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Mayweather’s Final Opponent? Berto Ain’t So Bad

Andre BertoBy Matt O’Brien: On the 12th of September boxing’s biggest star, Floyd Mayweather Jnr., will step through the ropes for the 49th and – if his retirement promise is to be believed – final time. The selection of Haitian born Andre Berto as his supposed last ever dance partner is a choice that has induced stinging criticism from large sections of media and fans. But while the disappointment of not seeing boxing’s premier operator test himself in a more high-risk encounter justifies the criticism to a certain extent, all things considered, Berto really isn’t that bad of an opponent. And before you condemn me as a fully-fledged member of the Floyd “TBE” Cheerleading Society, hear me out.

There is no denying that Andre Berto was not the most dangerous, challenging or deserving opponent available to Mayweather for his September show. If he wanted danger, middleweight monster Gennady Golovkin would have fit the bill like a glove; if he wanted to challenge his boxing skills, Cuban slickster Erislandy Lara would surely have obliged up at 154lbs; and if Floyd were in the business of rewarding the most deserving contenders in the welterweight division, a host of names including the likes of IBF champ Kell Brook, WBA “regular” belt holder Keith Thurman, perennial top-contender and current WBO titlist Tim Bradley, and former light-welterweight champions Amir Khan and Danny Garcia would no doubt have been queuing up to step in and take a cheque from Mr. Money, given half the chance.

That being said, chastising Mayweather for his selection of Berto and lambasting the entire promotion as a “sham” is going overboard, for a number of reasons. A bit of perspective, I think, is in order.

Let’s remember, firstly, what Berto brings to the table. He carries the pedigree of a world-class amateur boxer, twice winning the National Golden Gloves and collecting a bronze medal at the 2003 World Championships for the United States, before representing Haiti at the 2004 Olympics (he was eliminated in the first round). As a professional, Berto is already a two-time welterweight world champion (three if you count the dubious “interim” WBA belt he collected in his last outing). He first won the WBC title in 2008 and notched five successful defences, defeating respectable world-class opposition such as Steve Forbes, Juan Urango, Luis Collazo and Carlos Quintana, later claiming the IBF strap from Jan Zaveck in 2011. In March this year, he scored an impressive stoppage victory over world-rated contender Josesito Lopez in the sixth round, earning the lightly regarded WBA “interim” belt, but more importantly the assignment against Mayweather this coming Saturday.

Athletically, Berto is also no slouch. He possesses a fast, stiff jab, respectable power (23 out of 30 victories ending by KO) and a proven twelve-round engine. He’s also shown some serious grit, gutting it out in numerous exciting battles where the going got very tough indeed. In that regard, Mayweather’s own claim that part of the reason he selected Berto is because he’s “a tough competitor… every time he goes out he’s entertaining” may well have been something of a cynical marketing ploy – but in fairness to Berto, it also happens to be completely true. In short, he’s a strong, tough, physically gifted fighter with proven world-class credentials who also happens to be trained by one of the finest coaches currently in the sport, Virgil Hunter.

Of course, that is by no means the whole story, and Berto has been far from unbeatable at world level. In 2011, his first run as WBC champion was ended via unanimous decision to Victor Ortiz, and after bouncing back with the aforementioned victory over Jan Zaveck in his next outing, was again unanimously defeated in a grueling twelve-round war in 2012 – this time losing to four division titlist Robert “The Ghost” Guerrero. Following the defeat to Guerrero came arguably Berto’s most crushing defeat – a twelfth round stoppage loss in July 2013 to unheralded underdog Jesus Soto Karass.

It has been a mixed bag for Berto then, with the “three defeats in his last six fights” statistic drawing particular scorn from the Mayweather detractors. This seems overly harsh, in my opinion. All three of Berto’s losses came in competitive, hard-fought, legitimate world-level fights, in which there is little shame in losing. In fact, the defeat to Soto Karass is somewhat misleading: injuring his shoulder in the second round, Berto nevertheless fought admirably for the remainder of the contest with one good arm, demonstrating a fighting heart of the highest order and even forcing his opponent to take a count in the eleventh round before being floored with a peach of a left hook in the final stanza, exhausted but gamely rising to his feet and being stopped by the referee. Putting the injury and the performance into context, trainer Virgil Hunter cited the defeat as a positive in their relationship, recently being quoted on Showtime’s “All Access” saying, “that fight there is what convinced me that we could do some things [together] – because of the courage that he showed.”

It’s also worth remembering that there is something of a double standard permeating the harsher criticisms directed towards Berto’s record and recent defeats. After all, Mayweather’s great rival Manny Pacquiao’s record also now mirrors the “three defeats in his last six contests” statistic; meanwhile former front-runner in the Mayweather sweepstakes Amir Khan (whom many claim Mayweather “ducked” for the September date) has not only been defeated three times, he’s also been badly knocked out on two of those occasions. I use these examples not to denigrate the record of either Pacquiao or Khan, but rather to point out that in the grand scheme of things carrying a few defeats on your record really doesn’t matter that much – something the Mayweather detractors themselves will be only too glad to point out in a slightly different context.

None of this will wash much with those who are convinced that Mayweather has spent his entire career avoiding a meaningful challenge. In fact, defending the choice of Berto as an opponent leaves one in grave danger of being labelled part of his internet “fanboy” club. It seems to have become almost fashionable these days for writers to flaunt their knowledge of the sweet science by decrying Mayweather’s record and his claims of all-time greatness. That is not surprising: there is indeed an army of online sycophants parading their ignorance of the sport’s history by swallowing The Money Team’s exaggerated, almost comical claims that Floyd is “TBE” – “The Best Ever”. The title almost invites derision. And yet, arguing the case for why he is not in fact “the greatest fighter of all time” effectively means picking on a very small and fragile straw man – you’ll find it an easy victory, but one that ultimately proves very little.

Once again, a bit of perspective is in order here: just because Mayweather falls significantly short of being the greatest ever fighter in history, that does not mean he isn’t in fact a great fighter full stop, or that his record is lacking in serious challenges. The danger is that in arguing the case too forcefully against the Mayweather fanboys, one loses sight of the fact that critiquing his record is a relative game, rather than an all-or-nothing question. Similarly, I would say it’s worth bearing in mind that Berto failing to be the best opponent currently out there for Mayweather doesn’t mean that he also fails to be a good opponent.

Naturally, if the result is another easy, unanimous decision victory for the star of the show, this will undoubtedly result in a chorus of “I told you so’s” from those critical of Berto’s pre-fight selection. This is despite the fact another UD for Floyd wouldn’t really be any different from what we would expect were he to be pitted against any other fighter in or around his weight class, with the obvious exception of Gennady Golovkin (a man who boxes at a weight Mayweather has never competed at and who outweighs him by around 20lbs in the ring).

Consider that since returning from his self-imposed hiatus from the sport in 2007-2009, Mayweather has taken on four guaranteed and one extremely likely entrant to the boxing Hall of Fame (Juan Manuel Marquez, Shane Mosley, Miguel Cotto, Manny Pacquiao and Saul Alvarez, respectively) and every single time the result was the same: Mayweather W12 – with only a single, scandalous drawn scorecard preventing a full sweep of “UDs”. (It’s perhaps also worth pointing out that the majority of these fighters once resided on the ever-shifting list of opponents that Mayweather “would never fight”; later they graduated to the ever-expanding list of opponents he “only fought when he knew he could beat”.) Factor in further victories over welterweight world title-holders Victor Ortiz, Robert Guerrero and Marcos Maidana (twice), and it’s fair to say that Mayweather has compiled a very respectable run in the latter part of his reign.

At thirty-eight years old and thirty-one bouts since his first world championship contest, adding Andre Berto’s name to that list at this stage would hardly be the travesty some are suggesting. Mayweather himself has boasted of the fact that at thirty-six years of age none other than the true “Greatest Of All Time”, Muhammad Ali, fought and lost a split decision to a seven-fight novice named Leon Spinks. Does that mean Mayweather’s record compares favourably with Ali’s, as he clearly intended to imply? No. Not by a long shot. It just provides a bit of that much needed perspective. For all the hyperbole in his boasts, sometimes Mayweather latches on to a reasonable point: he has, by any standard in history, maintained his success into an unusually late stage of his career.

The upshot is this: Berto may not be the “best possible” opponent in the world; he may not be a stone cold killer or even the most dangerous welterweight currently available. However, he is nevertheless a game, powerful, athletic, genuine world-class contender with legitimate skills and a solid résumé. That doesn’t mean he is likely to produce a shocking upset this weekend. It just means his selection as Mayweather’s opponent does not warrant the scathing cynicism that it has been greeted with by some sections of the media.

Matt can be followed on Twitter @Boxinphilosophy

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