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Class Wars

Just how far does hype or being the relative of a former champion carry a young fighter? Andre Berto, the much-heralded former Olympian, and Chazz Witherspoon, cousin of two-time heavyweight champ Tim Witherspoon, are about to find out. They each face fighters who earned their status punching the proverbial clock. This card looks like class warfare.

Chris Arreola grew up in a house with only one bedroom, so his sister slept in the washroom and he laid out on the couch or the living room floor. He didn't sleep on a bed until he was 15. His first professional fight was fought in a tent outside a small casino before 200 people. After winning his debut, he blew most of his $600 check by taking all his friends to a buffet restaurant where you could eat all you want for $1.99. He thought he was a big shot.

Chazz Witherspoon graduated high school with a 3.8 GPA and was a member of the National Honor Society. Before he even fought his first professional fight, people in boxing knew who he was. He had a pedigree.

On June 21, when the two heavyweights step into the ring at the FedEx Forum in Memphis, it won't matter where they came from. It's all about where they're going.

2008 06 21 Berto Rodriguez overview class warfare

Andre Berto was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but like Witherspoon he came from a fight family. His older brother Edson is an accomplished mixed martial arts fighter, and their father Dieuseul competed in MMA in Japan, and fought in UFC 10 in 1996. A 2004 Olympian, Berto has been touted as a can't-miss prospect from the minute he stepped into the ring as a pro.

Miguel "Miki" Rodriguez has a lineage, but it is not the kind that earns you hype. Like so many Mexican fighters before him, he fought under the radar in small boxing venues in Mexico before coming to the U.S. for his 26th fight. Three bouts later he is still something of an unknown, although the Don King-promoted fighter is ranked number two by a sanctioning body, right behind Berto and champion Floyd Mayweather Jr.

Like Arreola and Witherspoon, the past no longer matters for these two welterweights. The future is now in a big way because it is likely that the winner of this "interim title" fight will inherit the full champion status of Mayweather, who announced his latest retirement on June 6.

Arreola's biggest asset as far as television exposure is concerned is that he's the rarest of American heavyweights, an exciting one. His idol is Julio Cesar Chavez, and like the great Mexican, when Arreola steps into the ring he launches an all-out, aggressive assault that is crowd pleasing. He is also unusual for a heavyweight in that he works his opponent's body tirelessly, using a rapid-fire, two-fisted attack.

"No matter whether I fight on HBO or in some rinky dink place like a tent, I'm the type of person who wants to put on a good show and entertain the fans who paid their money," said the 27-year-old Mexican-American, who was born and raised in Southern California.

Because he came to the professional ranks with little or no fanfare, Arreola (23-0. 21 KOs) didn't fight in a Las Vegas venue until his 19th fight. In contrast, Berto's second and fifth professional fights were in quality Eastern arenas, the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods respectively. After just eight fights against opponents with a combined record of 32-27-5, Berto was on the undercard of the second Jermain Taylor-Bernard Hopkins fight at the Mandalay Bay Casino in Las Vegas.

"I like the fact that nothing was handed to me, that I had to work extra hard to get recognition," Arreola said. "I had to earn my name and the respect of other fighters and fans."

Although the Goossen-Tutor promoted Arreola says he never watches tape of his opponents, he is certainly aware of Witherspoon's connection to his cousin. Asked if his career thus far would have advanced faster if he was the relative of a champion fighter, Arreola said he is happy that he wasn't.

"A name can only get you so far. I'm glad I had no famous name to follow. Sometimes when you do, people expect too much. I'd rather make a name for myself than live off someone else's," Arreola said.

Witherspoon (23-0, 15 Kos) has done a lot more than just live off cousin "Terrible" Tim's name. A star in high school basketball and track, Witherspoon was offered three Division One scholarships for hoops and two in track. Unlike Arreola, who began fighting at age six, Witherspoon didn't start boxing until his sophomore in high school. In the short span of two years and one month, he accomplished things as an amateur that were unheard of.

He had only been fighting for a year and 10 months when he made the U.S. Olympic team as the heavyweight alternate. In so doing, he became the first person in the history of USA Boxing to make that team after so little time in the sport. Prior to that, he achieved another first by winning the 2004 National Golden Gloves title with all his wins coming by way of knockout. No person in Golden Gloves history in any weight class had ever won a title with all knockout victories.

Also in contrast to Arreola, Witherspoon is not a brawler or particularly heavy hitter. Instead, he wins by using his very polished boxing skills, a fact that has drawn criticism from some quarters.

Also in contrast to Arreola, Witherspoon is not a brawler or particularly heavy hitter. Instead, he wins by using his very polished boxing skills, a fact that has drawn criticism from some quarters. Mr. Excitement he is not.

Arreola marks a significant step up for the 26-year-old Witherspoon, who has been nursed along carefully by Lou DiBella--a formula the promoter used with his other fighter on the card, Berto. Arreola made his own step up in his 19th fight when he took on another unbeaten and highly-touted Southern California prospect, Damian Wills, who was 20-0-1. Arreola battered Wills from pillar to post for six rounds before the referee stopped it in the 7th.

"I only gave myself a C for that fight," Arreola said. "I should have finished him off earlier. But that was the fight that put my name on the map."

Berto (21-0, 18 KOs) will be facing a fighter with infinitely less notoriety than Witherspoon's opponent. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find a single feature story on Rodriguez (29-2, 23 KOs) if you Googled his name. Googling Berto brings you page after page of features, fight results and YouTube bouts.

On the surface, it would seem that Rodriguez's No. 2 ranking by the sanctioning body is something of a stretch. But don't be misled; Rodriguez is a dangerous contender and could very well pull off an upset.

Rodriguez was 26-1 when he made his U.S. debut against a then little known Argentinean named Carlos Baldomir in May of 2005. After a slow start, Rodriguez came on strong in the later rounds and pushed Baldomir to the limit before losing a close 12-round decision, 113-116 and 112-116 twice.

Baldomir, of course, went on to upset welterweight champion Zab Judah in his next fight, and then dismantled Arturo Gatti in his first defense before Mayweather brought him back to earth.

"We were very impressed with Rodriguez when he knocked out Luis Maysonet (32-9)," said Bob Goodman, King's longtime right-hand man. "Then we put him in with the very rugged Carlos Baldomir, who struggled to win a 12-round decision. Miki Rodriguez is a very rangy fighter who can punch, and has been past the 10th round four times, winning all but the Baldomir fight."

Rodriguez is also a tall welterweight at 5'11 (Berto is 2 1/2 inches shorter), and very athletic, having excelled in basketball and soccer in high school. While his amateur credentials are nowhere near Berto's, he had a good 85-15 record and but for fate might have made the Mexican Olympic team. Scheduled to fight in an Olympic qualifier in Puerto Rico, Rodriguez lost his plane ticket and never got there.

What Rodriguez also brings to the ring is smarts. "I like to read about everything there is to know," Rodriguez said. "I like many subjects. I am currently reading a book about Egyptian culture."

In Rocky III, just before the opening bell in Balboa's rematch with Clubber Lang, his trainer Apollo Creed whispered to him in the corner, "You remember where you came from; you remember what it took to get you here." Arreola and Rodriguez would be wise to heed Creed's words, and for that matter, so would Witherspoon and Berto. In the end, it is not what you bring to the ring, but what you take out of it.

What Rodriguez also brings to the ring is smarts. "I like to read about everything there is to know," Rodriguez said. "I like many subjects. I am currently reading a book about Egyptian culture."

Andre Berto vs Miguel Rodriguez

HBO BAD - Jun. 21, 2008

Arreola vs Witherspoon

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