painful rehabilitation — one day at a time, one foot after another, always fighting. He got better and better. He finished his associate degree at El Paso Community College in 1998. And he has always worked with children and their families. He cares about them the way he cares about boxing. Sometimes he will train young fighters, sometimes working with his nephews.

Years later, Canizales told the Times, “I was shocked (when he heard Morales had gone to the hospital). Fernie was the aggressor the whole fight. When I heard they’d taken him to the hospital, I just thought it might be for cuts. It was hard for me, too. I’m just so glad he’s OK now.”

Morales has five wonderful children and 10 grandchildren these days. He is in constant contact with his brother and three sisters. He has family and friends wrapped all around him.

“I’m so blessed,” he said.

He also has a legacy. Bedford got involved in boxing and in the El Paso boxing scene with Morales. He saw that the Sun City has a boxer’s soul. Morales was enormously popular and could go nowhere in El Paso and across the border, in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, without a pause to sign autographs. And he always signed.

The success of Morales got Bedford to do more and more events — world title fights like Jorge Paez and Steve Cruz and Canizales against Paul Gonzales and, of course, the fight that drew more than 40,000 in Sun Bowl Stadium, Oscar De La Hoya against Patrick Charpentier.

“Fernie is responsible for all those fights, even the big one with Oscar,” Bedford said. “He is 100 percent responsible for all that. I would have never pursued it if Fernie hadn’t shown me how popular he was, how much El Pasoans love boxing. And Fernie is such a nice person. He was a public relations dream because he was so nice. He would do anything. It just crushed me when he got hurt. Thank God he came through it. Not only did he come through it, he became a productive citizen and just a good guy in the community.”

Boxing can indeed steal your soul.

But every fighter knows the truth. They are the courageous ones who step into that squared-off jungle that is a boxing ring, that jungle where dreams go to live and die. Boxers know they walk life’s lonely highway, striding gallantly down that center stripe, knowing the joy of victory is on one side, utter disaster on the other side. Yet they walk on.

Fernie Morales continues to walk on. He lost his dream, his heart and soul, his love on a sizzling hot day in the California desert 25 years ago.

But he continued to fight, continued to make a wonderful life for himself and his family and his friends and even his fans — even with the loss of boxing that lives in his soul.

“That broke my heart and I think about it a lot,” he said. “But I know I am so blessed. I am truly blessed.”

And on he walks.

Information from: El Paso Times, http://www.elpasotimes.com

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the El Paso Times