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Andre Berto: Is This His Year?

Andre Berto knows this is not the year of the dragon or the year of the dog. For the undefeated welterweight prospect, it's supposed to be the Year of Living Dangerously.

For the past three years Berto has been learning a brutal craft, working to master the art of fistic destruction while avoiding that fate himself. Ever since his days as a top-ranked amateur in Florida, and for a brief minute as the sum and substance of the Haitian Olympic Boxing Team in Athens four years ago, boxing insiders understood he was preparing not to win gold medals but to win world championships.

Three years into his apprenticeship, Berto appears to be on the verge of such a moment but it is not quite here yet, which is why Saturday night he will be in the ring at the Pechanga Resort and Casino against a man with nearly as many knockouts as he has fights, two-time European welterweight champion Michel Trabant.

This fight on HBO's Boxing After Dark continues the gradual escalation in class Berto's handlers have been putting him through, a process of learning that must be carefully crafted if it is to be in his long-term best interest. Not too fast. Not too slow. Not too light. Not too heavy. It is a balancing act, the matching of a young prize fighter's skill and progress against opponents from whom he can learn without suddenly finding out there is a gap in his education.

Berto last fought in September, delivering a crushing knockout of veteran David Estrada when he ended their night's work in the 11th round in the kind of spectacular fashion Berto had hoped for but one he knew would be difficult to achieve. Estrada had been around, going the distance against Shane Mosley and being stopped by current IBF welterweight champion Kermit Cintron. He knew how to fight and he knew how to frustrate a young man who still had things to learn.

In the end, Estrada was a test the young student passed nearly perfectly and so the next test comes this time against a more savvy boxer in the 29-year-old Trabant (43-2-1, 19 KO), whose first loss as a professional didn't come until he was fighting Jose Rivera for the welterweight title.

"Andre has moved from a prospect to a contender,'' says his promoter, Lou DiBella. "On Feb. 9 he'll be in with a multi-time European champion. He's starting to fight Top 10 competition. He's ready to challenge some of the top fighters in the division and by the end of the year we think he'll be ready to win a world championship.

"He had a pro style from his first professional fight. You could see he knew what he was doing. He was 21 and blasting everybody out. We had to find guys who could go some rounds with him and show him his trade. Estrada was one of those guys. We think Trabant will be another.''

This is how a young fighter learns his trade. At the expense of older fighters who once were in Berto's position but came up short. Trabant is such a fighter. A product of the German boxing machine that has ruled the European ring for some years now, he was a rising star until Rivera outpointed him. Since then he has lost once more, tested positive for banned substances and slipped from contender to trial horse.

But for a kid like the 23-year-old Berto he is more than a pop quiz. He is another examination of just how far Berto has come in three years, a distance he believes has more miles to cover.

"Trabant is another stepping stone for me,'' Berto (20-0, 17 KO) said. "Every fight is important for me. He's had over 40 fights. He's fought for a world championship. He's part of my learning process.''

Berto is not yet sure what to expect from Trabant. At times he comes out aggressively to challenge his opponents but other times he sits back and looks to box. How he will choose to fight a young contender who comes to the ring with heavy hands and the desire to put them to work Berto doesn't know. All he knows is he intends to be ready for whatever questions Trabant's skills and guile will ask of him.

"I'll have to decide whether I want to establish my jab and set him up off of it or be more aggressive. I think it will be a tactical fight for a while and then we'll see.''

Thus far once the tactics stopped the fireworks usually began because Berto has always been the kind of fighter who wants to knock off early, yet he seems to understand that there is still much to learn and danger lurking in the corner opposite his every time out now.

"I was proud of myself in the Estrada fight, actually,'' Berto said. "You can sit back and watch tape and feel you can beat somebody but until you step in the ring with 10,000 people screaming under the big lights and that camera on you you don't know what you'll do.

2008 02 09 profile Berto is this his year

"A lot of people freeze up. I didn't. I executed the game plan. I knew he was aggressive and tough as nails. I wanted to show I could break a veteran down. It took some time because he knew what he was doing. That made me respect the game even more.''

Come Feb. 9, Berto will again be under the watchful eye of HBO's cameras, ones he and DiBella both believe he needs to get used to because before long he will be performing in front of them with much more at stake.

That, too, is part of the learning process but it is a fact of prize fighting he insists has been the easiest part of his job.

"That camera is what separates the great fighters from the average fighters,'' Berto said. "Sitting in the dressing room having your hands taped and hearing the roar of the crowd can break a fighter down. I seen it. The pressure is too much for them.

"But a few guys get up for it. They feel the excitement. Some guys are performers. That's definitely me. I dreamed as a kid about fighting on HBO. Now I've done it and I'll be doing it more.

"In the dressing room is as nervous as I get but when the lady comes and says "Five minutes to go'' and they start the countdown my whole demeanor changes. I go from Andre Berto likeable guy to this beast.''

That "beast'' exists only inside a boxing ring. Affable and easy going in long pants, Andre Berto becomes someone else when he's in shorts and leather mittens. What he becomes, DiBella believed from the start, is the kind of fighter who can move a crowd.

"Before the Olympics I told Andre his style was not best suited for the amateurs,'' DiBella recalled. "He had a professional style. He punched to the body and he punched with bad intentions. He didn't fight that pitty-pat style that wins in the Olympics.

"He has a style that is crowd pleasing. He's a boxer-puncher but not a defensive oriented one. He throws a high volume of punches and he throws most of them to knock you out.

"Andre stalks you. He does the things the crowd likes. In a time of MMA, a defensive fighter doesn't get the credit he deserves. This is not the time for a Pernell Whitaker, as great as he was.''

It is, DiBella hopes, soon to become a time for Andre Berto. A time that will come closer on Feb. 9 when he steps in with a German teacher who intends to bring a stiff test to him. The kind of test he's looking for.

"My father was a hard-nosed guy,'' Berto said. "He was tough. The same blood runs through me. He was the type guy who was just so intimidating even if he just looked at you. I looked up to that. I wanted to be just as tough and strong as he is.

"But I had to learn how to control that in the ring. I've watched tape of Trabant. He knows how to work in there. I have to go out there and find my respect. I don't expect him to give me that respect before I've earned it.''

To do that, Andre Berto knows he must solve the riddle of Michel Trabant, whatever it is, while avoiding the trouble Trabant wants to lead him into. He must box until he has worn him down, jab until he opens him up for the kind of punches that rendered David Estrada helpless last September. And he must do it all while never forgetting that his teacher is someone whose lesson plan comes with harsh grades if he's not careful.

"He's well known in Europe but not as much over here,'' Berto said of Trabant. "I have to be patient and do my job. Then we'll see what's next. I'm not the kind of guy who goes crazy and demands things. I'm patient. I feel I'm getting there, getting closer to my dream.

"When I was eight years old I used to take sheets of paper and write down all my goals. I never had short term goals. Everything was long term. God blessed me with that.

"I knew if I stayed focused everything would come to me. From the time I started boxing I was always physically stronger and faster than the other kids and I didn't mind getting punched at all.''

Saturday night Lou DiBella knows his fighter will very likely get punched a time or two. He'd rather not think about that but it's part of the learning process that takes a young man from prospect to contender to champion. Andre Berto is on that road, one that will be blocked for a time by Trabant. Andre Berto is betting he won't be blocking that road for long.

"But I had to learn how to control that in the ring. I've watched tape of Trabant. He knows how to work in there. I have to go out there and find my respect. I don't expect him to give me that respect before I've earned it.''

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