The strange saga of Andre Berto, “The Human Bermuda Triangle of Boxing,” continues when he faces limited but always willing Jesus Soto Karass tonight in the Showtime main event at the At & T Center in San Antonio, Texas.
After playing first the pampered prospect, then HBO World Champion, Berto, 29, has developed a new identity over the last few years. Since consecutive opponents went on to fight Floyd Mayweather, Jr., after smacking him around, Berto seemed intent on reviving the old policeman role in boxing. Years ago, a policeman was, usually, a stablemate who softened up potential threats to the marquee name in the stable, as Artie Towne allegedly did for Sugar Ray Robinson and Cleveland Williams once confessed to doing for Sonny Liston. Policemen are a long-forgotten remnant of boxing—like writers who know what they are talking about or fighters who actually earn top slots. But Berto, alas, failed miserably as a policeman, notwithstanding the fact that he beat an actual full-time cop for the first of two UNICEF welterweight titles.
Nearly a decade after his pro debut, the best you can say about Berto, Winterhaven, Florida, is that he squeaked by Luis Collazo (and avoided a rematch), stopped a weathered Carlos Quintana, was compared to Sugar Ray Leonard by Max Kellerman, and tried valiantly to bring epaulettes back into fashion. Because of his limitations, however, Berto has made for some good fights over the last two or three years, and this is enough to justify his remunerative career in the eyes of the same people who think Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr., is not HBO material.
For all the slapstick that his career has been thus far—and that includes ESPN experts scoring in his favor against Victor Ortiz!—Berto might as well have been advised by the ghost of Groucho Marx. But nothing has affected his earning power. Not steroids, not drawing 974 booing fans for a title fight in his own home state, not producing average ratings for HBO, not a personality as winning as that as Vinnie “The Chin” Gigante during his best pajama-mumble-stagger moments, nothing. (If you still think Berto is not a steroid cheat—curiously, failing a drug test is not enough proof for some—just think back to 2011, when he publicly announced that he suffered from anemia. The last notable fighter to make that claim was Fernando Vargas.) What a living you can make as a prizefighter when network executives fall in love with your pulsating, albeit frail, biceps!
Now 28-2 (22), Berto will be making his first start without Tony Morgan as his trainer. It was a sad day for all funny bones in boxing when Berto scotched Morgan. Last November, Berto had his eyes nearly plastered shut by Robert Guerrero, who pasted him willy-nilly with nearly every weapon in his lightweight arsenal. But to make matters worse, Berto would return to his corner to hear Morgan exhorting him repeatedly to squat. Yes, squat. And who could forget when Morgan offered this sage piece of advice as Berto was being thrashed by Victor Ortiz: “Be an assassin!” Morgan will never win first place at the Improv Olympics, but he surely deserves some sort of BWAA award for best comedy skit between rounds. Berto dumped Morgan in favor of West Coast Zen Master Virgil Hunter, who has honed Andre Ward into the finest mixed martial artist in boxing. He has been spotted recently thumbing through the collected works of Sukhabodhananda in preparation for Karass.
Whether or not Hunter can work his mojo on Berto remains to be seen. After all, Amir Khan hardly looked like an improved fighter when Julio Diaz—considered damaged goods after Juan Valenzuela chilled him in less than a round in 2002—had him groveling on the canvas a few months ago. Against Lucas Matthysse, Mike Dallas disintegrated into ash like the unsuspecting at Pompeii within two minutes of the opening bell. Then, Brandon Gonzales nearly fell asleep after Hunter cooed at him between rounds when Gonzales faced Tommy Oosthuizen. All Hunter needed was a little Kenny G or some Muzak piped into the corner to complete the soothing effect. Gonzales eventually settled for a draw against Oosthuizen, who no matter what those in-the-know say, is notable chiefly for the novelty of bringing back Afrikaans between rounds in America. Still, there is no way even a snake wrangler would fail to improve Berto, who, sets back training manuals 120 years with exaggerated poses straight out of a mutoscope. How any professional trainer, like Morgan, can allow his fighter to stick his left arm out, ramrod straight, and then make bizarre circular motions with his glove, like a man washing a windshield, is a question probably best left unanswered.
Incredibly, Berto is making his 14th appearance in the Big Show tonight. Now, however, Showtime gets to reap the rewards of Berto having been on HBO over a dozen times. For years, HBO poached talent from Showtime, and Stephen Espinoza has returned the favor. Except in his case, he has poached talent with a far larger viewership than the fighters HBO swiped from Showtime over the years. Checkmate, Espinoza.
While Berto was out earning millions of dollars and the accolades of the commentariat, Karass, the Mexican reincarnation of Vito Antuofermo, was bleeding in rings all over North America. One of the strangest paradoxes in modern boxing involves the fact that often the “best” fighters face lesser competition than the second-raters. You need a madstone to figure that one out. An MVP pitcher faces every batter in a lineup from every team at one point or another. No one slips a rugby club into the opposing dugout before the game starts and then calls the ensuing shutout a masterpiece. Some fighters are so good, it seems, that legitimate competition is out of the question. Journeymen like Karass, on the other hand, have to duck through the ropes as longshots again and again.
As for the fight itself, Berto has a quick counter right hand with power, and Karass, 27-8-3 (17), has a distressing habit of falling over himself when leading from the outside. Nothing good is going to come of that combination for Karass, Los Angeles via Los Mochis, Sinaloa, Mexico. Seasoned, workmanlike, and as tough as the cicatrix above his eyebrows will allow him to be, Karass is also one-dimensional. After 12 up-and-down years as a professional, Karass, 30, has earned his latest shot by warring with Marcos Maidana en route to suffering a TKO loss last September and by outboxing (?) Selcuk Aydin six months ago. What does this say about Berto, who paid Aydin step-aside shekels on at least two different occasions?
Eight years ago, Karass showed up in New York City wearing puke-green terrycloth trunks at least two sizes too small. He barely laid a glove on Yuri Foreman before dropping an uneventful unanimous decision. Karass does not belong headlining a premium cable event. But then you start to think about about all that blood, all that sweat, all those hours spent in airless gyms, all those nights he knew he was expected to lose. Then you compare all that with the career of Andre Berto. There are stranger things than seeing Karass sharing top billing.