[PHOTO AT LEFT - Manny Pacquiao knocks down Erik Morales in the second round.]

LAS VEGAS, NOVEMBER 20, 2006 (STAR) By Abac Cordero - Filipino phenomenon Manny Pacquiao wove on the canvas of the Thomas and Mack Center a perfect tapestry of boxing brilliance and flair and turned his "Grand Finale" with Erik Morales into a career-defining victory.

The power-hitting Pacquiao pulled off a third-round knockout, knocking down the former three-time world champion two times before ending the final chapter of one of boxing’s most enduring trilogies with a searing left straight, with less than three seconds left in the fateful round.

The 27-year-old Pacquiao, who was running a fever before the fight, first knocked down Morales midway in the second round with a tremendous left. The seasoned Mexican went down on his knees, visibly jarred by the impact of the blow.

However, Morales, who was only a shell of the tenacious fighter who pounded the Filipino in their first encounter last year, rose from the knockdown and engaged Pacquiao in torrid exchanges at the bell.

But it was only a matter of time for the Mexican as the Filipino slugger stepped up the pace in the third, resulting in the second knockdown midway in the round before finally finishing him off with a flurry of power shots and right hooks nearing the end.

"I was faster than him. I was bigger than him. In the second round I could tell he was surprised by my right hook. So I kept throwing it," said Pacquiao, easily the stronger, more comfortable boxer at the fight’s weight limit of 130 pounds.

As referee Vic Drakulich signaled the end of the bout, the near-record crowd of 18,276 roared, most of them in approval of Pacquiao’s imposing win, while the others stood in shock at Morales swift defeat.

Thousands of Filipinos at the venue erupted in wild flag-waving celebration with Pacquiao’s 34th knockout in 43 victories against three defeats and two draws. Morales suffered his fourth loss in the last five fights, including three-in-a-row, against 48 wins with 34 KOs.

In the Philippines, cell phones flashed like a thousand eyes in darkened theaters, numbering close to a hundred all over the country, the moment Morales was counted out, relaying text messages to millions of fans. Millions more cheered on the streets, which were virtually deserted during the showdown, and in sporting venues and public plazas.

"This victory is for our people and the millions all over the world who support boxing," said Pacquiao in what has become his victory spiel the last three fights.

From Hanoi, where she is attending the summit of Pacific Rim leaders, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo lauded another victory by Pacquiao, who "will always be our hero, the bearer of the Filipino dream."

The fighters split their first two meetings, with Morales winning a unanimous decision and Pacquiao replying with a TKO over "El Terrible" in the second match last January.

Morales’ career could be in trouble with the devastating defeat. He lost two of his three fights in a previous trilogy against Marco Antonio Barrera whom the Filipino champion is expected to meet in March 2007 for the World Boxing Council super featherweight crown.

"I like that he came out early. I had time to knock him out. I am faster than him, quicker than him and superior to him. Now he can taste my power," said Pacquiao.

Morales was overwhelmed by Pacquiao’s unrelenting offensives and aggression and refused to heed the call of his corner to rise from the canvas on his third fall and accepted his fate.

"I looked to my corner. They encouraged me to get up but I said no. I was a beaten man tonight. He was faster and stronger and I did everything I could but Manny was just too good for me," Morales said.

For the Filipino southpaw, it was a fitting end to a rivalry that had all the drama and excitement, and certainly would rank among the toughest in boxing history.

In the many years to come, Pacquiao will be remembered not only by Filipinos as the only fighter to have stopped the hero from Tijuana — not only once but twice.

Morales, on the other hand, will be remembered, too, as the former champion with a lot of pride and great courage.

It was clear right from the start that Pacquiao was the better fighter as Morales seemed stunned after getting tagged by a lightning right hook to the head.

The first knockdown came in the 55-second mark of the second round. Morales had just connected with good, powerful punches when he took a big left to the side of the face.

Morales, slimmer this time than in his two previous bouts with Pacquiao, went down but got up quickly and even managed to trade heavy blows with Pacquiao at the bell.

Pacquiao looked at Morales before turning his back toward his corner. The way Morales ended the second round, it looked like he still had more to give.

Sensing a quick victory, Pacquiao fired a series of punches from almost every possible angle, most of them finding their mark. Another left to the face sent the Mexican down a second time.

With still 65 seconds left, Pacquiao went for the kill. But the Mexican just had too much pride to just roll over and traded punches, even scoring on his own.

Then came Pacquiao’s left straight to the chin that almost threw Morales out of the ring. Down on the seat of his pants, Morales had his back against the ropes.

Just as he was counted out, Morales was up on his feet. But this time, it was clear that he couldn’t continue. He was ushered to his corner and sat on the stool for almost 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, Pacquiao started to celebrate, his handlers joining him in the ring, and his fans shouting and almost blowing the roof of the TMC off.

Pacquiao waved the Philippine flag from all corners of the arena, smiling at the crowd, making the sign of the cross. He went to Morales’ corner and shook hands.

"I didn’t feel it was easy. We thought this was going to be a long fight. I was just too fast for him," said Pacquiao who earned at least $3 million (P150 million) for this fight, same as Morales.

"I was very surprised that the fight went this short. I think the weight loss was too much for Morales. We expected the fight to go much longer," said Freddie Roach. – With AP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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