Thursday September 1st, 2011

Make a list of fighters who have had it better than Andre Berto. You'll probably be stumped after scrawling the names Pacquiao, Klitschko and Mayweather on the paper.

Berto was an Olympian at 20 and a welterweight titleholder at 24. He has the backing of the savvy Al Haymon and the bombastic Lou DiBella. He has taken millions from HBO fighting opponents that, in several cases, have no business being in the ring with him. He was on Bob Arum's short list of opponents for Manny Pacquiao and viewed as a legitimate contender to Floyd Mayweather.

He had it all.

Then along came Victor Ortiz's left hand and his own big mouth to take it all away.

Flashback to last April. Berto, 27, was a heavy favorite against Ortiz, a longtime junior welterweight with a questionable chin. It was supposed to be another good but beatable opponent. Instead, it turned into a war. He knocked Ortiz down twice, went down twice himself and lost a close decision.

Losing isn't the end of the world, no matter what Floyd Mayweather tells you. Losing and crying about it, well, that's another story. About a month after the fight Berto took to Twitter and insinuated that Ortiz needed the help of performance-enhancing drugs to beat him. He backed off the comments a few hours later but not before being blasted by the media for making a baseless accusation.

Ask Berto about his comments and he clams up. Ask him about bouncing back from the loss and he gets upset.

"Lose one fight, and you're forgotten about?" Berto said. "Fighters have shown for years and years, they lose one fight and then come back. I lose my mind about a lot of you reporters or just reports in general sometimes. I was involved in my first fight of the year and you're going to write me off already? It's just the nature of the game. They love you and they hate you and then they love you again."

Indeed, Berto can reclaim his place among boxing's best quickly. He will have a chance to claim another version of the welterweight title when he challenges Jan Zaveck for Zaveck's IBF title at the Beau Rivage Casino and Resort in Biloxi, Miss., on Saturday (10:45 p.m. ET, HBO). A win will not only bring home a belt, but also would position Berto for a rematch with Ortiz, a long-awaited showdown with Shane Mosley or a lucrative matchup with welterweight-to-be Amir Khan in 2012.

To reach that goal, Berto has added a controversial name to the payroll: Victor Conte, the BALCO founder who served four months in prison for supplying athletes with performance enhancing substances. Since BALCO, Conte has quietly found success as a legitimate nutritionist, working with notable names like Andre Ward and Zab Judah. Conte has assisted Berto in dealing with a recent diagnosis of anemia, providing him with the supplements to help battle fatigue.

"I definitely feel the difference [working with Conte]," Berto (27-1, 21 KOs) said. "Beforehand, I didn't really do much of the nutrition aspect; I basically just trained hard in the gym. I didn't do vitamins or protein shakes, and it started to take a toll after a while. I feel kind of stupid because I was behind the curve when it came to a lot of different things."

It's a good story, albeit one that will become wholly irrelevant if Berto gets beat. And Zaveck (31-1, 18 KOs) is no slouch. The Slovenian is largely unknown. He has an anonymous resume and has fought out of Europe for most of his career. Take a quick trip through YouTube, though, and you will see a rugged, physical fighter with a Teflon chin and sneaky power.

"This is one of the best European-based champions in the world," DiBella said. "He's got a pleasing television style. He's coming over here trying to win, and if he does win, he's in the mix for a huge fight. So this is the recipe of a great fight and a high-risk fight [for Berto]."

It is a risk. One loss, that's recoverable. Lose two in a row, the "overrated" whispers become shouts and the rich network license fees disappear. Berto stands to gain a lot if he beats Zaveck. And he could lose a lot more if he doesn't.

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