FOUR YEARS AGO WE HAD AN IDEA: Find a promising boxing prospect and follow him from his first day as a pro to his first day of stardom, removing some of the mystery that shrouds the trip from the sport's basement to its penthouse. All we needed were two things-the right guy and a thousand lucky breaks.
So far, so good.
After quizzing trainers, promoters and boxing execs, we chose to keep tabs on a 21-year-old from Winter Haven, Fla., named Andre Berto. You might remember him as the kid who got tossed out of the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2004 for throwing an opponent to the canvas. We think of him as our storytelling lottery ticket. Because on Jan. 17, the kid we thought would one day get a shot at the brass ring will officially get his chance. Here are a few days from among his most recent 1,500 or so.
DEC. 4, 2004 (DAY 1) HOLIDAY INN PRESIDENTIAL CONFERENCE CENTER, LITTLE ROCK, ARK.
Dressed in a white tank top and shorts, Andre Mike Berto lounges on a queen-size bed in his 150-square-foot hotel room. For the past two days, Berto has wandered aimlessly around a mall, watched too much Food Network, sent countless Sidekick e-mails and called dozens of friends. The waiting, though, is almost over. In four hours, the 21-year-old will make his professional debut in a four-round, untelevised undercard bout for HBO's Boxing After Dark. His opponent will be another young middleweight hopeful, Michael Robinson (record: 2-1).
Berto, all 5'8" and 156 pounds of him, is confident but a little concerned, because this will be his first fight without headgear. His biggest anxiety is that he could be assigned to a "swing bout," a filler fight that can be moved up due to quick knockouts in earlier matches. Boxers in swing bouts must be on call all night, which saps energy and tries patience. "I'm not fighting if I'm the swing bout," Berto tells his trainer, Tony Morgan, who sits at his side.
"Ain't nothin' you can do," Morgan replies.
At around 5 p.m., it's off to the 7,150-seat Barton Coliseum, at the Arkansas State Fairgrounds. Berto's dressing room, the size of an airplane cockpit, is crammed with half a dozen other fighters and their trainers. The room reeks of tape, Vaseline and sweat. Country music blares. Amid the chaos, Berto finds a folding chair and sits in silence. And sits.
Two hours later, he's walking toward the ring. Berto has dreamed of this moment for a decade- through 160 amateur fights, a bronze medal in the 2003 World Amateurs and two National Golden Glove titles-and in his mind's eye, the arena was never this empty. The Coliseum will fill up later for the night's headliner, Little Rock's own Jermain Taylor, but now it's a ghost town. Berto does find consolation in one fact: He's not a swing bout.
A few minutes later the bell rings, and just like that, Andre Berto is a professional. In his first round he drops Robinson twice. He does it again in the second. After another knockdown in the third, the ref takes mercy on Robinson and stops the fight. Arms raised, Berto leaps onto the ropes, more relieved than happy; the waiting was much harder than the boxing. "Man, I just wanted to get over that first hump," he says. "I know I got plenty more fights to go."
FEB. 3, 2006 (DAY 427) PEND OREILLE PAVILION AT NORTHERN QUEST CASINO, AIRWAY HEIGHTS, WASH.
Berto's first televised bout is a scheduled eight-rounder on Showtime's ShoBox: The New Generation, which spotlights the sport's top prospects. But this seminal moment doesn't take place at a major site like the MGM Grand or Madison Square Garden; it's at the Northern Quest Casino, in the small concert hall, in a town 275 miles east of Seattle. It's one of those joints for the nickel-slot, Pall Mall crowd, where ringside seats go for $60. By now, Berto understands that this is the path to greatness. He's already fought in small venues in Oklahoma, New York and Florida. "Those little towns, those Motel 6's, those tiny dressing rooms-they keep you working hard to get to the big time," says former welterweight champ Sugar Shane Mosley. "And once you get the fame and the money, you still keep working, because you don't ever want to go back."
Prefight chatter focuses on two topics. The first is Berto's weight. With ambitions to face Mosley or Floyd Mayweather, Berto has dropped from middleweight (160 pounds) to welterweight (147). The other topic is Berto's opponent. Eight years earlier, Jonathan Tubbs (7-0) beat Berto as an amateur. "You never forget guys who beat you," he says.
After this night, Tubbs won't forget him. From the opening bell, Berto overwhelms Tubbs with speed and power-lead rights, double left hooks, four-punch combinations. In Round 2, Tubbs goes down twice. Two more knockdowns in the third end the fight. The casino crowd claps politely. Andre Berto is 10-0 (one TV fight to his credit).
APRIL 15, 2006 (DAY 498) 14K JEWELRY OUTLET, WINTER HAVEN, FLA.
Dressed in a black designer shirt and slacks, Berto crosses the parking lot of a dingy shopping center and enters the 14K Jewelry Outlet, where a neon sign says they "buy, sell and trade." It's not Tiffany, but Berto, who's worked here eight years, has risen to store manager. "He's a good employee," says the owner, Derrick Carpenter. "And we're very lenient with his schedule."
It's not like Berto needs to sell rope chains. Other than splurging on a chromed-out 2005 Chrysler Hemi, the fighter lives frugally. He's banked most of his prize money ($3,000 to $7,000 per fight) and lives rent-free at his parents' house, in Winter Haven. He doesn't carouse at night or shop a lot. Prior to his first professional fight he signed with Dash-DiBella Promotions, a partnership between former HBO boxing czar Lou DiBella and Damon Dash, the music and fashion mogul. The three-year deal includes a $60,000 bonus and Dash's promise to take Berto global. "Anything he wants under my umbrella will be accessible to him," Dash says. "His own sneaker, a clothing line, if he wants to make a record, make a movie. I tell him, 'Just keep knocking 'em out, and it will be there for you.' "
Mostly, the 14K gig keeps Berto focused. It's a strategy of self-imposed stability that has a long and storied history in the fight game: Bernard Hopkins once worked as a roofer; Mosley used to sell fishing licenses at Kmart. "With a job, all you do is work and train," Mosley says. "You don't have time to get into trouble."
There's plenty of that in Winter Haven. For every kid playing sports, another is gangbanging. The ratio of golf courses to meth labs seems as if it's 1:1. So Morgan, the trainer, and Berto's father, Dieuseul, keep a close eye on Andre. Dieuseul, who was born in Haiti, is linebacker-thick. He used to fight MMA. "Tough as nails," his son says. After 10-year-old Andre discovered the Police Athletic League gym, Dieuseul decided to help his son become a serious fighter with tough love: If Andre got out of line, Dieuseul demanded 500 push-ups; when the boy slowed too much during roadwork, Dad bumped him from behind-with the car he was driving.
Morgan, a 5'7" former Toughman scrapper, was just as vigilant. It was Morgan who guided Berto to two National Golden Gloves titles. It was Morgan who helped Berto win bronze at the 2003 World Amateur Boxing Championships, in Bangkok. And it was Morgan who became Haiti's one-man training team when Berto went Athens to representing Dieuseul's native country after being booted from the U.S. trials. Athens was a key stop for the young amateur. Despite his loss in the preliminaries, Berto came home from Greece in big demand. Promoters pursued him like rabid dogs, recognizing in him the three p's- power, precision and patience-that separate contenders from stars. "Andre Ward won the gold," DiBella says. "But I went after Berto."
FEB. 14-17, 2007 (DAYS 803-806) GALLAGHER'S STEAKHOUSE, NEW YORK CITY
The vibe is electric in a back room at Gallagher's, where Berto is appearing at a press conference to promote his Saturday-night HBO bout at Hammerstein Ballroom. Fellow DiBella fighters Paulie Malignaggi and Sechew Powell have top billing. But it's Berto, fighting on the undercard against Contender alum Norberto Bravo (23-12-3), who steals the show. A steady stream of trainers, promoters and reporters seeks him out. Berto, dressed in a designer pinstriped suit, shakes every hand and smiles at every compliment.
In the boxing world, HBO is "the Show," with the biggest fights and the fattest paychecks. In December 2006, Berto won his HBO debut in a sixth-round TKO of Miguel Figueroa. Network suits noticed. "He has an explosiveness like Roy Jones Jr. and Shane Mosley," says HBO exec Kery Davis. "That's not something you can teach. He has the chance to become a real star."
DiBella has long been calling Berto the "best prospect in the world," and it no longer sounds like hyperbole. Berto was named 2006 Prospect of the Year by USA Today and ESPN.com. He's also gaining star status outside the ring, with a fashion shoot for Playboy and an interview in Forbes. He's partied with Dash in New York, Tracy McGrady in Houston and Matthew McConaughey in Malibu. He even hired Al Haymon, Mayweather's maker, to help generate business deals.
Yes, the kid from Winter Haven has hit it big. The only problem is stardom is causing trouble in camp. Since they first began working together, Morgan has told Berto when to train, what to eat and how to live. But as his wallet and fame have expanded, Berto has morphed from boy to boss. "It's a phase he's going through," Morgan says. "I'll tell him we're gonna spar today, and he'll say, 'I don't feel like it.' He doesn't want to listen. He's trying to find himself."
Morgan's primary concern is every trainer's worst nightmare: losing his fighter to a bigger name. He's been hearing whispers about Buddy McGirt, and with only a verbal contract between trainer and fighter, Berto could split at any time. "I don't think he'd do it, but you never know," Morgan says. "It would be really wrong. But if he wants to leave, then he'd leave. I believe in karma, and that would be bad for him."
Seemingly overnight, Berto has plenty of guys who want to be in his corner. And now the other corner is becoming a problem. "Guys just don't want to fight him," says DiBella's matchmaker, Joe Quiambao. "It's one thing for an opponent to say, 'Yeah, I'll get paid a bit more and get beat,' and another for him to say, 'Yeah, I'll get paid more to get destroyed.'" Of Berto's past 10 foes, only two made it to the fourth round. If he is to become a PPV star, Berto needs to face stiff competition, fighters with name recognition. That's how the public will learn he's special.
For now, Team Berto just hopes that Bravo will put up a fight. "What I don't want is a first-round knockout," DiBella says. "I'm developing a fighter, not a record." But on Saturday night in front of a sellout crowd at the Hammerstein, Berto drops Bravo twice in the first round with left hooks. At 2:28, it's over.
As Berto smiles in his glory, he takes a moment to enjoy the atmosphere inside the ring. And while he poses for pictures with Dash, DiBella leans over the ropes and bellows to press row, "He's one of the best I've ever seen. In 12 months, we'll be ready for Mosley."
JULY 27, 2007 (DAY 966) CITY CENTER, SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. ESPN's Friday Night Fights cannot match HBO's prestige or purse, but Berto's latest bout is about keeping a young fighter sharp and in the spotlight.
Matchmaking isn't an exact science, but Quiambao thinks he's found what Berto needs. After watching hours of tape, cross-referencing records and contacting trainers around the world, Quiambao trimmed future Berto foes from 10 to one: Cosme Rivera (30-10-2). Rivera is 31, has 319 pro rounds of experience (Berto has 53), doesn't punch hard and has lost three of his past five fights. "Title fights like De La Hoya-Trinidad make themselves," says Golden Boy matchmaker Eric Gomez. "In-between fights are tricky. In a way, they're more important than title fights."
This is the most delicate stage of Berto's career. He's proved himself enough to be a contender, but is he really ready for the big time? If he loses an "in-between fight" like this, he might never get the title shot he so desperately wants.
Against Rivera, Berto nearly slips up. In Round 1, Rivera clinches, crowds and keeps coming- exactly what Team Berto wanted. By the fourth round, the kid gains control. So far, so good. "Is Berto at the next level?" asks trainer turned ESPN commentator Teddy Atlas during the broadcast. "I think he is. So do a lot of people."
Then Round 6 starts, and a lot of people suddenly look foolish. Rivera lands a perfect uppercut to the chin, and Berto hits the canvas for the first time as a pro. It's gut-check time. At the referee's count of three, Berto is up. The fighter's eyes are fuzzy, and his legs look rubbery, but with only two seconds remaining in the round, he is able to survive Rivera's assault.
Back in his corner, there's another test to pass. For the next minute, Berto, who just lost his first round in 17 pro fights, sits in his corner, dazed. This is a moment when he gets to show what he has in him. Will he get nervous and go into a shell? Will he, in other words, quit? Or can he get up off the stool and show the character and determination of a champion and regain control in the ring?
Team Berto gets its answer immediately. When the bell rings to start the seventh round, Berto attacks. By the eighth, blood streams from a cut over Rivera's left eye. Still, the fight goes the distance. Berto perseveres and takes a big unanimous decision. "You never like to see your fighter knocked down," DiBella says. "But it's a lesson he'll carry with him. And if he's not learning lessons on the way up, he'll have a short stay at the top."
JAN. 15, 2008 (DAY 1,138) INTERLOCHEN, WINTER HAVEN, FLA.
Berto stands in the driveway of his new ranch house. Inside, two of the three bedrooms are empty. Vacuum tracks cross carpets, the work of Berto's mother, Wilnise, a Disney World housekeeper.
For boxers, time is measured by fights; Berto bought the place after his 10th and moved in prior to his 18th. Interlochen is a community of winding streets and manicured lawns. "I dreamed of living here," Berto, now 24, says. "My family would drive to this part of town just to see the houses. It was where the doctors and lawyers lived. Now I'm the only black person in the neighborhood."
Berto's address isn't his only upgrade. He's quit the jewelry store, and he's changed the cell phone number he'd had since the 10th grade. In three weeks he'll fight for the 21st time as a pro-an HBO bout against Michel Trabant (43-1-1)-and earn $200,000, his biggest paycheck to date.
Yet Berto has tried not to too much. He still change drives that 2005 Hemi. And instead of moving to a big city-he considered Atlanta and LA-he's opted to remain close to his family. He still trains at the PAL, and Morgan is still the guy training him. "People told me I need a trainer who's been around, made champions," Berto says. "But I'm happy with Tony. We're growing together. One day they'll say he's one of the great all-time trainers."
He has, though, dumped Dash, whose big plans to create "Brand Berto" never materialized. Dash responded to the breakup with blistering e-mails, demanding a sit-down. Berto agreed, then failed to follow through. "My schedule gets so busy," he says. Standing in his driveway, he looks down at his feet. "I took the coward's way out," he says. "I should have handled it differently. I've always looked up to Damon, and I always want people to be happy. But I'm learning that in business you can't."
JAN. 17, 2009 (DAY 1,506) BEAU RIVAGE RESORT AND CASINO, BILOXI, MISS.
On the biggest day of Andre Berto's professional life, the undefeated boxer, now 25, will wake up at 8 a.m. in his 1,200-square-foot Cypress suite in the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino. His entire entourage- father, brothers, cousins, friends, advisers-will drop by. They'll talk, laugh, keep it light. At 11:30, Berto will order his last meal of the day, the same one he always eats before a fight: bowl of pasta, chicken quesadilla, lots of water. He'll go for a walk, then try on his trunks and robe. Soon it will be nap time; everyone will leave except his mom, who sleeps beside him prior to big fights. When he awakes, he'll shadowbox in the shower, then rub himself down with cocoa butter, put on sweats and watch one of his favorite fight-day movies: Gladiator, Troy or 300.
Around 6 p.m., Team Berto will enter his private dressing room at Beau Rivage Theatre. Berto will trade sneakers and sweats for sandals, shorts and a tank top. He'll sit quietly as undercard fighters pass by the open door of his room on their way to the ring. Soon, the tightness in his stomach will come. His opponent, former WBA welterweight champion Luis Collazo, has fought four title bouts and nearly upset Ricky Hatton.
In the final hour before he heads to the ring, Berto will pace the room, envisioning his first punch. "Warrior mode," he calls it. His cut man will rub him down with Vaseline. Standing before a full-length mirror, Berto will watch himself move. "I know I'm special, I know I'm that guy," he'll repeat. He'll dress and strap on the gold belt that represents the WBC welterweight championship. He earned it last June by beating Miguel Angel Rodriguez after Mayweather vacated the title, but the belt has felt hollow. Tonight will be his first real chance to prove he's worthy of being a titleholder.
With five minutes remaining, Berto will loosen up by working the pads with Morgan. The cut man will slip a piece of ice into Berto's mouth. Berto will take a few breaths and start jumping up and down. His entourage will begin a rhythmic clapping. Finally, the HBO cameras will arrive. A producer will pop in and signal that it's time.
A few minutes later, a bell will ring.
23-0 ANDRE BERTO IS A FINISHER. IN HIS 23 PRO BOUTS, ONLY FOUR OPPONENTS HAVE GONE THE DISTANCE WITH HIM.
12/04/04 TKO (third round) vs. Michael Robinson
1/21/05 Unanimous decision vs. Joseph Benjamin
1/28/05 TKO (first round) vs. Edgar Galvan
2/24/05 Unanimous decision vs. Daniel Neal
5/06/05 TKO (first round) vs. Tim Himes
6/09/05 TKO (sixth round) vs. Anthony Little
10/01/05 KO (first round) vs. William Johnson
11/04/05 TKO (first round) vs. Maurice Chalmers
12/03/05 KO (first round) vs. Taronze Washington
2/03/06 TKO (third round) vs. Jonathan Tubbs
4/14/06 TKO (third round) vs. Horatio Garcia
5/17/06 TKO (third round) vs. Gerardo Cesar Prieto
6/17/06 TKO (second round) vs. Sammy Sparkman
8/05/06 TKO (first round) vs. Roberto Valenzuela
10/21/06 KO (fifth round) vs. James Crayton
12/09/06 TKO (sixth round) vs. Miguel Figueroa
2/17/07 TKO (first round) vs. Norberto Bravo
5/19/07 TKO (seventh round) vs. Martinus Clay
7/27/07 Unanimous decision vs. Cosme Rivera
9/29/07 TKO (11th round) vs. David Estrada
2/09/08 TKO (sixth round) vs. Michel Trabant
6/21/08 TKO (seventh round) vs. Miguel Angel Rodriguez
9/27/08 Unanimous decision vs. Steve Forbes