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Thursday, December 28, 2006
Updated: December 30, 11:14 PM ET
Berto's impressive power yields top prospect honors

By Dan Rafael
ESPN.com

Andre Berto's entrance into the world of combat sports should come as no surprise.

His father, Dieuseul Berto, an immigrant from Haiti, is a boxing, wrestling and karate expert who competed as a professional mixed martial artist in Japan when Andre was a boy, and now runs a martial arts academy in their hometown of Winter Haven, Fla.

Andre Berto
For Andre Berto, right, training and fighting is a family affair.
Andre's older brother, Edson, followed in their father's footsteps and is a professional mixed martial artist.

Another older brother, Cleveland, was a collegiate wrestler and former Florida state champion in high school.

Training and fighting run in the family.

"If my dad was training or running, he wanted us to be part of the experience," Berto said. "And if we got in trouble at school, instead of a 'time out,' we did 500 pushups."

Andre, a 23-year-old welterweight with mind-blowing speed and excellent power, is poised to see all of that training pay off.

Co-promoters Lou DiBella and Damon Dash, along with adviser Al Haymon and trainer Tony Morgan, kept Berto busy this year, and he responded by going 7-0 and winning all of his fights by knockout against an ever-improving class of opponent.

The 5-foot-9 Berto (16-0, 14 KOs) began the year on Showtime's "ShoBox: The New Generation" with a third-round destruction of previously unbeaten Jonathan Tubbs, and concluded it on a major HBO card, ravaging capable veteran Miguel Figueroa for six brutally one-sided rounds.

Between Berto's string of impressive performances and his unlimited potential, he was the clear choice as the 2006 ESPN.com Prospect of the Year.

"Of the (Olympic) class of 2004, most insiders agreed that Berto was as good a prospect as anybody, including the medal winners," said Showtime analyst Steve Farhood. "It was politics and circumstance that kept him off the U.S. Olympic team, but, that aside, he is a great pro prospect because of his natural aggressiveness and his punching power. Thus far in his pro career, he has shown a seek-and-destroy approach, and it has worked well."

Berto on Berto
"My dad was a real good martial artist and my brothers were also into it. They liked the kicking and going to the ground. I was a little chubby as a kid and not as flexible as they were, so I didn't like karate, and they made fun of me.

"But when my dad went to the boxing gym to train his hands, I went with him. I liked the boxing part of mixed martial arts, but I didn't like the kicking or going to the ground like my dad and brothers did. I knew boxing was going to be my game."

Despite Berto's amateur pedigree -- he was a two-time national Golden Gloves champion, a bronze medalist at the 2003 World Amateur Championships and a 2004 Olympian -- he came into the pro ranks with relatively little fanfare. Although he was born and raised in Florida, he wound up representing Haiti in the Olympics, thanks to his father's dual citizenship, and lost a decision in his opening-round bout.

Berto had been on his way to earning a berth on the U.S. team, but was controversially disqualified for a takedown of Juan McPherson during a bout Berto was winning at the U.S. Olympic trials.

Haiti, with no boxing team, took Berto on and he went to Athens as a one-man squad. The controversy didn't matter to DiBella, who always viewed Berto as a top prospect and potential breakout professional star.

"I remember talking to Andre shortly before he left for the Olympics, and I told him that on my so-called Olympic draft board, he was the top guy, and that wasn't going to change even if he lost," DiBella said. "He never embraced the amateur computer scoring system, where you get credit just for touching your opponent. Andre wanted to go out there and hurt guys."

Now, two years into his pro career, Berto is beginning to receive the attention he didn't get when he turned pro. Still, he remains humble because he hasn't forgotten what his father taught him and his siblings.

"He let us know at an early age that nothing is going to come easy," said Berto, one of six children. "We grew up rough. We didn't have a lot of money at all. My dad used to work as a cook. My mom (Wilnise) was a housekeeper. We saw everything they went through to provide things for us, and my dad let us know we had to work hard for everything we wanted."

Berto has done his share of hard work, some of which was seen unexpectedly by some reporters who were in Little Rock, Ark., for his Dec. 9 fight against Figueroa on the undercard of middleweight champion Jermain Taylor's title defense against Kassim Ouma.

Three nights before the fight, some of the press members in town for the card were taking an evening walk downtown. While they were going in one direction, there was Berto, all alone and bundled up in a sweat suit, running past them in the other direction.

A few nights later, Berto made his HBO debut and ripped Figueroa apart.

Rafael's
Prospects of the Year
Year Fighter
2006 Andre Berto
2005 Joel Julio
2004 Samuel Peter
2003 Jermain Taylor
2002 Miguel Cotto
2001 Francisco Bojado
2000 Julio Diaz

"It was always about hard work growing up, and it still is," Berto said. "We weren't afraid of hard work. We just knew when it was time to get ready for an event or a competition these were the things we had to do. That's why I run so hard. It's second nature for me. You have to take it seriously and stay focused because I want to shine every time I get in the ring. Every time. It doesn't matter if I'm fighting Joe Blow or Oscar De La Hoya.

"My spirit is to try to be dominant. I don't try to do anything out of my nature in the ring. I am genuine. When we're under the spotlight, and it's time to go, that's me, giving 100 percent."

DiBella said that the hard work eventually could make Berto one of the best boxers in the world.

"That's his upside," DiBella said. "I think he has work to do, though. Right now, his offense is more advanced than his defense, but he's so physically strong. There are still four or five fights of development before he faces a top guy.

"There's no reason to rush him. But I will tell you this -- he has such a diverse arsenal of punches. He can throw from every angle, he can box, he can punch with both hands and he has tremendous hand speed. That's what makes him special. He's not one-dimensional, which is why he can be a great fighter."

Other future stars (in alphabetical order with age, weight class and record):

Rock Allen (25, junior welterweight, 10-0, 7 KOs)
Although Allen didn't show much improvement in 2006, his pedigree is undeniable. He was a 2004 U.S. Olympian, is trained by his father, Nazim Richardson, who also trains Bernard Hopkins, and grew up around the gyms in Philadelphia. Golden Boy kept him busy in 2006 as he went 6-0 in his second year as a pro, although he is still very much a work in progress.

Mike Alvarado (26, junior welterweight, 15-0, 10 KOs)
The Denver product only had three fights in 2006 and is a little older than some prospects, but he continues to make strides. He didn't turn pro until he was 23 and had just 41 amateur bouts (36-5). But with a fan-friendly, attacking style and support from promoter Top Rank and Shelly Finkel, who is part of his management team, Alvarado will have every opportunity to see what he can do when he steps up in class.

Rey Bautista (20, junior featherweight, 21-0, 16 KOs)
Bautista, who turned pro a few days before his 17th birthday, is primed for a big 2007, which could include a title shot against Daniel Ponce De Leon. Trained by Freddie Roach and promoted by Golden Boy, Bautista is a very exciting fighter and one of many young Filipinos beginning to make their mark as professionals as they try to emulate their most famous countryman, Manny Pacquiao.

Timothy Bradley, Jr. (23, junior welterweight, 17-0, 10 KOs)
Nicknamed "Desert Storm," the well-muscled southpaw from Southern California is very aggressive. He was an excellent amateur, winning a pair of national titles and the under-19 national tournament. On Dec. 1, he scored his best win, an eight-round technical decision against veteran tough guy Jaime Rangel on Showtime's "ShoBox." Now that Bradley is promoted by Gary Shaw, who promotes most "ShoBox" cards, you'll see even more of him. He has aspirations to fight for a title in 2007 and could develop quickly.

Andre Dirrell (24, super middleweight, 10-0, 7 KOs)
Besides gold medalist Andre Ward, the 6-foot-3 southpaw with speed and power was the only member of the 2004 U.S. Olympic team to receive a medal (bronze). The Flint, Mich., resident has the look of a potential champion, but he still fights with a wild, unsettled style and could use a top-flight professional trainer to polish him. His career has lacked direction, but that should change now that he has hooked up with promoter Dan Goossen and adviser Al Haymon.

Anthony Dirrell (22, super middleweight, 12-0, 11 KOs)
Anthony Dirrell
Anthony Dirrell, right, might be more gifted than older brother Andre.
An injury kept him from competing for a 2004 Olympic berth, but he might be even more gifted than his older brother, Olympian Andre Dirrell. The brothers are quite similar, but Anthony seems to have a bit more power. Like his brother, he has all the physical attributes needed to become a champion. But he also needs to make the commitment to a pro style, stop relying solely on his athleticism, and listen to adviser Al Haymon and promoter Dan Goossen, who can steer him to the top.

Antonio Escalante (21, junior featherweight, 14-1, 9 KOs)
Escalante was born in Mexico, but has lived in El Paso, Texas, since he was 9. Although he had just 43 amateur fights (40-3), Escalante made huge strides in 2006 as Golden Boy kept matching him tough, and he kept winning. In a fight of the year candidate, he defeated Jose Hernandez, who later knocked off hot prospect Jason Litzau. Escalante also defeated Juan Ruiz, Alex Baba and Omar Adorno, all legitimate opponents. He's come a long way since a six-round decision loss in his fifth bout.

"Mean" Joe Greene (20, super middleweight, 13-0, 10 KOs)
Usually, fighters from New York City receive tremendous hype. Greene, of Brooklyn, however, has remained under the radar despite his potential and geography. He was busy in 2006, going 7-0 and fighting on some Madison Square Garden undercards. The southpaw's money punch is sharp right hook. He could be the sleeper of this group. Of boxing, Greene said, "I was born to do this."

Humberto Gutierrez (18, lightweight, 17-0, 15 KOs)
So far, Gutierrez has fought exclusively in Mexico, but eventually promoter Fernando Beltran -- who has a knack for finding the top Mexican talent -- might bring the youngster in the United States. Gutierrez looks like he's about 12, but fights with a relentless, swarming style like so many of his countryman. He's as raw as they come but he will be fun to watch mature.

Marcus Johnson (21, light heavyweight, 10-0, 8 KOs)
Promoter Don King doesn't usually get involved with young fighters who must be developed, preferring instead to sign established boxers. Along with featherweight Elio Rojas, Johnson (5-0 in 2006) is one of the rare exceptions. The Killeen, Texas, resident just missed a spot on the 2004 U.S. Olympic team, losing 16-11 to Andre Ward in the box-offs. Johnson isn't ready for a big step up yet, but he has made some incremental steps, including wins against Oleksandr Garashchenko (who beat Elvir Muriqi) and experienced Etienne Whitaker.

Amir Khan (20, lightweight, 10-0, 7 KOs)
Amir Khan
Despite enormous pressure, Amir Khan, left, was a perfect 6-0 in 2006.
Khan turned pro in 2005 with massive fanfare in his native England after receiving a silver medal in the 2004 Olympics. As a pro, he's been flawless despite enormous pressure. He's being expertly moved by promoter Frank Warren, going 6-0 in 2006, including his first 10-rounder. He possesses tremendous speed and power, and, at 5-10, is a giant for his division. His potential is unlimited, which is why HBO is interested in him. It will showcase Khan April 7 on the Joe Calzaghe-Peter Manfredo undercard.

James Kirkland (22, junior middleweight, 17-0, 15 KOs)
The aggressive, 5-9 southpaw from Austin, Texas, has a sensational physique and loads of potential. He turned pro in 2001, but a stint in jail kept him out of the ring for almost 2½ years. When his legal issues were resolved, he returned in 2003 with backing from manager Cameron Dunkin and promoter Gary Shaw, a pair of boxing lifers who know talent when they see it. Kirkland could have a breakout year in 2007 and will get exposure on "ShoBox."

Andy Lee (22, middleweight, 6-0, 3 KOs)
Andy Lee
In addition to living with trainer Emanuel Steward, Andy Lee, right, has all the intangibles you look for in a top prospect.
Lee, who lives with Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward, is one of our favorite blue-chip prospects. He's a 6-2 southpaw who represented Ireland in the 2004 Olympics, but didn't turn pro until 2006. He has everything you want to see in a top prospect: speed, size, power, desire and a strong team behind him. Besides Steward, Lee is working with promotional powerhouse Top Rank, which is No. 1 when it comes to building a fighter from raw prospect into a champion.

Juan Manuel Lopez (23, junior featherweight, 14-0, 12 KOs)
The 2004 Puerto Rican Olympian and five-time national amateur champion has been boxing since he was 10 and is following in the footsteps of countryman Miguel Cotto as his country's No. 1 prospect. A southpaw, the Top Rank-promoted Lopez already has big-time exposure on pay-per-view. He'll make his 2007 debut Jan. 19 on Showtime's "ShoBox." He went 6-0 in 2006 and slowly stepped up his competition, scoring knockouts of experienced Edel Ruiz and Jose Alonso, who had a combined record of 59-24-6.

Abner Mares (21, junior featherweight, 10-0, 6 KOs)
One of Golden Boy's prized prospects, Mares was a 2004 Mexican Olympian, although he grew up in California. He could move quickly if he can stay healthy. He fought only three times in 2006, partly because he was idle for seven months, in large part because of a serious bout with appendicitis. Mares is not a big puncher, but he has a smooth, polished style, especially for his age.

Raul Martinez (24, bantamweight, 17-0, 12 KOs)
The bulk of the Main Events' fighters either lost in 2006 (Arturo Gatti, Fernando Vargas, Calvin Brock, Joel Julio and Jason Litzau) or left the company (Juan Diaz, Rocky Juarez, Malik Scott), leaving Martinez as one of its few shining lights. "The Cobra" from San Antonio went 5-0 in 2006 and possesses an exciting style that makes him TV friendly. He was a two-time national amateur champion and has been impressive as a pro, but it's time for him to step up. Main Events needs to push him because at 24, he's old for a bantamweight.

Vanes Martirosyan (20, junior middleweight, 11-0, 7 KOs)
Vanes Martirosyan
Vanes Martirosyan, left, is taking his career one step at a time.
At 20, the 2004 U.S. Olympian is just a baby, but he's gaining valuable experience as Top Rank keeps him busy (5-0 in 2006) and regularly puts him on big cards. One reason for that is because he draws hundreds of fans from the large Armenian community in Glendale, Calif. There's no hurry with Martirosyan, who has an all-star team behind him in Top Rank, manager Shelly Finkel and trainer Roach.

"Vicious" Victor Ortiz (19, junior welterweight, 16-1, 11 KOs)
Promoted by Top Rank, managed by Cameron Dunkin and trained by the father-son duo of Eduardo Garcia and former world champion Robert Garcia, Ortiz, a dynamic southpaw, is one of the most crowd-pleasing prospects around. View him as undefeated because his lone loss was a bogus first-round disqualification in his eighth fight. He's sparred with Manny Pacquiao and word is that he did very well. Look for his 2007 debut Jan. 19 on Showtime's "ShoBox" series.

Alexander Povetkin (27, heavyweight, 10-0, 8 KOs)
Alexander Povetkin
Russian Alexander Povetkin, right, has defeated four experienced fighters in his last four bouts.
The 6-2, 220-pounder from Russia was a decorated amateur, winning virtually everything, including the 2003 World Amateur Championships and the super heavyweight gold at the 2004 Olympics. As a pro, he's based in Germany fighting for promoter Wilfried Sauerland, who is moving him somewhat quickly. In his last four fights, he has defeated ex-cruiserweight titlist Imamu Mayfield, and experienced veterans Ed Mahone, Livan Castillo and Friday Ahunanya.

Brandon Rios (20, lightweight, 14-0, 10 KOs)
The Oxnard, Calif., product trains in the same stable as Victor Ortiz, and is also promoted by Top Rank and managed by Cameron Dunkin, who says the tough, strong Rios' attitude reminds him of two of his former fighters, Johnny Tapia and Diego Corrales, because Rios never asks who he's fighting, where he's fighting or how many rounds he's fighting. The aggressive and exciting Rios isn't as talented as most of the prospects on this list, but in boxing, raw desire and heart can carry a fighter a long way.

Elio Rojas (24, featherweight, 18-0, 13 KOs)
The New York-based Dominican was 4-0 in 2006 and did nothing to tarnish his reputation as promoter Don King's top prospect. He's fast with decent power and remains the biggest reason to get to King's cards early. Rojas deserves a big push in 2007, but it's doubtful he'll get it, given King's tunnel vision when it comes to his heavyweights.

Giovanni Segura (24, flyweight, 16-0-1, 12 KOs)
Born in Mexico and living in Southern California, Segura is a little old for a flyweight. But knowing Top Rank's ability to move smaller fighters, he could get a title shot in 2007 after going 5-0 in 2006, including a solid victory against Carlos Tamara. Segura has a wealth of experience from numerous sparring sessions with former junior bantamweight titlist Martin Castillo.

Andre Ward (22, middleweight, 10-0, 5 KOs)
The fast and flashy Ward was the only boxing gold medalist for the United States at the 2004 Olympics, but he can't live on that reputation forever. Let's be honest: He's been a disappointment so far, even though there's still time for him to rebound. He's looked shaky in some fights, been knocked down, and his defense has holes. Ward, promoted by Dan Goossen and managed by James Price, also suffered a thumb injury in an HBO-televised April victory against Andy Kolle, which caused him to miss seven months. HBO owes him one more fight; 2007 could be a make-or-break year.

Coming: Round of the year, fight of the year

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.