Every boxer sees his momentum stall at one point or another. That's the nature of the sport. There will be injuries. There will be defeats. There will be setbacks.
The unpredictability inherent in any boxing career arc is a reality with which Robert Guerrero and Andre Berto are intimately familiar. They are world-class talents who have both struggled to achieve full-steam-ahead career momentum -- in part due to the usual suspects, injuries and upset defeats.
But they've each suffered a more atypical setback as well. Guerrero got not just his career but his entire life rocked when his wife, Casey, was diagnosed with cancer in her mid-20s. Berto saw not just his career trajectory but his personal reputation assailed when he tested positive in May 2012 for performance enhancing drugs.
Guerrero and Berto, for very different reasons, know how suddenly the pause button can be pressed. Berto hasn't fought for 14 months; Guerrero is one fight removed from a 15-month layoff. So they both understand that every opportunity to establish momentum is an opportunity that must be seized. When these two 29-year-old warriors clash on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, there's more at stake than a single win or loss. One man will put his setbacks behind him, while the other will risk being defined by them.
At the press conference to announce this fight, Berto stated, "I went through a hell of a year this last year. I'm hungry." Berto's rough year started with a left biceps injury in January that forced the postponement of his February rematch with Victor Ortiz. Then, after the bout was rescheduled for June, it got scrapped again when Berto tested positive for norandrosterone. Berto claimed the failed PED test was due to contamination from either food or a natural supplement, and the California State Athletic Commission accepted that excuse and issued him a boxing license in August. But we all know the way things work in the modern world of sports: Once you've been accused of being a drug cheat, the stain and suspicion never go away.
Whatever Berto did or did not know, he's carrying himself like an innocent man wronged, lugging around a massive chip on his shoulder. He's completing not just one trying year but two in a row, since 2011 saw him suffer his first professional defeat, an upset decision in a 12-round thriller with Ortiz. Prior to that, Berto was 27-0 and perceived by some as the future of the welterweight division. Now he's 28-1 (22 KOs), fighting off accusations of cheating and more than a year's worth of ring rust. And he's hauling around the attitude that someone needs to pay for what he's been through.
Guerrero is stepping up and taking the risk of becoming that someone. And those who rate size as a determining factor in boxing matches would categorize it as a major risk indeed. Whereas Berto has never weighed less than 145 pounds in his pro career (and actually debuted at 162), Guerrero started out as a featherweight. "The Ghost" won a regional belt and later a "world" title at 126 pounds and stayed in the division from 2001 to 2008. In '09, he moved up to junior lightweight. The next year, he headed to 135 pounds. And in 2012, after taking an extended hiatus from the ring due to an injury of his own (left shoulder) and the continuing need to step up at home as his wife recovered from leukemia, he skipped all the way to welter.
Now 30-1-1 (18 KOs), Guerrero has, with the help of two bouts that ended in no-contests, put together a seven-year unbeaten streak. At welterweight, however, there is no streak yet. This is only his second fight in the division. In the first, this past July, he outboxed Selcuk Aydin over 12 rounds. Berto represents a major step up in athleticism, power, and all-around danger from Aydin.
"The fights you really want to see," said HBO expert analyst and former pound-for-pound king Roy Jones, "are the ultimate boxer vs. the ultimate puncher. Berto is the ultimate puncher. The Ghost is the ultimate boxer. Berto is the biggest, strongest guy he's ever faced-but for Guerrero that should be perfect because his style is perfect for fighting a puncher. It's not often you get a matchup where it's the perfect boxer against the perfect puncher. There's always the question of who will prevail. That's what makes boxing, to me."
On a recent HBO.com chat, a fan asked Berto to describe his style in three words, and he went with "Speed. Power. Explosive."
In his own HBO.com chat, Guerrero acknowledged that Berto is deserving of those adjectives but insisted none of it intimidates him. "Anybody who watches my fights [knows] I'm the type of guy who likes to exchange punches and not run. There's always that risk you have to take. With big risks, there's great rewards ... that's why I moved up to 147 pounds!"
Adding to the intrigue of the matchup is the fact that Guerrero is a southpaw -- just like Ortiz, the lone man to defeat Berto. If this fight is half as good as that Fight of the Year candidate from 2011, then the entire boxing world is in for a memorable evening.
"With Berto and Ortiz, they were both trying to hit each other so hard and really exchanging big punches the whole fight," Jones recalled. "This fight, I see going the same way. I don't think Berto and Guerrero want to get too close to one another; they just want to get close enough to hit each other. And I do see Guerrero's southpaw style causing problems for Berto. But I also see Berto's orthodox style causing problems for Guerrero."
Whoever causes more problems for the other and imposes his style more successfully will advance toward the top of the welterweight division. And it just happens to be the most lucrative division in boxing for those who reside near the top, given the presence of both Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao at 147 pounds.
It is no coincidence that Berto has remained at this weight his entire career or that Guerrero has risen 21 pounds in three years to get here. The goal for both men is simple: Win this fight, enter the Mayweather/Pacquiao sweepstakes. That's just one more reason there's so much more at stake in Berto vs. Guerrero than a single win or loss on their records.