The word that best describes Andre Berto in training is “explosive.”
Berto has extremely quick hands, even for a welterweight, but the former two-time titleholder also possesses the strength and punching power of a much larger fighter. He’s like a 6-foot 200-pound athlete squashed down into a stocky 5-foot-7 frame that somehow makes 147 pounds.
(I know Berto’s height is listed at 5-foot-8½ on Boxrec.com, but unless I’ve begun to shrink that stat is a bit of an exaggeration.)
His short stature hasn’t hindered his boxing career thanks to the elite speed and raw power that he’s been blessed with. I got to witness that potent combination up close during a recent visit to the Ten Goose Boxing gym in Van Nuys, Calif., where Berto is training for his anticipated rematch with Victor Ortiz on Feb. 11.
I winced every time his gloves connected with trainer Tony Morgan’s mitts.
Berto’s straight right hit like a cannon blast. His compact hooks produced a thunder clap-like noise. Every shot seemed to send shock waves through Morgan’s body during the mitt session.
I’m not usually so taken by the sound and impact of a fighter’s punches when works the mitts. Normally, I’m watching his foot placement and various maneuvers to get an idea of what kind of strategy he’s working on with his trainer.
And make no mistake, Morgan, a young-but-experienced trainer with an astute boxing mind, was going over the finer points of the sport with Berto. He was getting Berto to block and counter-punch in combination. They also worked on lateral movement and setting traps.
But Berto’s booming offense made it difficult to pay attention to his technique.
I asked Morgan if Berto sometimes has the same trouble.
“Yeah, it’s something we’ve had to work on our whole career,” said Morgan, who began training Berto when the Florida native was a 12-year-old amateur. “It’s rare for a fighter to have all the tools that Andre has. Most guys just have one or two gifts, speed or power or whatever. Andre has ‘em all. He’s got the quickness, the reflexes, the punching power, the tremendous strength, and he’s even got the elusiveness some people don’t think he’s got.
“But it’s hard to get him use those tools the right way when he’s used to destroying his opponents. He’s been blowing through guys since the amateurs. That’s what he did when he was kid. He walked ‘em down and beat ‘em down.”
Morgan admitted that Berto, who lost the thrilling first bout with Ortiz, a southpaw with equally quick and powerful hands, has always had trouble with left-handed boxers.
“The one guy who gave Andre trouble in the amateurs was Juan McPherson,” Morgan said. “He was a tricky southpaw that we fought five times. Juan won four of those bouts because Andre tried to steamroll him the way he did everyone else.
“I finally got it into his head that he couldn’t stand flat footed with a boxer like McPherson, who was one of those lefties who would just touch you with his right jab and try to spin you into his left. We worked on slipping that left hand and coming over with the right cross before the  Olympic Trials and sure enough when they met up in the tournament Andre clipped him repeatedly.
“The fight wound up being a disqualification because Juan, who was definitely stunned from those punches, kept grabbing and holding Andre and finally got shoved to the canvas. There was a lot of crazy stuff that followed that fight, both guys were eventually DQ’d, but the bottom line is that Andre finally got the better of Juan when he added some technique and strategy to his game.”
Morgan is more than confidnet that Berto has the ability to get it right against Ortiz when the two boxer-punchers meet again in their Showtime-televised bout from the MGM Grand in Las Vegas (without any shoving controversy, of course). However, the young trainer isn’t 100 percent certain that Berto will properly use the ability he possesses.
“You need more than just speed and power at this level,” he said. “My job is to get Andre to know how to use his gifts and when to use them. If I can get him to do it right against Ortiz this time I think it can be an easy night for Andre.”
I don’t know if I agree that Berto will have an easy night against Ortiz if he does the right things, but I think (like most of my boxing writer peers) that the 28-year-old Haitian American can certinaly win the rematch with the proper adjustments.
Berto did not seem to have much of game plan beyond catching Ortiz with a huge right hand in their first fight, which took place last April. He landed his favorite power punch, but so did Ortiz. They both connected with their share of monster shots during the first six rounds, and thanks to their less-than-world-class chins, fans were treated to the kind of action and drama that makes boxing special.
However, Berto couldn’t maintain the heated pace down the stretch and Ortiz won a close unanimous decision in a fight-of-the-year candidate.
Still, some notable ringsiders, including Dan Rafael and Ron Borges, thought Berto edged Ortiz despite his late-rounds fade.
Berto and Morgan appreciate the opinions of the boss scribes but both are honest, down-to-earth fellas who have no problem admitting that Ortiz had the better night.
“I thought Vic pulled it out,” Morgan said. “He didn’t blow us out but he pulled it out.”
Morgan knew it wasn’t going to be Berto’s night. His fighter had been sluggish from the time of the weighin to the opening bell of the HBO-televised bout. Berto learned that he suffered from anemia not long after the fight.
“I don’t know if he had the energy to do what he needed to do in that first fight,” he said. “He showed extreme heart and determination given his health problems and given that he didn’t rehydrate properly after the weighin, which is something I didn’t know about at the time. But he didn’t do much that I was pleased with, to be honest and because of his lack of energy I knew he wasn’t going to give me what I wanted to see.
“I just tried to keep him focused as much as possible that night.”
Berto, who got back to his winning ways with a fifth-round stoppage of IBF titleholder Jan Zaveck last September, has addressed the health issues (with the help of controversial sports medicine guru Victor Conte) and says he feels stronger than ever.
I asked Berto if the extra energy will help him stick to the game plan or just make Morgan’s job of keeping him “focused” even harder?
“I love to knock guys out but it’s not hard for me to box,” he said. “I just have to pull it back a little.
“I think of it like the X-Men. You have these beings born with super powers, right? But they have to learn how to control their extraordinary abilities in order to do anything good with them.”
And to think, I almost wore my favorite charcoal-colored T-shirt with faces of the first squad of the “Uncanny” X-Men – Cyclops, Storm, Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Phoenix and Banshee (oh yeah, I’m old school) – on this particular day.
I decided to wear a plain brown T-shirt because I didn’t want to look like the comicbook-reading geek that I truly am on my first visit to Berto’s camp.
It turns out there was no need for me to feel that way. Berto isn’t the judgemental type, and he certainly isn’t the cocky jerk some fans think he is.
From what I observed, Berto is a quiet, good-natured guy who enjoys a very close but playful working relationship with Morgan. He doesn’t keep an entourage of cheerleaders in the gym.
It’s mostly family.
His silent but ever-watchful sister, Revelina, an unbeaten MMA fighter who cooks her big brother’s meals at the camp house (which is part-owned by NBA veteran Stephon Marbury), was there the day I visited.
So was his father, Dieuseul, a quiet and humble, but powerfully dignified man.
The only member of the family who made any noise was his older brother Cleveland, a handsome, nearly 6-foot personal trainer and part-time actor who was constantly joking, telling stories, and generally keeping the mood light and festive.
The former highschool wrestling standout, who earned a bachelor’s degree in theatre from the University of San Francisco, is clearly the gregarious one of the family.
However, Berto comes out of his shell when he talks about the Ortiz rematch.
“I’m exicted about this fight,” he said. “I’ve done everything I need to do to have a good camp and to be at my best come fight time, so I know it’s going to be an exciting feeling when I’m walking to the ring that night.
“I know I’m not going be out of it the way I was before the first fight. My mind wasn’t on the fight in front of me when I walked to the ring that night. Believe it or not, I wasn’t even thinking about my opponents a lot of times before my fights.
“I was worried about what the fans wanted to see or what my critics might be thinking. Not this time. I know I’m going to be ready and I’m going to be excited, and it’s just going to be another exciting night for the fans, only this time it will be my night.”
Photos / Craig Bennett
Email Doug Fischer at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @dougiefischer