Thursday April 14th, 2011

NEW YORK -- Andre Berto is good.

We think.

His résumé is solid. At 27, Berto is undefeated and owns the WBC welterweight belt. He has speed, power and a bit of a swagger to his game.

But David Lemieux had a good résumé, too. Lemieux was a rising star in the middleweight division, right up until journeyman Marco Antonio Rubio dealt him a seventh-round TKO loss last Friday. So, too, was James Kirkland. The shine came off him last Saturday when he was knocked down three times in the first round by Nobuhiro Ishida (who?) before the referee stepped in.

This is the problem with prospects in boxing. In most cases, their records have been so inflated by a parade of punching bags that when they finally go up against a veteran who doesn't wither at the sight of them, they are exposed.

"I'm not going to lie, every time I see one of the young fighters go down, I look at my brother or call my manager and say, 'Man, we're one of the only ones left,' " Berto said. "I see a lot of these guys, guys that get a lot of hype, they have been going down one by one. But we're still here standing."

Indeed, in some ways Berto has already proved himself. He has been in with a heavy puncher (Juan Urango) and a few crafty veterans (Carlos Quintana, Luis Collazo). He has gone the distance in three of his last five fights and won easily each time.

But the casual fan has yet to embrace Berto. He's not a big draw -- a recent fight in his home state of Florida sold fewer than 1,000 tickets -- and he's generally not considered to be in the company of elite welterweights like Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather and Shane Mosley. His opponents almost always have the "their good but" label attached to them and he has yet to face anyone who has been considered a contender. HBO loves him (he has pocketed millions in license fees over the last two years), but to many, he's still an unproven commodity.

"It's not like we haven't wanted the big fights," said Berto's promoter, Lou DiBella. "They are not available. He's in a division with guys like Selcuk Aydin and Mike Jones. Who wants to see that?"

Berto (27-0) will have a chance to erase those doubts on Saturday, when he defends his title against Victor Ortiz (28-2-2) at the MGM Grand at Foxwoods in Mashantucket, Conn. (HBO, 9:45 p.m. ET). There are no asterisks attached to the 24-year-old Ortiz. He's a skilled, powerful puncher in his prime. A win would raise Berto up a level. An emphatic win -- which, say, ends in a knockout -- might elevate him two.

"I think this fight is going to be a fight that people want to see," Berto said. "This kid is young, strong and athletic, and they know what I bring to the table. They want to see me tested. They think this kid is going to test me and I hope he does. Because I feel another sharp fighter is only going to make me sharp."

A little bad blood helps, too. There's no love lost between Berto and Ortiz. During the final pre-fight news conference on Wednesday, a scuffle nearly broke out after the two started jawing at each other while being posed for pictures. Ortiz has spent most of the buildup blasting the media for questioning his heart and swearing up and down that this will be the fight that makes him a star.

"He's got his team trying to convince him that he's not a finished fighter because he bitched up in the last couple of hard fights," said Berto's trainer, Tony Morgan. "That's talk. Andre is the real thing. We've sparred with all the great fighters. They know how good Berto is."

There is a consensus in Berto's camp that this fight is critical. A win would move Berto to the top of the list of candidates to face Pacquiao or Mayweather. There is also a potential fight with Mosley, whom Berto was supposed to face last year before the tragedy in Haiti forced him to withdraw. A loss would turn the whispers of doubt into shouts and send Berto back to the pack of fringe contenders.

"I think Andre is quite a bit more proven than some of the guys that were upset last week," DiBella said. "But that being said, when you are fighting a puncher, you never know what can happen. I hate punchers against my guys. They are dangerous. They make you nervous. But I love this fight as a fan because I know they are moving straight ahead. It's going to be a fight. Probably somebody is going to get hurt."

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