- Dan Rafael, Boxing
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Andre Berto's entrance into the world of combat sports should come as no surprise.
His father, Dieuseul Berto, an immigrant from Haiti, is a boxing, wrestling and karate expert who competed as a professional mixed martial artist in Japan when Andre was a boy, and now runs a martial arts academy in their hometown of Winter Haven, Fla.
Andre's older brother, Edson, followed in their father's footsteps and is a professional mixed martial artist.
Another older brother, Cleveland, was a collegiate wrestler and former Florida state champion in high school.
Training and fighting run in the family.
"If my dad was training or running, he wanted us to be part of the experience," Berto said. "And if we got in trouble at school, instead of a 'time out,' we did 500 pushups."
Andre, a 23-year-old welterweight with mind-blowing speed and excellent power, is poised to see all of that training pay off.
Co-promoters Lou DiBella and Damon Dash, along with adviser Al Haymon and trainer Tony Morgan, kept Berto busy this year, and he responded by going 7-0 and winning all of his fights by knockout against an ever-improving class of opponent.
The 5-foot-9 Berto (16-0, 14 KOs) began the year on Showtime's "ShoBox: The New Generation" with a third-round destruction of previously unbeaten Jonathan Tubbs, and concluded it on a major HBO card, ravaging capable veteran Miguel Figueroa for six brutally one-sided rounds.
Between Berto's string of impressive performances and his unlimited potential, he was the clear choice as the 2006 ESPN.com Prospect of the Year.
"Of the (Olympic) class of 2004, most insiders agreed that Berto was as good a prospect as anybody, including the medal winners," said Showtime analyst Steve Farhood. "It was politics and circumstance that kept him off the U.S. Olympic team, but, that aside, he is a great pro prospect because of his natural aggressiveness and his punching power. Thus far in his pro career, he has shown a seek-and-destroy approach, and it has worked well."
Despite Berto's amateur pedigree -- he was a two-time national Golden Gloves champion, a bronze medalist at the 2003 World Amateur Championships and a 2004 Olympian -- he came into the pro ranks with relatively little fanfare. Although he was born and raised in Florida, he wound up representing Haiti in the Olympics, thanks to his father's dual citizenship, and lost a decision in his opening-round bout.
Berto had been on his way to earning a berth on the U.S. team, but was controversially disqualified for a takedown of Juan McPherson during a bout Berto was winning at the U.S. Olympic trials.
Haiti, with no boxing team, took Berto on and he went to Athens as a one-man squad. The controversy didn't matter to DiBella, who always viewed Berto as a top prospect and potential breakout professional star.
"I remember talking to Andre shortly before he left for the Olympics, and I told him that on my so-called Olympic draft board, he was the top guy, and that wasn't going to change even if he lost," DiBella said. "He never embraced the amateur computer scoring system, where you get credit just for touching your opponent. Andre wanted to go out there and hurt guys."
Now, two years into his pro career, Berto is beginning to receive the attention he didn't get when he turned pro. Still, he remains humble because he hasn't forgotten what his father taught him and his siblings.
"He let us know at an early age that nothing is going to come easy," said Berto, one of six children. "We grew up rough. We didn't have a lot of money at all. My dad used to work as a cook. My mom (Wilnise) was a housekeeper. We saw everything they went through to provide things for us, and my dad let us know we had to work hard for everything we wanted."
Berto has done his share of hard work, some of which was seen unexpectedly by some reporters who were in Little Rock, Ark., for his Dec. 9 fight against Figueroa on the undercard of middleweight champion Jermain Taylor's title defense against Kassim Ouma.
Three nights before the fight, some of the press members in town for the card were taking an evening walk downtown. While they were going in one direction, there was Berto, all alone and bundled up in a sweat suit, running past them in the other direction.
A few nights later, Berto made his HBO debut and ripped Figueroa apart.
"It was always about hard work growing up, and it still is," Berto said. "We weren't afraid of hard work. We just knew when it was time to get ready for an event or a competition these were the things we had to do. That's why I run so hard. It's second nature for me. You have to take it seriously and stay focused because I want to shine every time I get in the ring. Every time. It doesn't matter if I'm fighting Joe Blow or Oscar De La Hoya.
"My spirit is to try to be dominant. I don't try to do anything out of my nature in the ring. I am genuine. When we're under the spotlight, and it's time to go, that's me, giving 100 percent."
DiBella said that the hard work eventually could make Berto one of the best boxers in the world.
"That's his upside," DiBella said. "I think he has work to do, though. Right now, his offense is more advanced than his defense, but he's so physically strong. There are still four or five fights of development before he faces a top guy.
"There's no reason to rush him. But I will tell you this -- he has such a diverse arsenal of punches. He can throw from every angle, he can box, he can punch with both hands and he has tremendous hand speed. That's what makes him special. He's not one-dimensional, which is why he can be a great fighter."
Other future stars (in alphabetical order with age, weight class and record):
Coming: Round of the year, fight of the year
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.
Dan Rafael's writes how after going 7-0 with seven KOs in 2006, welterweight Andre Berto was an easy choice for ESPN.com's 2006 Prospect of the Year.