Suddenly...Berto on the welterweight brink
By Lyle Fitzsimmons,
Contributing Boxing Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Last week, Andre Berto was a top-ranked contender simply looking to maintain momentum.
This week, he's 12 rounds -- or less -- away from realizing a life-long dream.
"It's crazy. It's just nuts right now. When I think about it, I don't really believe it," Berto said in a Thursday afternoon FitzHitz interview, still reeling from the dramatic twist that's given him an initial chance at a world championship -- set for June 21 at the FedEx Forum in Memphis.
There, as the headline bout on HBO's "Boxing After Dark" card, the unbeaten 24-year-old Floridian meets 12-year pro and No. 2-ranked challenger Miguel Rodriguez for the WBC welterweight title declared vacant after the surprise retirement announcement by Floyd Mayweather Jr. seven days ago.
"It's something I try and block out of my mind, as best as I can," Berto said. "But when I do think about it, it gives me a little more incentive to know that my goal is just one fight away. I've always approached fights with a focus, and to be put in this position all of a sudden is definitely a blessing."
Before Mayweather's exit, Berto was preparing for Rodriguez with significantly different stakes -- simultaneously hoping to maintain his pristine record while continuing the speedy rise through the 147-pound ranks that began when he turned pro after representing Haiti in the 2004 Summer Olympics.
Andre Berto will meet No. 2-ranked challenger Miguel Rodriguez for the WBC welterweight title.
He won 16 straight bouts by the end of his second calendar year as a pro and has passed a series of incrementally tougher tests since, including a decision over former world title challenger Cosme Rivera and subsequent stoppages of established divisional gate-keepers David Estrada and Michel Trabant.
In Rodriguez he faces a similar hurdle, a 29-year-old veteran who lost a narrow 12-rounder to rugged Carlos Baldomir one fight before the Argentine upset Zab Judah, then followed it up with three straight wins -- including two by early knockouts.
"I was really surprised and I didn't really know what it all meant," Berto said of Mayweather's announcement, which came via e-mail to selected media members last Friday. "I didn't think it was official, and then I didn't know how long the WBC was going to take to work out the logistics.
"I figured they might make our fight for the interim title and then work something else out if it all became official, but then (promoter) Lou (DiBella) called and let me know it was going to be for the real WBC title, and I was like, 'Wow, I guess this is serious.'"
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Also impacted by Mayweather's snap decision...one Oscar De La Hoya.
Suddenly without a foil for a remake of last spring's PPV record-breaker, the "Golden Boy" heads into the back half of 2008 having to make a new set of decisions on how best to end his career and cement a professional reputation.
De La Hoya billed last month's defeat of Steve Forbes as Act I of a three-act play that would have subsequently included a September revenge defeat of Mayweather, and presumably ended early next year with whatever lucrative quarry remained uncaught.
But now, the made-for-TV hunt has changed dramatically.
Provided he still plans a two-tiered exit strategy -- and assuming Mayweather stays on the sidelines -- De La Hoya's next move will essentially determine whether his desired legacy is one of legitimate pound-for-pound dominance or simply a final register-ringing money grab.
Replacing Mayweather with the winner of next month's Cotto-Margarito duel gives the budding promotional conglomerate the same path to the top of the welterweight division, against a foe all would agree presents a more punishing test than the speed/defense matrix of the "Pretty Boy."
A win would warrant a ride into the sunset with an easier, bigger payoff -- a trip to England to vanquish common man Ricky Hatton in front of 80,000 fans at Wembley, or a climb to the top of the money pile for a home-turf finale against the "Hitman" at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
Ominously, rumors suggest Oscar is considering a safe cash-out against Hatton alone, a path toward proving nothing more than what is already evident -- that Hatton, like Arturo Gatti before him, is camera-friendly and little else when it comes to measuring up against the world's best.
And that De La Hoya is concerned less with the biggest fish, and more with the easiest catch.
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A valid passport is vital if any of the upcoming week's title fights are on the travel agenda.
Hometown favorite Edgar Sosa risks his WBC light flyweight championship for the fifth time overall and second time in 2008 on Saturday, when he meets No. 6 contender Takashi Kunishige at Palacio de los Deportes in Mexico City.
A 28-year-old Mexico City native, Sosa won the interim 108-pound crown with a majority decision over Brian Viloria in April 2007 at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas.
He successfully defended three times by the end of the year and made it four in a row on Feb. 9, when he unanimously outpointed countryman Jesus Iribe.
Kunishige, a 32-year-old southpaw, is fighting for the first time outside his native Japan and is also vying for his first world championship.
He was last active on Feb. 11 in Tokyo, where his Japanese light flyweight title fight with Munetsugu Kayo ended in a technical draw after five rounds.
Title fight No. 2 occurs 2,184 miles northwest in Mexico's Baja California peninsula, where Filipino incumbent Florante Condes will defend his IBF mini flyweight belt for the first time against unbeaten No. 1 contender Raul Garcia at Estadio Arturo C. Nahl in La Paz.
Condes won the 105-pound laurels in his last outing, taking a split decision from veteran Muhammad Rachman last July in Jakarta, Indonesia.
He's won nine straight bouts -- including seven by knockout -- since a split- decision loss to Benjie Sorolla in May 2005.
Garcia has fought 17 of his 22 professional bouts in La Paz, including a unanimous scorecard win over Ronald Barrera in an IBF title eliminator on Feb. 29.
Four days and just more than 10,000 miles later, the week's third and final title fight takes place Wednesday when WBC strawweight champ Oleydong Sithsamerchi defends for the first time against No. 15 challenger Junichi Ebisuoka in Phuket, Thailand.
Just 22 years old, Sithsamerchi won his crown with a unanimous 12-round decision over Eagle Den Junlaphan in November in Bangkok.
He's fought one time since, stopping winless John Cut Siregar in four rounds in an over-the-weight bout on March 28.
Ebisuoka, also fighting outside of Japan for the first time and competing in his initial world title fight, has won three straight since dropping an eight- round decision to Katsumi Makiyama in June 2007.
He stopped Thongthailek Por Vorasing in four rounds in his last fight, on March 20.
Lyle Fitzsimmons is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He provides "In The Ring" boxing commentary for Speeding Bullet Network (speedingbulletnetwork.com), is a periodic contributor to "The Drive with Dave Smith" on KLAA radio (am830klaa.com) and can be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.