Morel retains title on decision; Super flyweight champ defeats Granados; St. John, Esch win


LAS VEGAS -- Puerto Rico won the first round of last night's Puerto Rican-Mexican boxing rivalry at the sold-out Mandalay Bay events center.

Eric Morel, nicknamed "The Little Hands of Steel," defended his International Boxing Association continental Super Flyweight title by unanimous decision over Miguel Angel Granados (19-9-1) of Mexico before a growing crowd in the 12,000 capacity arena.

The fight was the third on a seven-bout undercard of the welterweight title unification clash between World Boxing Council champ Oscar De La Hoya (31-0, 25 knockouts), a Mexican American, and International Boxing Federation king Felix Trinidad (35-0, 30 KOs) of Puerto Rico.

The 115-pound Morel (23-0), who grew up in San Juan but now lives in Madision, Wis., got the Puerto Rican contingent going in the first round when it appeared he would score his 17th knockout.

In that round, Morel fired four straight jabs before dropping Granados to his back with a straight right hand to the jaw. Morel also wobbled Granados in the 11th round, chased him to the ropes where he landed three more blows, but could not take him out.

Morel won by 118-108 on two cards, and 117-109, on the third, but it turned out the hands of steel were a little softer than usual: Morel said he injured the second knuckle on his right hand in the second round, and sprained his left hand in the fourth.

"I hurt both hands early in the fight. I couldn't throw my combinations," said Morel, who was awarded the first round, 10-7, after Granados was penalized for his repeated low blows. "I couldn't get into a zone."

Over the second-through-ninth rounds of their fight, Morel settled into a rhythm. Morel redened the face of the on-coming Granados with counter-hooks and over-hand or straight rights. Morel also timed his jab and worked off of it effectively. A frustrated Granados was warned for holding in the 10th round after cupping Morel's head and nailing him with several uppercuts.

The night also featured 126-pound Mia St. John (13-0, eight knockouts) of Canoga, Park, Calif., who is dubbed the "Queen of the Four Rounders."

Heavyweight Eric "Butterbean" Esch (46-1-2, 35 knockouts), who is called "The King of the Four Rounders," also was featured.

St. John, a 32-year-old mother of two who was 27-1 as a Tae Kwon Do blackbelt competitor, scored the knockout at 1: 40 of the fourth round after repeated blows to the face of Kelly Downey (3-2, three KOs). St. John's is the IBA champ.

The night's first bout featured Tony Marshall (33-7-6) of Guyana, the World Boxing Council's No. 1-ranked super welterweight contenter, winning his 11th straight fight, unanimously, against journeyman Verdell Smith (36-30).

"I am the No. 1 contender," said Marshall, who won, 79-73, on the cards of two judges, and, 78-73, on the third. "I want to fight Javier Castillejo (World Boxing Council champ), Fernando Vargas (International Boxing Federation) or David Reid (Word Boxing Association). I'm ready right now."

Marshall's winning streak includes a 10-round decision over Keith Mullings, who recently went the distance in a title-bout loss to Reid. Last night, Marshall simply hammered away at the retreating Smith over much of their eight-round bout but couldn't muster what would have been only his 13th knockout.

World Boxing Orgaization champ Johnny Nelson (35-12-1, 24 KOs), a chisled specimen from Sheffield England, defended his cruiserweight crown against Sione Vatti Asipeli (15-2-2), winning the 12-round bout by decision in a fairly uneventful bout.

Nelson back-peddled much of the fight, during which the Tonga native willingly followed and was an easy target before being dropped with a right hook to the chin in the 10th. Nelson did not move in to finish him off, however, and the woeful contest went the distance.

"I was in complete control," said Nelson, who won every round (119-107) on two cards, and all but one (118-108) on the third. "He could take a punch, that was about it. It was a lot like sparring with a tough kid who came forward, but I had no problems. I really want to fight (IBF champ) Vassiliy Jirov."

Esch (47-1-2) got his 36th knockout when he cornered Ken Craven in the second round and rained repeated blows off of his head, forcing the referee to end it at 1: 55 of the round.

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