Andre Berto never was or will be what HBO tried to make him out to be….
Though the carefully maneuvered prizefighter has been a mainstay on the airwaves of the premium pay network for around six years, there is a truth about him that has taken that length of that time to emerge.
His gaudy speed and seemingly heavy hands were promising to everyone at first glance, but petty annoyances built up among the fighting fan base… Little things, like his penchant for barking with every thrown punch; he thuggish sneer he liked to put on his face; and certainly at times the sycophantic fandom that HBO announcers seemed to shower on him.
None of these things in and of themselves would have been too grating were it not for the fact that nearly all of his showcase spots on the HBO Boxing After Dark series came against undersized has-beens beyond their best years and weight classes.
What Berto’s loss to Robert Guerrero this past Saturday underlined again, in the third great bout of the young man’s career, is this: He has elite level speed.
He has elite level heart.
He has the chin of a journeyman.
By his 13th fight Berto had been seeing big screen time on both Showtime and HBO and it was then that his consistent run of high profile slots on premium cable really ramped up… while conversely his next seven opponents’ credentials took a dive, notching a combined record of 178-102-14.
Men like Miguel Figueroa and Norberto Bravo became the norm — smallish sacrificial journeymen to pad the record and offer up knockout highlight reel fodder. The hype machine was building a fighter with blazing fast hands, big clubbing power, and a willingness to go bombs away on laughably baleful little men.
While all these attributes were underscored again and again in this string of “scintillating” performances, something was flying under the radar. All of these opponents, whether by natural size or strength lacked one thing: the power to dent a soda can.
The first real sign of Berto’s Achilles heel arrived when he stepped off HBO and headlined an ESPN Friday Night Fights card in Saratoga Springs, New York in mid 2007.
On that night he put on his best menacing face and stared across the ring at Cosme Rivera. Best known for his comprehensive 3rd round TKO loss two years earlier to Zab Judah, Rivera arrived as another pre-packaged, if experienced, victim for Berto to beat on until someone humanely stopped it.
What happened instead was a savvy veteran fighter exposing a career-defining chink in the armor of a young talent.
In the 6th round of their fight, Rivera timed a Berto bomb and clipped the kid flush on the jaw. Berto crumpled to the mat like a spoiled sack of potatoes. The crowd, the announcers, the trainers, Berto… all were shocked by the sudden revelation.
Berto smiled sheepishly, as though maybe he wasn’t entirely shocked and got to his feet looking dazed. A problem with his glove bought precious extra moments in the corner between rounds. Shades of Cassius Clay and Henry Cooper were evoked, where boxing lore tells that Trainer Angelo Dundee opened a tear in Clay’s glove to buy time after the future Muhammad Ali’s first experience being floored.
Mild intonations of fate intervening for a special fighter, a la Ali, were floated by the play-by -play crew narrating the startling 6th round. Whatever the case, Berto gathered himself and went on to close out the one-sided decision victory, to begin the process of sweeping that milestone moment under the rug.
Quickly back to the safe harbor of HBO and handpicked opponents, Berto reeled off another four wins on primetime televised real estate picking up a vacant WBC welterweight title against Miguel Angel Rodriguez and defeating former junior lightweight titlist Steve Forbes 15 pounds north of his old title-winning division.
Finally after the steady diet of creampuffs, Berto signed on the line to fight a man who had a reasonable chance at victory, Luis Collazo. The slick southpaw boxer from Queens had shown promise against Ricky Hatton a couple years before, but had been chosen, it was speculated by some, because like all Berto opponents of the era, he was not known as a puncher.
It came as a shock then, that before the 1st round of their bout had finished Berto was stunned by a Collazo punch and stumbled back into the ropes. What followed over the course of the next 11 rounds was one of the better welterweight fights of the last five or 10 years.
It was in this fight that Berto showed the world what he truly was… a fatally flawed, but passion-filled prizefighter.
The two men battled back and forth through the stanzas. Many had Collazo pulling off the upset; however, Berto was given the close decision. That Collazo was not given a win in the fight is a debatable mistake. That he was not given a rematch was unconscionable.
A follow-up bout with Juan Urango, while credible — if safe — opposition, failed to ignite anything but general apathy for Berto.
Finally a marquee match was made with Shane Mosley. The impending showdown between the faded superstar and the upstart slugger was certainly intriguing, though most saw Berto having trouble with Mosley’s notable power punching.
If Collazo could stun Berto inside of three minutes, what could the man who had just knocked out iron-jawed Antonio Margarito do to the HBO darling with the shoddy beard?
And then, before the bout could come off, nature intervened in the form of a devastating earthquake which laid waste to much of Haiti, the country Berto’s parents hail from and the flag under which Berto had fought in the 2004 Olympics.
With the bout looming and his psyche understandably upset by the tragedy, Berto pulled out of the fight just 12 days before the opening bell.
Spared the firepower that Mosley would have offered, Berto found less dangerous opponents in technician Carlos Quintana and Freddy Hernandez.
Meanwhile, outside of the ring, he had garnered some public good will with his efforts to help the Haiti relief cause. This he quickly tossed out the window with a posting on Twitter following the horrifying murder/suicide involving boxer Edwin Valero.
Valero had stabbed his wife to death and then, later in jail, committed suicide by hanging himself.
In response Berto tweeted: “R.I.P. to Edwin Valero after killing his wife yesturday he just killed himself in jail today. WOW women are a Motherf***er boy RIP”
The backlash against Berto for inferring that Valero’s slain wife Jennifer should be considered a cause of her own death quickly spread across the boxing world. And Berto immediately backpedaled from the statement.
The incident underlined what many had always felt about the carefully constructed star.
Whether it was understanding why criticism was aimed at his level of competition or who’s feet blame ought to be lain at in the case of a disgusting murder… He just didn’t get it.
But for all the needless posturing in the ring and the smoke blown at him from outside, Berto has offered fight fans some truly entertaining fights to watch.
His match with Victor Ortiz was electrifying. It featured four knockdowns and ferocious back and forth action. It was named Fight of the Year for 2011.
But in that fight there was a sense that even when things were teetering back and forth, Berto’s chin would ultimately fail him.
In this last fight with Guerrero, a great battle on the inside, even the fierce uppercuts Berto landed at will never really added drama to the bout. There was a sense that like Ortiz, Guerrero was simply too determined to be denied.
For all his natural speed and skills, there are men that simply can take his punch, and he cannot take theirs.
But in boxing, even that is forgivable, if you have other certain qualities.
Berto certainly has shown the will to battle back from adversity and displays a real champion’s heart… but one wishes he would lead with that, instead of the silly Floyd Mayweather-wannabe sneer he had on his lips early in the bout with Guerrero.
It’s hard to maintain a Mayweather-like invincibility aura when you’re getting routinely buzzed and knocked to the canvas. You end up looking foolish and losing credibility.
And herein lies the lesson that Berto would be wise to learn…
You don’t need to pretend you’re invincible or that you’re Mayweather or even that you can’t be hurt.
Because the thing inside of fighters that makes fans of the sport adore them, raise them on a pedestal and admire them like grand warriors of some forgotten age… that special basic quality of human perseverance, unshakable will, determination, and the dignity of enduring… Berto has it.
He never needed cheerleaders to inflate the perception of his skills.
He doesn’t need to ape gangster schtick from flashy fighters.
He doesn’t even need to win them all.
Andre Berto only ever just needed to fight. The rest can fall away.
And in shedding the accoutrements of what he, or other people want him to be, he will become what he always was under the clutter.
An honest fighter.
A fighter who doesn’t quit, who doesn’t yield, who puts himself on the line and is truthful to a fault in the ring.
Honest fighters win every time, no matter what the record books say.