Taking Off The Kid Gloves

By Nat Gottlieb Courtesy of HBO.com

Andre Berto is a world champion with a contender's résumé. The opponents he has faced and beaten are the kind that would position him perfectly for a shot at a title—if he didn't already own one. His reference names are good, but not anything a recruiter would drool over.
Berto won a vacant welterweight belt last year by defeating an undistinguished, 30-year-old Mexican fighter named Miguel Angel Rodriguez. His first championship defense came against a 31-year-old former lightweight titlist, Steve Forbes. Berto stepped up a bit in his last defense by taking on Luis Collazo, but as tough as that Brooklyn fighter is, his highlight reel would begin and end with losses to Ricky Hatton and Shane Mosley.
It is a mark of the distance Berto still has to go to be called elite that he struggled to add himself to Collazo's reel. Far more experienced, Collazo gave Berto fits with his elusive southpaw style. The good news for Berto is that he won. The even better news—as far as his handlers are concerned—is that Berto overcame adversity throughout the fight, and when he needed to win the last round to keep his title, he tightened his championship belt and showed true grit.
On May 30, Berto will face what looks on paper like yet another building block in a fight with Juan Urango, a junior welterweight champion moving up a division to challenge him. Is this any way to develop an elite fighter? You bet it is, says Cameron Dunkin, the 2007 manager of the year.
A long time friend of Berto, Dunkin's judgment on the way a fighter is being developed is the boxing equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. He gives his stamp to Team Berto. "They've done a great job with Andre. He's still learning. They're doing the right thing. He's not ready yet for a fighter of the caliber of Shane Mosley," Dunkin said.
Dunkin knows more than a little about taking time developing champions, having guided the careers of 18 belt holders. At one point in his career he had six champions at the same time. Now he "only" has three—Kelly Pavlik, Steve Luevano and Nonito Donaire. Based on his reputation, if Dunkin were a country, NAFTA would accuse him of being a protectionist.
"How fast you move a fighter depends on each fighter," Dunkin says. "Every guy is different. It all depends on what kind of amateur background they had, how old they are and how physical they are. Basically, I'm a big coward in that I am very cautious."
Nobody would ever accuse Berto's promoter, Lou DiBella, of being a coward, but when it comes to his champion, he is certainly being cautious. Berto's trainer, Tony Morgan, apparently is on the same page as DiBella. "We're in no rush with Andre, and we're making money. He's only 25," Morgan says.
That money comes at a price, however. "We're in a lose-lose situation," says Morgan, who has trained Berto since he was an amateur. "If we don't rush him, people say we're babying him. If we do rush him and he gets beat, people will say you shouldn't have rushed him. But I promise you when we get those big fights we're going to fight our asses off. We will leave our heart in the ring."
Morgan thinks Berto may soon be up to the task. "Now is the time for Andre to make a move," the trainer said. "After this, we will go for the big fights. It's time for us to step out of the shadows and into the limelight. It's time for us to shine, or turn off the light."
So far Berto (24-0, 19KOs) has danced around that light, but has yet to step into it. Defeating Urango—even in impressive fashion—certainly won't do it for him. All it is likely to do is draw more heat on his handlers for fighting a boxer whose 23 bouts have all been at 140 pounds. What is there to gain by fighting Urango? "It is not a step down for us, and no, it is not a step up. But it is a step," Morgan says.
To what? "Within the next two years you're going to see the best Andre Berto that Andre can be," Morgan says. "He came into the sport from the amateurs as a programmed fighter. Now he's smarter, and we've been getting better at game plans. But so far, Andre's strength has been his worst enemy. He relies too much on his punching power. In the gym I'll put him in with five or six pros and pay them money to see if they can hit him, and usually they can't. But in the ring, he gets a little lackadaisical and reverts to relying on his power and not showing his best defense. He takes more punches than I'd like to see."
While Dunkin says Berto is not ready for Mosley, Morgan is not so sure. "I don't think Shane is the toughest fight out there. I think Cotto is. Cotto only lost to Margarito because he had the wrong strategy—he tried to outbox him. If I had the choice to fight Cotto or Mosley and could pick the easiest one, it would be Shane, because he's more predictable than Cotto," Morgan says.
Dunkin says beating Cotto or Mosley would only be the beginning of a long and special journey for the multi-talented fighter. "I believe Andre will stay his whole career at welterweight, kind of like Kelly wants to do at middleweight, and Andre will be the kind of guy who'll have 15-20 title defenses. He's going to be a great welterweight."
For now, Berto still remains on the cusp of greatness.