by Hamilton Nolan
Andre Berto's last fight before Saturday night was one year, two months, and 21 days ago. For those who suspected that that lengthy, scandal-induced layoff (after testing positive for steroids prior to a scheduled rematch with Victor Ortiz) might render the fearsome Berto (28-2) a bit rusty, congratulations: You were right. Robert Guerrero (31-1), a onetime featherweight, knocked down the muscle-clad Berto twice, closed both of his eyes, and handily manhandled him en route to a unanimous decision victory that was a mild upset of the most brutal variety.
The upset was only mild, because Guerrero is one of those very, very good fighters who teeters on the edge of the sport's upper elite, lacking only that one superlative quality needed to catapult him into legitimate stardom. He is a very good boxer, but not world-beatingly slick -- a very good puncher but without the sort of thunderous power wielded by Berto, power that can make even the most grizzled boxing fans wince in anticipation of its violence. Yet Guerrero proved on Saturday night that he does possess at least one superlative quality: his will.
Had you told someone before the fight that Guerrero, who just last year was fighting at 134 pounds, would bully Andre Berto, the most He-Man-like of all boxers, around the ring for 12 full rounds, they would not have believed you. But that is exactly what happened. Guerrero grasped the fact that to stand at arm's length or more in front of Berto is to dance with doom, due to Berto's eraser, his straight right hand that fires far too fast to be avoided for an extended period of time. Guerrero tasted that punch once in the first round, and then he did what, in retrospect, makes perfect sense: He put his head down, charged forward, and crowded Berto, never giving the bigger puncher much room to breathe. That was when things got ugly.
In the first, Guerrero managed to wrap his right hand around the back of Berto's head and club him repeatedly with the left, knocking him down. Not strictly legal, perhaps, but it certainly put Berto on the defensive. In the second round, Guerrero stung Berto in the right eye, closing it, and then knocked him down with -- again! -- the old "right hand behind the head, left hand punching the face" move. (This fight was not marked by great officiating.) For the following 10 rounds, the two men stood chest to chest, largely because Guerrero wanted it that way. It was dirty, sweaty, pounding, ugly work, trodding that ephemeral line between boredom and intensity. Berto adjusted somewhat in the second half of the fight and began to land solid, hard uppercuts on the inside, showing moments of the hand speed and power that have made him one of boxing's most feared punchers. But Guerrero stood up to them all admirably, never going down. In the end, the decision was his.
This fight exposed a few inarguable truths. Berto decided, for the first time, to fight in the Mayweatheresque shoulder roll style of defense for this fight. He should not do that. He has the hand speed -- but not the foot and body speed and the fundamental quickness -- to pull it off. Second, it became apparent that Berto does not know how to fight on the inside. He spent round after punishing round eating punches simply because he did not appear to know how to tie up both of Guerrero's arms at once. The fact that he was unprepared for an inside fight is somewhat understandable -- after all, Guerrero is not really an inside fighter. But Guerrero is a complete fighter, willing to take the fight wherever it needs to go in order to win. Berto, for all of his talent, is an unfinished product.
There has been much talk of Guerrero facing Floyd Mayweather. That is a fight that is of interest only to the two men in it: Guerrero, for the payday, and Mayweather, for the payday plus the fact that he could easily defeat Guerrero. It would be more competitive and interesting for Guerrero to face Tim Bradley or Victor Ortiz, or another top-level welterweight willing to mix it up more than Mayweather would be. Or perhaps there will be a rematch with Berto. If so, let's hope that Berto realizes that a man of his talents need not ever be pushed around the ring by anyone.
On the undercard, Keith Thurman (19-0), a raw but intriguing light-middleweight knockout hound, chased poor Carlos Quintana (29-3) around the ring for three rounds before TKOing him in the fourth. Quintana, who was dropped with a painful body shot in the first round, is a crafty and battle-tested veteran, but he was no match for Thurman's raw power and spent most of the fight being pursued like a cat by an awkward but angry bulldog. With 18 knockouts in 19 fights, Thurman is sure to get his chance against one of the division's better fighters soon. And he may find out, harshly, that at the very top of the sport, it takes more than power and aggression to win.