By Thomas Gerbasi
In April, they put on one of the best fights of 2011, a compelling 12 round drama that disappointed no one. This week, Andre Berto and Victor Ortiz took time from the promotion of their upcoming fights to fire back at a media they feel has done them wrong.
This is nothing new. Athletes, entertainers, politicians, they’ve all felt at one time or another that those wielding a pen or sitting behind a keyboard harbor a secret resentment for their success. In response, what they perceive as poison shows up in newspapers and magazines, on computer screens and on Twitter, and while much of it is ignored, eventually, especially for those who have gone through a relatively unscathed existence in the public eye, it hits home and prompts outbursts such as those delivered by two of the top young fighters in the game today.
And strangely enough, I get it. I understand that after getting reams of positive press over the years, the idea of the collective media turning on you can be a shocker.
No one had more of a push from the boxing media than Ortiz as he sailed up the ranks, and rightfully so – he was a good looking kid, personable, had a compelling story and wasn’t afraid to share it. But after his sixth round TKO loss to Marcos Maidana in 2009, that changed.
Again, I get it. This time though, I see both sides of the divide. In this sport, we are accustomed to brutality, but not brutal honesty. Ortiz opted out of the brutality in the ring that night with Maidana, but he delivered some brutal honesty in his post-fight interview when he said “I don't think I deserve to be getting beat up like this.”
It was perhaps the most honest answer ever given by a professional prizefighter, but Ortiz was crucified for it. Everyone knew it, everyone saw it coming the second the words left his mouth. It may have been a sentiment shared by everyone who has ever stepped between the ropes, but only Ortiz gave voice to it.
And he paid for it.
Despite surviving a harrowing upbringing, making that walk up those four steps into the ring every time he was called upon, and then rebounding from the Maidana loss to cap off a 6-0 run with a win over Berto for the WBC welterweight title earlier this year, that sentence will haunt his career forever. I don’t even know if a win over Floyd Mayweather on September 17th will erase that sentiment in the eyes of the media and the fans, but the way I see it, he’s served his time.
The case of Berto isn’t as extreme – not by a longshot – but instead of a knockout blow delivered over one incident, the former Haitian Olympian took a steady stream of barbs over the years. Some were quiet, others more prominent, but they all added up. And when he suffered his first pro loss to Ortiz, the wolves came out, calling Berto overrated and an HBO creation.
What wasn’t mentioned is that Berto was doing his job ever since he turned pro in 2004, won a world title in 2008, and successfully defended it five times. He didn’t ask for a high powered manager in Al Haymon, a high profile promoter in Lou DiBella, or a cushy HBO deal. But he got all of the above. So what would you suggest he do? Turn it all down and request fights in obscurity for a fraction of what he eventually made in the ring?
This is where I will always side with the fighter. This is not the NFL or NBA, where Team A will always play Team B, there will be playoffs at the end of the season and a champion is crowned. For better or worse, boxing is still the Wild Wild West, and in a sport where fighters are often misled, mistreated, and left out to dry when they are no longer deemed useful, I support every opportunity for a boxer to make as much money as he can while he can still perform at a high level.
And it isn’t like fighters like Ortiz and Berto were putting fans to sleep in their fights. They have been consistently entertaining, have fought quality opposition (though not always those who the fight community believed they should fight), and they earned their paychecks like few of us do – with their blood.
Yet that’s not always enough for some. And with the advent of social media and immediate one-on-one interaction with a fanbase that isn’t always willing to keep it civil, things can get out of hand real fast. Berto fell into this sand trap in June when he tweeted some thoughts that could certainly be listed under the “accusation” column when referring to Ortiz and the idea of him taking performance enhancers. Ortiz denied the accusations and Berto backed off later that day, tweeting “Wow why does everyones mind go straight to PEDs. Calm down everyone I was just talkin about Ortiz eating his spinach like popeye lol.”
This week, as he prepares for his Saturday HBO bout with Jan Zaveck, Berto lashed out about being written off after his first pro loss, and Ortiz did the same, still smarting over the treatment he received after the Maidana fight. Both had their reasons, and some of them were valid. How valid, we’ll never know because we don’t go through what they do. Some of us get our share of hatemail (here’s some for me from a few years back - http://neva.blogspot.com/2004/05/who-fuck.html ), but for the most part, every failure isn’t magnified and sent out to the world. Yes, I understand that they’re getting well paid to be in the public eye, but that doesn’t make them any less human. The way I see it, fighters are even more human because they are baring themselves to the world every time the bell rings. There are no uniforms, no helmets or shoulder pads, no 10 other teammates to pick up the slack. That alone should be appreciated.
But it’s not.
One of the most vilified fighters of the last 10 years was former featherweight world champion Derrick “Smoke” Gainer. A close friend of future Hall of Famer Roy Jones Jr., Gainer was murdered in the media fight after fight for not being Arturo Gatti or anything resembling him. He was a slick boxer, had good speed and defense, and that’s what he used to win his fights. That wasn’t enough for the fans, and he paid for it.
In 2004, I got on the phone with Gainer, who at that time was suspicious enough when it came to the media (and rightfully so) and I basically told him that I was going to give him a forum to talk about the way he had been treated in the fight game. He agreed, and then told me a story about an incident that took place two days after his 1996 knockout loss to Kevin Kelley. The bout was a war, perhaps Gainer’s most exciting fight ever, but as “Smoke” had breakfast with Jones, there was someone who didn’t agree, and he let the fighter know about it.
“I could slap you,” this supposed boxing fan said to Gainer.
Incredulous, Gainer just looked back. “Excuse me?”
“I could slap you,” the ‘fan’ repeated. “How dare you let him knock you out on TV like that?”
Heat rising to his head, Gainer had his hand grabbed by Jones, who just shook his head as if to say, ‘Don’t let that bother you.’
That’s what happens to fighters when they lose. For every autograph they sign, there are two more ‘fans’ waiting to laugh or point fingers. And while the stereotype of the Internet’s keyboard warriors is of a 15-year old sitting in his mom’s basement, Gainer wasn’t buying it.
“I don’t think it’s young kids,” he said back then. “I think it’s grown men, adults. The reason I say that is, I deal with kids every day at my school, and kids don’t make the comments and statements that are being made on there. I think it’s some grown man sitting on there who probably placed a bet and lost his bet, and he’s probably upset. He’s probably also upset that he’s not in there fighting because he can’t fight. I look at it from that perspective also.”
It makes Ortiz and Berto’s comments this week a little more understandable and digestible. And while I could go on about this subject, I think Gainer ended our interview seven years ago with the perfect last words on it.
It’s something to think about the next time you call a fighter a coward.
“As far as me reading and hearing what people say, it took a few years to understand that this is how people are sometimes,” said Gainer. “They don’t put in any consideration that you’re hurting, that you’re losing your title, and you’re losing what you worked for, because you had a bad night.
“I look at it like, what if I went to his job and said something to him? How would he take that? Those same ones that issue out those harsh statements, those same ones couldn’t take that. They couldn’t do what I do. They couldn’t deal with another guy coming at them. They couldn’t deal with it if I talked and trashed them on the Internet.
“So I put that into perspective and say, you know what, he’s got the problem, I don’t. I got in there, and whether I threw four punches or a thousand punches, I did the best that I could do at that time. This is what they need to know, all the writers who write negative stuff. When Roy (Jones) fought - and it could have been (Antonio) Tarver, or (Floyd) Mayweather this weekend, or any fighter who steps in the ring – that could be the last moment of their life. They could die right there. So remember, that before you write and trash a person, that person can die from one punch.”