11/29/2004 12:00AM

A fight destined to become a classic


LAS VEGAS - Barrera-Morales III lived up to its billing - and then some.

Saturday night's super featherweight title bout between Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales at the MGM Grand Garden Arena is sure to be 2004's fight of the year and will be included among the great boxing matches, right there with the Ali-Frazier trilogy.

The scene was electric. I was in Row A of the press section, behind only the HBO crew and the CompuBox staff that compiles all the punching statistics. I was close enough to see the sweat on the boxers' foreheads and also close enough to get hit by the spray when they got hit near the ropes.

Barrera and Morales both entered to the music of their native Mexico, but the real music was the roar of the cheering fans that numbered 11,162. It was so loud that you could barely hear ring announcer Michael Buffer when he belted out his patented "Let's get ready to ruuuuuummmble!" No joke.

It sounded like more people were cheering for Morales, the reigning champion, and that was reflected in the fact the betting line on Morales had been bet from an opening of -115 (risk $1.15 for every $1 you want to win) all the way to -320. But the cheering was also boisterous for Barrera, probably as bettors with tickets on him were getting 2-1 or the closing price of 5-2 on a fight that should have been pick-em between these two great champions.

Unlike many hyped fights in which the combatants dance around and feel each other out, Barrera and Morales went at it right away. That's partly because they had fought each other twice and knew each other's moves, but also because these two really despise each other and were there to fight.

Morales started bleeding from his right nostril in the second round after taking some hard shots, but it didn't slow him down. To the contrary. Morales was often the aggressor, but Barrera demonstrated more power. Often, Morales would throw a flurry of punches, but then Barrera would back him off with one solid shot, including once in the fifth round when Morales had Barrera against the ropes and it looked like Barrera could be in trouble, but he punched his way out.

The stronger punches took their toll on Morales, who needed an ice pack to the face after the 10th round, but he never backed down and never went down. The final rounds were fought toe-to-toe with a minimum of leaning on each other like we see in heavyweight bouts. If anything, it was Barrera who was running out of gas at the end, but every time it looked like he didn't have anything left, he would have a flurry of his own.

After the end of the 12th round - it was a -175 favorite to go the distance - both fighters were carried around by their cornermen, and rightfully so.

One judge's scorecard - Paul Smith - had the fight at 114-114, which is what I had scored it with six rounds apiece, though I felt Barrera was more convincing in his winning rounds. Judge Jerry Roth had it 115-113 for Barrera and Larry O'Connell scored it 115-114 for Barrera. The discrepancy is that he scored the 11th round a tie at 10-10 although Nevada rules say you're not supposed to do that.

Bob Arum, who promotes Morales and is obviously biased, correctly pointed out at the post-fight press conference that if O'Connell had scored the 11th round at 10-9 for Morales as the other two judges had, that it would have been 114-114 on his scorecard and it would have been declared a draw.

If that snafu leads to a Barrera-Morales IV, I don't think anyone will complain.

For those who missed it, HBO is planning to replay the bout on Saturday as part of its boxing card with the William Joppy fight. Airtime for the Joppy fight is live at 10:45 p.m. Eastern and on tape at 10:45 p.m. Pacific.

Early football line moves

But now it's back to football. Bettors fired away Sunday night when the opening lines were put up for this weekend's games.

Thursday night's Mid-American Conference title game, to be played at Ford Field in Detroit and televised by ESPN, between Miami-Ohio and Toledo opened at the Stardust at pick-em and Miami-Ohio was bet to a 1-point favorite.

There was no movement in the two major conference championship games on Saturday as Auburn opened as a 12 1/2-point favorite over Tennessee and Oklahoma opened as a 21 1/2-point favorite over Colorado.

Those teams are both trying to earn the right to meet Southern Cal in the BCS title game, assuming USC beats UCLA on Saturday. USC opened as a 19-point favorite but was bet to 20 1/2 within the first hour of wagering (which is what the accompanying chart represents). By Monday morning, USC was up to a 22-point favorite around town.

In the NFL, seven out of the 11 available games were bet enough to move off the opening number. In colleges, it was four out of 10.

Early NFL totals bettors went 3-0 last week (improving to 21-13 on the year as a solid market indicator), and there were three such moves for the upcoming week, all to the under, in the Falcons-Buccaneers, Giants-Redskins, and Steelers-Jaguars games.

Early college football line moves

Took moneyOpenBet ToOpponent
*Miami-Ohio (Thu.)PK-1Toledo
Southern Cal-19-20.5UCLA
SOUTH FLORIDA+8.5+7.5Pittsburgh

Early NFL line moves

Took moneyOpenBet ToOpponent
Bengals+7+7 (-120)RAVENS
Vikings-7 (+100)-7BEARS
DOLPHINS+3.5+3 (+100)Bills
JAGUARS+4+3 (+100)Steelers
Cowboys+8.5+7 (+100)SEAHAWKS
Falcons-Bucsunder 40.539.5  
Giants-Redskinsunder 3433  
Steelers-Jaguarsunder 3735.5  

*-MAC Championship Game in Detroit; #-Army vs. Navy in Philadelphia.

Last week: The early college bettors went 4-2 against the Stardust's opening numbers and now stand at 90-83 (52 percent) on the year. The NFL bettors went 2-2 on sides and are 18-21 (46 percent) on the season. NFL totals bettors continue to fare better as they went 3-0 to improve to 21-13 (62 percent).

Home team in CAPS