No fighter ticks off boxing fans like welterweight Andre Berto, who is fighting Saturday night on HBO. He’s not alone in ticking them off, mind you, it’s just that the way he does it is unique. Whereas Floyd Mayweather and David Haye have inflamed hatred with their egomaniacal bragging and refusal to face their most obvious opponent (Manny Pacquiao for Mayweather and Wladimir Klitschko for Haye, the latter since consummated but to no one’s satisfaction), Berto is viewed as the sport’s ultimate welfare recipient, one prone to unintentionally ludicrous public statements, to boot. That he’s advised by Al Haymon — a man who inspires such hallucinatory passion that promoter Bob Arum can get away with saying the universally acclaimed featherweight prospect Gary Russell, Jr. is “just another Al Haymon creation” moments after saying “I never saw him fight” — is fodder enough to send your average boxing fan into a frothy-mouthed frenzy.
It’s not that some of the anti-Berto sentiment isn’t valid. He’s been on HBO a ton, where he’s been paid a significant amount more than he has earned (the network is high on Berto, Kery Davis once told me, because they view his as exciting and charismatic and capable of connecting with the youngsters, some of which are debatable assertions). He has no discernible ticketselling fan base, and while his last fight did good ratings on HBO, that was far from his usual trend. While naturally gifted physically, it’s not like he’s a world-class guy who’s so good HBO simply has to air him in competitive fights. Besides, he’s had a lot of “gimmes” on HBO (although some of his bouts were perfectly worthy match-ups that got filed under “another Berto mismatch” because people got used to them after a while). And he had two high-profile Twitter retractions for tasteless remarks about Edwin Valero’s murder-suicide and a baseless allegation that previous opponent Victor Ortiz was on steroids, with the second remark becoming yet more enraging after Berto hired known performance enhancing drug cheat Victor Conte.
What’s overlooked in all this is that this weekend, Berto will be appearing in his second consecutive fight where his opponent was highly worthy. I’m not saying you need to get out your kazoo and party hat and streamers about that. It should be the baseline standard. All I’m saying is that in his last fight, Berto fought the man who is now ranked #2 by Ring Magazine at welterweight and in his fight this weekend he’s going up against the man ranked #4, Jan Zaveck. And although it’s a fight nobody was really clamoring for against an opponent who’s virtually unknown in the United States, Berto is an often-exciting fighter — Ortiz-Berto was a legit Fight of the Year candidate — and Zaveck isn’t your typical, conservative stand-up style European. Those are a couple things you can embrace over the Labor Day weekend, if you’re looking for a reason to watch some boxing and usually can’t stomach Berto.
Zaveck’s low profile domestically means he requires a bit more of an introduction. He was the first man to knock out Isaac Hlatshwayo, a former top-10 welter, and he owns a win over Rafal Jackiewicz, the current #6 welterweight according to Ring. He also owns a loss to Jackiewicz, but few believe that was a just decision by the judges. There’s no evidence whatsever that Zaveck’s title strap has anything to do with him getting this fight. The writer who alleged that hasn’t interviewed anyone in charge at HBO in a long time to get their point of view in his stories, and HBO, by the way, had earlier turned down Zaveck as a Berto opponent when Zaveck had a belt. Either belts get you fights on HBO or they don’t. There’s no reason to assume that HBO wasn’t interested in Zaveck last year specifically because Zaveck-Berto would have been a “unification” fight; HBO airs unification fights when it cares about the fights. Zaveck is probably a more palatable opponent to HBO for Berto now because they tend to approve opponents they view as “lesser” to a fighter whose stock isn’t as high — the way Berto’s stock has dropped coming off his Ortiz loss. That’s just me guessing, though. I don’t have any evidence. Not the kind of thing I’d say “make no doubt about it” about.
As it happens, Zaveck is as good an opponent as Berto has faced, not “lesser” to any advanced degree than Ortiz. In solidarity with Jon Finkel, I’ll do this Dungeons & Dragons-style, even if Finkel was a Magic: The Gathering champion more than a D&D guy. Zaveck’s character class is “Stand-Up European.” Taking middleweight Arthur Abraham as a recent example of that character class, Zaveck, compared to Abraham, is -2 on defense; -3 on power; +1 on speed; +4 on activity level; +1 on versatility; and +2 on stamina/mental focus. He’s not going to wow you with his quickness or knockouts, but he’s got some of both; he’s not going to impress you tremendously with his defense, but he’s got that high guard and keeps his head moving; and he’s not a volume puncher, but he can put his shots together pretty well and doesn’t stand around and wait like some Euros.
Yet Zaveck has not faced anyone remotely like Berto. Berto does have gifts. He’s faster and hits harder than the two best opponents of Zaveck’s career by a country mile. Yet Berto was a bit of a disaster in his last fight, and not just because Ortiz was so determined, so driven. Berto’s jab, which I remember once being a decent weapon long ago, has degenerated into a full-blown laughingstock. His vulnerability to inside fighting, long a liability, has become a full-on handicap. And his stamina reserve was on empty by the middle rounds of the Ortiz war.
Berto, too, has been in against the better competition. Ortiz and Luis Collazo are greater than Hlatshwayo and Jackiewicz; beyond that, Zaveck doesn’t have anyone comparable even to an undersized Juan Urango, a faded Carlos Quintana or the much-decried Freddy Hernandez. Berto promises improvements from the Ortiz collapse. He says he had an off night against Ortiz. He says Conte has helped him deal with a subsequent diagnosis of anemia. He says Conte has kept him from overtraining. No word on whether another element of Berto’s disastrous night against Ortiz — about eight different people shouting non sequiturs over each other in his corner — will be resolved.
It’s not an easy call, this one. Zaveck can get inside against Berto, where the American’s a sitting duck, and he has better punching technique to make up for being slower. Zaveck can probably outwork him, too, even if he probably won’t knock him out. The Slovenian sounds super confident, too. In the other direction, Berto can punch around and under Zaveck’s high guard. Zaveck hasn’t, apparently, been down as a pro, but I don’t know if he could say that if he had been punched by someone with Berto’s power. I’m not very confident in this prediction, to say the least, but I’ll take Berto by late knockout.