Friday April 9th, 2010

WESTON, Fla. -- It was mid-January and Andre Berto had just stepped out of the gym when his cell phone began to buzz. The caller was a longtime friend from Miami, who wanted to let Berto know that there had been an earthquake in Haiti, the birthplace of Berto's parents and home to more than 30 of his relatives.

"Really?" Berto asked. "Wow."

And that was it. No way it could be that bad, Berto thought. I'm sure they get earthquakes all the time. I'm sure everyone's OK. It wasn't until Berto got home and flipped on CNN that he saw the extent of the devastation. He saw the reports of the more than 200,000 dead and thousands more missing. He saw the ravaged capital of Port-au-Prince and video of millions of his countrymen wandering the streets, their homes reduced to a pile of rubble.

He reached for his phone like a reflex. He called his parents, who had been trying to get through to relatives all day without success. He thought about his sister, Naomi, and young niece, Jessica, who were living in the middle of the disaster area.

"I was really worried," Berto said in an interview with SI.com. "The last thing on my mind was boxing."

But he had to be thinking about boxing. Berto was a few weeks away from the biggest fight of his life, a showdown with WBA welterweight champion Shane Mosley. It was the fight Berto had been dreaming of for years and one that could catapult him among the boxing elite.

So the next day he went back to the gym. He trained. He sparred. But it was no use. During breaks he would sneak peeks at CNN to see if there were any updates. And when he was working he wondered if a family member was trying to reach him.

"I tried to keep the same routine but [Haiti] was the only thing I was thinking about," Berto said. "I couldn't really sleep too much. I kept seeing those images in my head."

"He was continuing to work but he was totally preoccupied," said Berto's promoter, Lou DiBella. "He was going through the motions. All he wanted to do was watch CNN and get updates on the phone or on Twitter. It didn't take a rocket scientist to see he was going through hell."

The fight was off, and within days Berto was on a plane with a team from Project Medishare bound for Haiti. His sister and niece had survived but eight other family members, including an uncle and several cousins, did not.

"I just had to get down there," Berto said.

What he saw was unnerving. Fighters are used to seeing a degree of suffering. If a power puncher like Berto is doing his job, his opponent ends up flat on his back. But nothing could have prepared him for what he saw in Haiti. Bodies decomposing in the streets. Hands of corpses reaching out of the rubble. Children playing in the street with bandages taped to their skulls. When the bandages were removed, Berto said, "you could see part of their brains."

The staff on site immediately put Berto to work. He was asked to help pull bodies from the debris and hold patients down while their limbs were amputated. He wandered the streets to lend support to the survivors, many of whom recognized him.

"I saw a lot of death," Berto said. "It was straight out of a horror movie and we were right there in the middle of it."

He stayed a week, but his mind stayed longer. Back in the U.S., Berto's thoughts constantly returned to the crippled nation he had left behind.

"I was messed up," he said. "I'd walk into my house or drive down the street and [Haiti] would just hit me."

He wanted to help. He needed to help. In February, Berto founded the Berto Dynasty Foundation, which will direct funds to Project Medishare, temporary housing for those who lost their homes and the rebuilding of schools and orphanages. On Saturday night, Berto will defend his WBC title at the BankAtlantic Center against Carlos Quintana (10:30 p.m. ET, HBO) in a fight that has been appropriately dubbed "Fighting for Haiti." A portion of all ticket sales will go to the Berto Dynasty Foundation.

Several people in Berto's camp are uneasy about this fight. Quintana (27-2, 21 KOs) is a former welterweight titlist who handed Paul Williams his only loss. And there is some trepidation about Berto's psyche going into the fight and concerns about rust after an 11-month layoff.

Berto (25-0, 19 KOs), however, says he is ready. He hopes that a convincing win will put him in the discussion for a future fight with Manny Pacquiao or the winner of the Mosley-Floyd Mayweather fight on May 1. And he hopes that sometime in the future, when Haiti has recovered, he can hold a fight there.

"Wyclef Jean told me that when he performs there, are two million people there," Berto said. "If we had a fight there, it would set a record for boxing attendance."

His promoter is on board.

"If that's something Andre wants to do, I'd go with him," DiBella said. "You can't go to Haiti to make money. You go to create hope and make a statement. You do it as a community service. Frankly, it would be a wonderful thing to do. Haiti is a broken, Third World country right now. He would be doing something to bring a diversion to the suffering."

Said Berto: "It's not over. We still have to help Haiti recover. There are still a lot of people there that are in trouble. And I want to do everything I can to help them out."

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