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Berto Unveiled

Andre Berto always dreamed of giving "The Pride Talk'' at the Boys and Girls Clubs around Tampa.

Many kids dream of winning Olympic gold medals and world championships. They dream of being in fights like the one Berto was in against veteran warrior Miguel Figueroa in the semi-main event underneath the Jermain Taylor-Kassim Ouma middleweight title fight on the biggest cable network in boxing. It was a big stage, his first exposure to HBO's glaring lights. One he long dreamed of but he always there was another dream as well. A simpler dream that not every dreamer might have.

A dream not just about winning boxing matches but of coming home to talk to kids like the one he used to be about something he's always had, even in the hard times when it seemed he'd lost his dream.

"I had a vision early, as a little kid, that I'd be a superstar some day in something,'' the 23-year-old fast-rising junior middleweight prospect said. "I was always a little faster, a little stronger than the other kids. I had that ambition early to be the best so others would look at me as an example. I used to go to the Boys and Girls Club and guys who had been successful in the world would come back and talk to us. I was so sucked into that. Pride talk was just awesome to me. I used to say I'd be one of those guys some day.''

It has been a long road but Andre Berto is almost there. He will need to defeat a tough guy in Figueroa, who is coming off a draw with Larry Mosley in his last outing, and then win against as many as a half dozen similar or better opponents over the next year before he finds himself with a title belt on the line but he is already 15-0 with 13 knockouts, the kind of record that has made him one of the most highly regarded prospects to come out of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens even though his appearance there came through the back door and didn't lead to anything but frustration.

As an amateur, Berto was one of America's brightest welterweight prospects when he arrived at the Olympic Trials in Tunica, Mississippi but all that promise went unfulfilled when he was disqualified from a fight he was winning easily against top-rated Juan McPherson when he inexplicably threw McPherson to the floor after tiring of his incessant holding.

Controversy ensued and legal action was threatened but, in the end, both he and McPherson were disqualified and a dream Berto had held since he first arrived at a boxing gym when he was nine seemed to have disappeared in a momentary explosion of emotion. Then, with just 10 days left to qualify for the Games, a friend of Berto's coach reminded him that Berto and his family held dual citizenship in the United States and Haiti. Thus began a blitz of the Haitian Olympic Committee and its boxing federation by Berto's father, Dieuseul.

"When they suggested it, I thought it was a good idea,'' Berto's father said. "After I got through to the people in Haiti and explained who Andre was, they called back in an hour.''

The economically and politically ravaged Caribbean island sent only 10 athletes to Athens. The one who was its sole boxer had never set foot on the island. Born and raised in Florida, all Andre Berto knew about Haiti was that he now constituted its entire Olympic boxing team.

"The goal was to represent the USA but that didn't work out,'' said Berto's coach and present trainer, Tony Morgan. "There was a loophole so we took it. There's only one gold medal. It doesn't matter if an American or a Haitian wins it.''

To become the Haitian team however, Berto still had to qualify at the Americas Qualifying Tournament in Tijuana, Mexico. So did his friend, Vanes Martirosyan, a guy who was so close to Berto that he lit a candle for him when he learned he was seeking an alternate route to Athens after being disqualified. In the end they would face off in the finals in Tijuana with the unheralded Martirosyan winning but both earned spots in the Games. The candles had worked. So had Berto.

"It definitely was weird,'' Berto said of seeing his American "teammates'' in Athens and realizing they were teammates no longer. "I was friends with all the U.S. guys. When we saw each other at the Opening Ceremonies it was funny not to have the same uniform on but they treated me like part of their team. They knew I had to do what I had to do. It was all love.''

When Berto squared off against a tough Frenchman named Xavier Noel in the first round, Martiroysan was at ringside hollering encouragement to a guy who was once his teammate but was now his competition. Not far away, Berto's father watched in silence as his son fell behind, 7-2, after one round and 18-12 after two, Down seven points as the final round opened, Berto rallied furiously, finally landing the big left hooks that so many felt would make him a better pro than he ever was an amateur and as one after another nailed Noel the margin began to close.

With less than 30 seconds to go in the fourth and final round, Berto finally evened the match at 34-34 but then, with Martirosyan on his feet cheering as if Berto were his brother, Noel landed two light punches and Andre Berto's unlikely Olympic experience was over after just one fight.

When it was, Morgan shrugged, perhaps realizing for the first time how long a shot it had all been to even get that far, and said, "What can you do? Go back to your room and cry? There's always two parts of a fight.''

Berto has always understood that, which is perhaps why he didn't let his Olympic travails stop him. Having spent years training in the same Florida gyms with world champions like Winky Wright and Jeff Lacy, he had heard many times that he'd developed a style far better suited for professional prize fighting than for the amateur version, which devalues body punching and power punches and elevates the importance of mere landing as if boxing were a fencing match using leather epees.

Having long ago accepted that, Berto left Athens sad that the first goal he'd set for himself in boxing would never be reached but elated that he had put up the good fight to the end, finding a way where there appeared to be no way to get to Athens, if even for only a few days.

"It was a wonderful experience,'' Berto says today. "I always had a plan to get to the Olympics. That's not the path God chose for me but I wouldn't take it back for the world. I wanted to win a medal and when I didn't I knew it had cost me a lot of money from (future) promoters and managers. I knew all the politics that goes with the medal.

"They knew I was one of the best pro prospects in the Olympic Games but because of what happened to me the money wasn't there. They didn't have to pay me any big bonus money. They used what happened to me to their advantage but that was blessing in disguise. It made me realize I had to work harder because if I kept winning the money would be there eventually.''

"I was always a little faster, a little stronger than the other kids. I had that ambition early to be the best so others would look at me as an example. I used to go to the Boys and Girls Club and guys who had been successful in the world would come back and talk to us. I was so sucked into that. Pride talk was just awesome to me. I used to say I'd be one of those guys some day.''

Some of that money will materialize after his first HBO appearance but there is still a long road ahead before Berto reaches the kind of defining fight he has long dreamed of. Promoter Lou DiBella and manager/advisor Al Hayman have wisely decided there is no reason to rush along a 23-year-old prospect who has thunder in both hands and the kind of style that not only translates well to professional boxing but also to fans thirsting for a young star with the kind of explosive power Berto carries into the ring.

"I felt he was the best fighter coming out of the Olympics,'' DiBella said. "He was made to be a pro. He knows how to box. He has power. He understands body punching. Andre's a very, very gifted fighter. He has the power to look spectacular but he's still adjusting to the life of a professional fighter. He's only fought about 30 rounds (39 actually, an average of just over 2 1/2 rounds per appearance). There's no need to advance him too quickly.

"Andre has agreed to go at our pace. We didn't want to get him out there in prime time too early. We didn't want him to be hype. I took a lot of lessons from how Bob Arum and Bruce Trampler (Arum's chief matchmaker) brought along Oscar De La Hoya and developed him so he was ready when the big fights came along. Ready not just to get them, but to win them. We have a young Secretariet but he needs to learn how to run. Even if he looks spectacular against Figueroa I've told him he'll have to fight a couple more guys like that before we move him into a more challenging fight no matter what the networks might want.''

Like all young prize fighters, Berto is eager to succeed but he agrees with DiBella that no matter how good he may look in his first major national exposure, the slow road is the wise one. At least for now.

"This will be an exciting night,'' Berto said of facing Figueroa on HBO World Championship Boxing. "Fighting on HBO is something I dreamed about since I started in boxing. Now all the dreaming is over. After what happened to me at the Olympics, I feel nothing can hold me back. I went through those down times but I wanted to make clear to the people with me that nothing would hold me back.

"Nothing came easy for me in boxing. I'm no stranger to hard work and having to be patient. I learned about patience from what happened against McPherson. I accept that I need a lot more experience. I'm not in a rush. I need to learn some things about myself. Everything will fall into place if I keep working hard. I know what people want to see.''

What they want to see are knockouts, which he has given them in abundance thus far. Always a powerful puncher even in the amateurs, Berto considers himself "a boxer-puncher'' but quickly concedes, "What everyone wants to see when I'm in the ring is a guy who punches and punches hard.

That's the style I developed working with Winky and Jeff.I take that as a compliment.''

DiBella believes Berto could become the next great champion in his weight class and is committed to bringing him along slowly even though he is making his HBO debut after only 15 fights. Although DiBella concedes that with so many champions, so many organizations and so many often vacated titles around he could probably manuver Berto into a title shot by the middle of next year but he insisted he will avoid that temptation because the goal is not simply to win a world title. The goal is to become a champion, which is not necessarily the same as winning a championship.

"Next year will be a huge year for Andre,'' DiBella said. "By the end of it, he'll be past the prospect stage. He probably could win a world title right now but winning a title isn't the issue. Is he capable of defending it against a top guy like a Shane Mosley? That's the issue.

"In time he'll be ready to beat anybody but I don't want to see him get into a situation where he goes too fast too soon and finds himself in over his head trying to defend some title he won against a top guy when he's not ready yet, the way David Reid did (in a crushing loss to Felix Trinidad from which he never seemed to fully recover).''

So regardless, Berto will continue to move cautiously in his dark trade, learning as he goes while some wonder where he went. Even that, as it turns out, is a familiar scenario for Andre Berto.

"Mike is my middle name but my parents always called me that so everyone else called me that,'' Berto recalled. "No one knew back home who Andre was. When that name started showing up in the papers when I was winning amateur tournaments they thought I had a brother. We went through a lot of confusion with that for a while but eventually they figured out who I was.''

Soon enough, all of the boxing world seems likely to do the same.

"They knew I was one of the best pro prospects in the Olympic Games but because of what happened to me the money wasn't there. They didn't have to pay me any big bonus money. They used what happened to me to their advantage but that was blessing in disguise."

Posted 12:00 AM | Feb 17, 2007

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