In boxing, there is dumb, dumber and then there is the ill-fated strategy Andre Berto employed in last November's fight against Robert Guerrero. You remember that Berto, right? The power puncher who spent most of his career clobbering opponents with right hands who inexplicably came out against Guerrero employing a (bad) shoulder roll defense that got him knocked down twice in the first two rounds and probably cost him the fight?
Yep, that's the one. Now, a fighter tinkering with his style isn't unusual. A fighter overhauling it and implementing a style very few fighters employ is highly unusual, especially since only one fighter (Floyd Mayweather Jr.) has mastered the technique Berto tried.
In a way though, it was fitting. The loss to Guerrero was a disastrous end to a disastrous stretch for the former welterweight champ. Earlier in 2012, Berto was busted for using a banned substance, offering a meek explanation (contamination that could have been attributed to eating tainted food) that few really believed. Before that, Berto was beaten up in a decision defeat to Victor Ortiz, his toughest -- and some would argue his only -- test to that point.
Nine months later, Berto is back, beginning the rebuilding process on Saturday, when he faces veteran brawler Jesus Soto-Karass at the AT&T Center in San Antonio (Showtime, 9 p.m.). As is custom for floundering fighters, Berto has undergone the requisite "transformation." He fired longtime trainer Tony Morgan (the trainer is always the scapegoat, isn't he?) and replaced him with SI.com's 2011 Trainer of the Year Virgil Hunter. Hunter has vowed to scrap the shoulder roll and force Berto to develop an identity, something Berto (surprise!) sounds eager to do.
"It's just a fact of just getting back to the basics on what I do," Berto (28-2) said. "That's to stay strong, stay good on my defense, work on my jab and work on my strong combinations and just be me at the end of the day. I have the hand speed. I have the power. I have the athleticism and it's just putting everything together. I believe being in a camp, Virg is able to see all of that. He feels that I can do whatever I want to do, but it's better just to stick to me and do what I do."
Trainers aren't miracle workers though, and there is plenty of evidence showing that even the best relationships take time. Wladimir Klitschko was knocked out by Lamon Brewster in his first fight with Emanuel Steward. Freddie Roach has waxed often about the challenges he faced working with Manny Pacquiao early on. Hunter, in fact, recently took over Amir Khan's corner and the results -- a pair of lackluster wins over Carlos Molina and Julio Diaz -- have been mediocre.
Soto-Karass isn't the type of opponent to take too many chances against, either. Though far from elite, Soto-Karass (27-8-3) is as tough as they get. He has lost most of his notable fights (to Marcos Maidana, to Gabe Rosado, twice to Mike Jones) but has made opponents work in all of them. There is no finesse to Soto-Karass, no subtlety. He plows straight ahead, dares you to hit him on the chin, then tries to carpet bomb you with power shots of his own.
"I'm going to be ready for a war," Soto-Karass said.
Soto-Karass can win, if for no other reason than we still have no idea how good Berto really is. Berto is the poster boy for the Al Haymonization of boxing, the good-looking, hard-hitting power puncher who was spoon fed walking heavy bags for most of his career. Berto made millions drop-kicking opponents that would have made Roy Jones's myriad mandatories look like Hall of Famer's, opponents who collected a check, took a beating and then went home. When it came time to fight someone who fought back, Berto, predictably, looked lost.
Make no mistake, Ortiz and Guerrero are not A-level fighters. But they were a big step up from the D-pluses Berto was used to.
There are more second acts in boxing than in Hollywood, so to call Saturday night make or break for Berto, just 29, would be hyperbole. But it's a biggie. Win and Berto can catapult himself back into the mix of the top 147 pounders, back into a growing field that will soon be replenished by the handful of 140-pound stars who will soon be moving up. Lose -- especially to an opponent as one-dimensional as Soto-Karass -- and Berto will inch closer to gatekeeper status, a no-man's land no boxer wants to be.
"We go through our ups and downs, but the place where I'm at now is a great place," Berto said. "At the top of the year, I've made the changes that I need to make...so, I guess I'm just ready to get back to work and really to go in here and handle business like I know how to do."