- Dan Rafael, Boxing
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Andre Berto has had his ups and downs, to be sure. He has a slew of wins, none against an elite opponent, though he has won versions of the welterweight title twice.
Last year, Berto's reputation took a huge hit when he tested positive for steroids ahead of a rematch with Victor Ortiz, which was subsequently canceled and the major reason Berto didn't fight for 14 months.
But Berto also has been in some exciting fights and has become must-see TV. He lost his two most crowd-pleasing bouts, however, dropping decisions to his two best opponents, both of whom knocked him down twice: Ortiz, who took a title from Berto in 2011, and Robert Guerrero, who dished out a beating in a November barn burner.
Coming off the loss to Guerrero, who parlayed the win into the shot at Floyd Mayweather Jr. that Berto wanted, Berto finds himself at a crossroads at age 29. He fired career-long trainer Tony Morgan and replaced him with 2011 trainer of the year Virgil Hunter, and now heads into a fight against 147-pound division gatekeeper Jesus Soto Karass, a tough-as-nails brawler who will make an opponent pay if he's not properly prepared.
"I feel that I have made some of the right changes that I needed to get focused," Berto said. "I have a new team and I'm dedicated to win another world title. I let the big show get away from me twice, once against Victor Ortiz and once against Robert Guerrero."
Said Golden Boy promoter Oscar De La Hoya of Berto: "He is a fighter. He is a warrior. He wants to get back to the top and he knows that facing Jesus Soto Karass is that step to that world title."
Anything less than an impressive win could be a serious setback for Berto (28-2, 22 KOs), who will face Soto Karass (27-8-3, 17 KOs) in a scheduled 12-round welterweight bout in the main event of the "Knockout Kings II" card on Saturday night (Showtime, 9 ET/PT; preliminary bouts on Showtime Extreme at 7 ET/PT) at the AT&T Center in San Antonio.
"Soto Karass is a tough opponent, but I'm here to represent and give these people a real good show," Berto said. "Our styles match up well. It sets up for an exciting fight. He's a tough veteran that keeps going and brings the action, and I'm one of the top guys that like to dish out punishment. This fight sells itself.
"I feel like I just need to go in here and do what I know how to do. I'm positive that I can do the things that I know how to do. If I do that, it might be a short night. It's called 'Knockout Kings,' baby."
Also on the televised tripleheader: Interim welterweight titlist Diego Chaves (22-0, 18 KOs) of Argentina will defend his belt against Keith Thurman (20-0, 18 KOs) of Clearwater, Fla.; and rising contender Omar Figueroa Jr. (21-0-1, 17 KOs) of Weslaco, Texas, will square off with Nihito Arakawa (24-2-1, 16 KOs) of Japan for a vacant interim lightweight belt.
Berto said the switch to Hunter's gym, on the outskirts of Oakland, Calif., for a seven-week training camp, has him feeling refreshed and feeling good -- not only about the fight with Soto Karass, but also his overall future.
With Morgan, Berto, of Winter Haven, Fla., had stagnated and ceased learning. His defense was shoddy, his ill-advised attempt at the Mayweather shoulder roll clearly didn't work in the Guerrero fight, and the chaos in his corner during difficult moments was embarrassing.
"I just improved mentally, physically, spiritually, just all the way around," Berto said of the move to Hunter, who is best known for his long association with super middleweight champion Andre Ward.
Hunter has known Berto since he was a 13-year-old amateur. Berto described his training camps as having an emphasis on strategy.
"I'm not sure I have the right words, but definitely it's a tough training camp, a technical training camp, and these guys are really precise on what they do and things they want you to work on," Berto said. "And it's not just going to camp and just working the same routines, just getting in shape. They definitely just work on strategy and a lot of repetition and they definitely just pound that into you so that you get the game plan right. So it's definitely a training camp that I love. It's different, but it's definitely effective, and I'm excited to show the skills off on [Saturday].
"You definitely work a lot smarter than just a lot harder. Of course, they work harder, but they definitely work a lot smarter."
Berto made it a point not to take any shots at Morgan, who took withering criticism for his handling of Berto's corner against Ortiz and Guerrero.
"Tony, he's a tremendous coach, man. He's one of the best in the game," Berto said. "He brought me to the Olympics. He brought me [up] to [be a] two-time world champion. He's a tremendous guy, but I just thought I just needed a change."
Soto Karass, 30, of Mexico, has become a fan favorite because of his action fights. He has won three of his past four bouts, including an upset decision against Selcuk Aydin in January, his most recent fight. In the fight before that, Soto Karass was stopped in the eighth round of a slugfest against Marcos Maidana on the first "Knockout Kings" card in September.
"Don't let the records fool you," De La Hoya said. "He always gives a supreme, supreme effort against any opponent that he's facing. He's coming off a fresh win in January against Selcuk Aydin, who we obviously know gave a very difficult and valiant effort against Robert 'The Ghost' Guerrero. He is a fighter that in the second half of his career is getting better."
Regardless of Berto's pedigree as a two-time titleholder and 2004 Olympian for Haiti, his parents' home country, Soto Karass, as always, is confident.
"I'm getting into the ring to kick my opponent's ass. That's my game plan," he said. "I'm ready. I can't wait until Saturday night. The Mexican fans here [in San Antonio] motivate me, and I'm going to show why I'm the champion on Saturday night.
"I respect what Andre Berto has done in his career, and he's a tough fighter, but a win over him would be the biggest of my career. If I want to get a world title shot, I have to go through him to get it."
Berto has no plans to allow Soto Karass to do that, seemingly content with where he is and the changes he has made.
"We go through our ups and downs, but the place where I'm at now is a great place," Berto said. "At the top of the year, I made the changes that I needed to make. So I guess I'm just ready to get back to work and really to go in here and handle business like I know how to do."
Former welterweight titlist and action ace Andre Berto will undoubtedly put on a good show against brawler Jesus Soto Karass on Saturday, but he has made big changes in search of something even greater.