-By Hamilton Nolan
Andre Berto is dangerous. And flawed. But more dangerous than flawed.
On Saturday night in Biloxi, Mississipi, as Tropical Storm Lee roared outside, Jan Zaveck, the 35 year-old (former) Slovenian welterweight IBF beltholder, was blinded by Berto's power, literally. His corner stopped the fight after five brutal rounds when Zaveck's right eye swelled closed.
Berto lost an even more brutal back-and-forth contest to Victor Ortiz in his last bout. Ortiz got a fight with Floyd Mayweather; Berto got this, a chance to put his career back on the blue hip track against a tough, game, but ultimately outclassed European. And he did it.
Zaveck entered the ring wearing a t-shirt bearing his children's faces, and made a point of tapping gloves with Berto at the start of the first round. This charmingly foreign display of good cheer cascaded throughout the fight, including a near-hug before the start of the fourth round and effusive compliments by both men in the post-fight interviews.
It didn't make Berto hit any more softly, though. He is a fierce puncher, a scary puncher, who, for all of his years of training-- a stellar amateur pedigree, and Olympic stint-- still throws punches with anger, punches that slip out of their allotted little textbook slots and become fearsome, if somewhat wild, daggers. Berto's straight right hand is among the most reliable knockout punches in boxing. He boasts a tank-like upper body attached to curiously skinny legs, which stay mostly rooted to the ground. He lets his cartoonishly muscular chest and back muscles do the work, like a hummingbird with bricks for wings. He moves forward, resembling nothing so much as an angry bodybuilder, always attacking, ever ready to neglect defense in favor of punching, punching, punching. He is out to do damage above all else. Andre Berto is the movie version of a boxer come to life.
Jan Zaveck is competent, and tough, but was overmatched by Berto's sheer force of will. He was able to land overhand rights throughout the fight, thanks to Berto's habit of carrying his left hand low and jabbing upwards. And Zaveck claimed inside position almost every time the men fought in close, thanks to Berto's complete disregard for defensive posturing. As the rounds went on Zaveck turtled up and dug his head into Berto's chest with greater frequency, but never abandoned his counterpunching. Still, Berto's booming body shots and his commitment to trying again and again to split Zaveck's tight guard with uppercuts kept Zaveck from opening up too much.
In the fifth, a left from Berto cut Zaveck over the eye, and the swelling proceeded immediately. By the time he got to his corner, a small plum had sprouted all the way around his right eye, closing it; and his left eye was partially closed as well. "It's too much," his cornerman said, shaking his head. Zaveck cursed loudly and asked for one more round, but the fight was stopped. He spent several moments sobbing on the bottom rope before getting up to congratulate Berto. The two guys seemed to respect each other quite a bit, which is nice. Had the fight continued, there's an outside chance Zaveck might have pulled it out. Who knows? Andre Berto is as hittable as he is a hitter.
In the postfight interview, Berto called for a rematch with Victor Ortiz; should Ortiz lose to Mayweather (as he will), it would certainly be a fan favorite. Both men like punching more than they like ducking.
On the undercard fight, featherweight super ultra amazing astounding prospect Gary Russell Jr. (now 18-0) scored an easy eight-round decision over his long-limbed and very tough Mexican opponent, Leonilo Miranda. It's no exaggeration to say that Russell's hand speed is probably as good as almost anyone in the world-- someone should put a diamond on a table and see whether he or Amir Khan or Manny Pacquiao could snatch it first.
Russell, a 2008 Olympian, is very, very polished; his jab is fast enough to be unavoidable, and he fires it like a bolt gun, releasing a pronounced hiss every time he bounced it off the bridge of Miranda's nose. He tends to throw four or six at a time, which is a healthy habit. Russell is capable of putting together amazing eight and ten punch combos-- double jab, four hooks to the body, two more to the head, followed by a straight left and another jab-- all within about two seconds. But his combos, amazing as they are, come in discreet packages. He throws them, then steps back to peer clinically at his opponent to see if he's still awake. (Miranda was frequently obliged to duck his head outside the top rope in order to buy himself a momentary reprieve, but he never did get knocked down.) Should Russell learn to let all of those combos flow into one another organically, he could be... unstoppable? Well. He's in Yuriorkis Gamboa's division. He could be good enough to challenge Gamboa, which is as close to perfect as any featherweight can get these days.