Andre Berto awaits first true test
Andre Berto has held a welterweight title since 2008, yet he hasn't had what would be considered a major fight -- even by the standards of the most ardent Berto fan.
Much criticism has been thrown Berto's way because of that hole in his résumé, although Berto was set to fight Shane Mosley in January 2010 until nature intervened. At the time, it was a significant matchup, because Mosley had knocked out Antonio Margarito in a major upset to claim a title in his previous bout.
But a couple of weeks before the fight, eight members of Berto's family were killed in the massive earthquake that struck Haiti. He withdrew from the fight, and Mosley went on to lose a shockingly one-sided decision to Floyd Mayweather Jr. a few months later.
Berto, meanwhile, returned to the ring in April and continued to take apart lesser opponents while HBO continued to pay him millions. Fan and media criticism of Berto's opponents boiled over in November, when he faced Freddy Hernandez in a laughable matchup and starched him in the first round.
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Even HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg, who has bankrolled Berto's recent career, wanted to see him in a more serious fight. In an interview with ESPN.com at the end of 2010, Greenburg addressed the situation: "The bottom line is, Andre Berto will be in a big fight in early 2011, or he won't be on HBO. Whenever he fights next, if it's not against a big-name opponent, then you won't see him. He knows that, his management [Al Haymon] knows that. And his promoter [Lou DiBella] knows that. Believe it or not, they feel the same way. We've been very patient. Now it's time. If it doesn't happen, so be it."
Berto may not be fighting a star opponent -- none was available -- but he is back on HBO on Saturday night (9:45 ET/PT) at the MGM Grand Arena in the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Conn. For his sixth title defense, against another former ESPN.com prospect of the year in Victor Ortiz, Berto made just about the most significant fight possible.
"This is his most difficult fight," DiBella said of Berto. "Fight fans wanted it, HBO wanted it. We wanted bigger fights, but if we can't make those fights, what are we supposed to do? Victor Ortiz has never been less than 156 [pounds] the night of a fight. He's probably bigger than Andre."
HBO's telecast will open with same-day taped coverage of junior welterweight titleholder Amir Khan (24-1, 17 KOs) making his fourth defense at home in England against Paul McCloskey (22-0, 12 KOs) of Northern Ireland. The fight will be Khan's first since narrowly outpointing Marcos Maidana in December in the Boxing Writers Association of America fight of the year. If Khan wins, it would set him up for a unification showdown with Timothy Bradley Jr. in a fight being planned for July 23.
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"My big fight is [Saturday] on HBO. I'm fighting a young, hungry lion," Berto said. "I've been calling these guys [Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao] out. Been there, done that. I can't keep yelling out their names after each fight. Who do you want to fight, Mayweather or Pacquiao? I'll keep dominating the guys in front of me. All the barking, as you see, really doesn't get the business done. If they want to fight you, they'll fight you."
The 27-year-old Berto (27-0, 21 KOs), who is from Winter Haven, Fla., has tried to ignore the criticism of the opponents he has faced in his title bouts, who range from the obscure Miki Rodriguez (against whom he won a vacant belt in 2008) to ho-hum fights with smaller men such as Steve Forbes and Juan Urango and the faded Carlos Quintana, not to mention the Hernandez debacle.
The most memorable fight of Berto's title reign was a pitched battle against former titlist Luis Collazo in January 2009, which Berto eked out.
"I feel I'll always get a little criticism," Berto said. "A lot of people believe in my skills and potential. I'm fighting Victor Ortiz. I'm going in with a guy with a lot of speed and power. He's going to bring some action and try to prove himself. At the end of the day, I don't listen to criticism. You need balls to step in the ring against anybody. I'm comfortable in myself, and my true fans believe.
"Victor Ortiz is a big guy, physically bigger than I am. He's a competitive fighter, one I'm looking forward to fighting. I don't listen to what others say; I'm staying focused on the fight."
There's no question about my heart. I have to question his on everything from one situation. ... At the end of the day, you can't teach what beats in the chest. You either have it -- heart -- or you don't.” -- Andre Berto on Victor Ortiz, whom he'll fight Saturday
Like Berto, the 24-year-old Ortiz (28-2-2, 22 KOs) of Ventura, Calif., has been a magnet for criticism, but for different reasons.
Ortiz, who is moving up from junior welterweight and fighting for his first major world title following a disappointing draw with Lamont Peterson in December, was once a darling. He was a gifted prospect being groomed as a future superstar until his career was altered in June 2009, when he slugged it out with Maidana in a memorable brawl.
Maidana was down three times and Ortiz twice. After Ortiz hit the deck for the second time in the sixth round, he quit. Then he exacerbated the situation with some unwise remarks about how he didn't deserve to get beaten up. It wasn't the kind of gladiator talk that fans expect.
Ortiz won his next four fights against carefully selected opponents before the draw with Peterson. Now he comes into the fight with Berto talking way tougher than he has fought recently, trying to rewrite history.
"I must be champion, and I will be champion," Ortiz said. "Berto has been talked about as the next thing. I don't agree. I must and will bring back the belt. Mike Tyson once said, 'Everybody has a plan until they get hit.' [Berto] says he has power; so do I. He says he has speed; so do I. I'm not expecting less than the green belt coming home with me. I will do whatever it takes to take that green belt home with me."
Those are fighting words. But then Ortiz turned a bit goofy.
"When everybody runs from you at 140, you go up to 147, and I shot to the head of the line [to fight] Andre Berto," Ortiz, even though nobody ran from him because promoter Golden Boy never had any discussions with any top 140-pounders about facing him.
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Then came Ortiz's comical comments when asked about the Maidana fight, which he probably will be questioned about until he gives people a reason to forget it.
"He's running left and right, dodging me. He sees me in his nightmares," Ortiz said of Maidana in a statement that has no basis in reality. "When he gets the courage and comes out of the closet, he can meet me at 147. I had just one slipup against Maidana. That's the difference between then and now. If Maidana wants to end his career, he should move up to 147.
"You say I haven't fought a puncher. Maidana was considered the toughest puncher at 140 and 147, and he couldn't put me down."
Maidana, of course, did put him down. Twice. Made him quit.
Yet Ortiz has instead blamed the media for his problems in the fight, and his handlers have backed him up, perhaps realizing that they need to do whatever they can to instill confidence in him.
Berto, for his part, has found Ortiz's wild comments amusing.
"I caught the end of his conference call. It seems they were gassing him up at camp," Berto said. "[Saturday] is going to be a reality check for him. They've been lying to him at training camp, thinking this is going to be an easy fight. The ring is a really cold place to find out the truth. Like he said, the fight won't go the distance -- only it's going to come out on our side.
"Victor Ortiz is a good kid and can fight. He is limited in a lot of areas. He's trying to box but needs to be set on his feet to throw punches. He's a tough kid. Lamont Peterson, later in the fight, hit him with a lot of tough shots. If I had hit him like that, he probably would go to sleep."
When asked to chime in on the questions about Ortiz's heart, Berto added, "I have a heart of a lion. There's no question about my heart. I have to question his on everything from one situation, when he had to endure controversy. He didn't like to crack back. At the end of the day, you can't teach what beats in the chest. You either have it -- heart -- or you don't."
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @danrafaelespn.