By Lyle Fitzsimmons
I’ve always had a thing for Andre Berto.
I saw him fight for the first time when he was still a single-digit novice – in his seventh pro fight, to be exact – deep on the undercard of the Tarver-Jones III sleepwalk in downtown Tampa, Fla.
We caught up again about a year later, when he blasted out no-hoper Roberto Valenzuela in less than a round underneath the Forrest-Quartey scrap in the small room at Madison Square Garden.
I lauded him as “Prospect of the Year” for a column I wrote back then on a long-since capsized website, and I patiently waited for the promise to catch up to the potential.
I interviewed him now and then along the way after that, and I have to admit I was thrilled – as I sat in a hotel room in the Cayman Islands (after sitting ringside for Andre Ward a night before) – to see him dispatch Miki Rodriguez with a sweet right-hand uppercut and earn himself a title belt in June 2008.
In spite of his fun new status, I had no illusions that he was actually the best welterweight in a world that then featured names like Margarito, Cotto, Williams. Still, when we talked a few days after he whipped Steve Forbes for defense No. 1 a few months later, confidence was the least of his issues.
“Yes, I think I am the best welterweight out there,” he said. “I believe it, and I know that in due time I'll be able to prove to everyone else that I'm No. 1. I think I have the total package when you combine speed, power, agility and the ability to adjust to any sort of style from the opposition.
“I'm the first of the new breed of fighter in this weight class and I'm eager to make big fights with the rest of the big names out there.”
I thought of all that again late Saturday night.
And it seemed a lot less like five years ago, and a lot more like 50.
As he crumpled his battered face into the chest of new trainer Virgil Hunter, it appeared the enormity of the plunge from those peaks – from unbeaten world champion to TKO loser against the slightly past pedestrian Jesus Soto Karass – was finally getting to a now-veteran 29-year-old.
He certainly winced. He might have even cried.
And as he manned up and spoke to Showtime’s Jim Gray, he seemed to be grappling with the very same question analyst Mauro Ranallo asked in the form of a comment a few moments later: “He’s been in so many battles, so many wars. You have to wonder how much more he’ll want to subject himself to.”
It was difficult to determine from Berto’s words where he stood.
“Every time I step in here I put it all on the line,” he said.
“Coming from where I come from, man, my parents are from Haiti. I had to work hard to even get where I’m at right now.”
Wherever he’s at, it’s certainly not where he might have been.
Or where I’d hoped he’d be.
Though he gained little acclaim with title defenses against the likes of Forbes, Juan Urango and Freddy Hernandez – not to mention a reed-thin escape against Luis Collazo (a fight I thought he lost) – Berto was nonetheless in a lofty place as 2010 became 2011.
In fact, all that separated him from a real chance at a Mayweather-sized payday was yet another ex-junior welterweight, this time Victor Ortiz, whom many dismissed as damaged 140-pound goods.
Handle one last April start in the minors, it seemed, and he’d be in the show by summertime.
But when the summertime arrived, it was Ortiz in the big stadium on pay-per-view, while Berto schlepped his way through seaside blight in Biloxi, Miss., from which he’s yet to symbolically return. A win over Jan Zaveck led to a failed drug test, a scrubbed Ortiz rematch and a long hiatus before Robert Guerrero beat his face to a grotesque mess in a second ill-fated “Money” audition last November.
Now, like Ranallo on Saturday night, the question is whether he’s up for more.
Does he have the mettle? Does he have the skills? Will his body allow the opportunity?
If I’m placing a bet, I’m still going with yes.
Though I’ll concede he’ll never be in a position to be uttering names like Mayweather or Broner, I’m not at all convinced that a healthy Berto – if he does still exist – isn’t still up to the level of the other three reigning champs at 147, namely Devon Alexander (IBF), Tim Bradley (WBO) and Chris Van Heerden (IBO).
He’s just 1-3 in his last four fights, but the margin between that and 4-0 isn’t enormous.
He was a unanimous loser to Ortiz, but more than a few respected eyes – Dan Rafael, Ron Borges and Michael Marley among them – saw Berto as a winner. In a rematch, who knows?
He lost eight of 12 rounds and was dropped twice in the loss to Guerrero, but fought close to evenly after the first two rounds and might have fared better had it not been for two injured eyes.
He was dead-even on the scorecards heading into the final round against Soto Karass – I agreed with the maligned Cathy Leonard tally, incidentally – and, with a functional right arm, wins going away.
With a victory Saturday night, he’d have remained on the short Showtime list for a chance at Mayweather. And while I’d keep him as far away from The Money Team as logistics will allow, there’d be zero hesitation signing on for a rematch against Soto Karass – and taking the alternative title shot it might have ultimately yielded with a victory the first time around.
It doesn’t look good, but it’s not that bad.
And if nothing else works out, at least we’ll always have Tampa.
* * * * * * * * * *
This week’s title-fight schedule:
WBO bantamweight title – Cebu City, Philippines
Paulus Ambunda (champion) vs. Tomoki Kameda (No. 5 contender)
Ambunda (20-0, 10 KO): First title defense; First fight outside of Namibia
Kameda (27-0, 18 KO): First title fight; First fight in Philippines
Fitzbitz says: “Challenger is much taller, much younger, and, if KO ratios are at all indicative, punches with a lot more purpose. That should be more than enough in initial title try.” Kameda by decision
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full- fledged title-holder -- no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA "world championships" are only included if no "super champion" exists in the weight class.
Last week’s picks: 1-1
2013 picks record: 42-25 (62.7 percent)
Overall picks record: 505-177 (74.0 percent)
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.