Ever since their bout on August 4th of this year, the scrap between Devon Alexander and Andre Berto has stuck with me. I didn’t see it as an important fight. At least not in the grand scheme of things. Certainly, the tilt was of tremendous significance to Alexander and Berto. Once among the most promising fighters in the game, both were on the verge of slipping below the second tier they had already fallen to and becoming that of an opponent, a hanger-on.
There are distinct parallels between the two men. Alexander won his first 21 fights. Berto did even better, taking 27 straight against no blemishes. Alexander won the WBC Super Lightweight title at the age of just 22 when he defeated Junior Witter on August first, 2009. Just 14 months prior, Berto scored his first major belt at 25 when he TKO’d Miguel Angel Rodriguez for the WBC Welterweight crown. Both defended their titles multiple times before their careers took a turn.
It may be hard to believe now, but when Alexander fought Timothy Bradley Jr. in January of 2011, there were a lot of prognosticators who favored him. He was flashier than Bradley. He seemed to have more power. It would not be a beauty contest. Both men found their heads bouncing off of each other for much of the fight. Bradley uglied up the evening and played the bully. He was ahead on all three cards when another head butt left Alexander impaired over his left eye, unable to see. The fight doctor called the bout and Bradley won a technical decision.
It was the first time in Alexander’s career that things hadn’t gone easy, and it looked it. When the fight was stopped, it appeared Alexander’s heart had already left the ring a couple rounds before. Up against his first real challenge, Alexander didn’t so much wilt as relent. He had been exposed.
Meanwhile, Berto was taking on the guise of a world-beater himself. After beating Rodriguez, the Haitian took down Steve Forbes, Luis Collazo, Juan Urango, Carlos Quintana, and Freddy Hernandez in order. Good fighters one and all. When he entered the ring against Victor Ortiz in April of 2011, he was the clear favorite. Ortiz was seen as no pushover, but Berto with his glistening 27-0 record was up against a man who tasted defeat twice already and had two draws on his record as well.
Berto-Ortiz 1 was one of the best fights of the year, if not the decade. Both men hit the canvas twice. It was an electric slugfest that seemed to be on the edge of a sudden end throughout the night. Remarkably, the fight went the distance. The thrilling nature of the contest was no salve for Berto when the scores came in. The relentless pressure and more accurate punching resulted in a unanimous decision victory for his opponent. He too had been exposed.
Alexander rebounded well on paper. Burnishing his resume with consecutive wins over Lucas Matthyse, Marcos Maidana, and Randall Bailey. The last of which made him the IBF champion of the welterweight division. A victory over Lee Purdy followed and Alexander entered the ring against Shawn Porter in December of 2013 the clear favorite. Alexander was supposed to fight Amir Khan who backed out at the last minute to take a big payday against Floyd Mayweather – a fight that ironically never happened.
Porter was 22-0-1 when he faced Alexander that night, but not one of his victories was over an opponent of significance. You would have never known it from the performance he put on that evening. Porter roughed up Alexander. Bloodied him throughout the fight en route to scoring a unanimous decision. The question about Alexander that was once a whisper became full-throated. “Is he tough enough?”
Alexander didn’t lack for skill, speed, or talent. While he was hard to outbox, he cold be out-toughed. Porter consecrated what Bradley had established.
Things were tougher for Berto after his loss to Ortiz. He defeated Jan Zaveck to take home the IBF Welterweight title, but then got outworked by Robert Guerrero, and was TKO’d in the 12th during a full-on brawl against Jesus Soto Karass. Once again, Berto had dropped his opponent, but could not finish him.
Since his loss to Porter, Alexander’s fortunes have taken a turn for the worst. Alexander came out the other side of his next five bouts with a record of 2-2-1. There were wins over Soto Karass and Walter Castillo, but also losses to Amir Khan and the unheralded Aaron Martinez. A majority draw against the faded Victor Ortiz followed.
Berto has not fared much better since being defeated by Soto Karass. Wins against Steve Chambers and Josesito Lopez somehow lead to a big money bout with Floyd Mayweather Jr., where Berto was completely outclassed. He did take a measure of revenge against Ortiz, knocking him out in the 4th.
Berto would then take on Alexander’s nemesis, Shawn Porter. As good as Porter was against Alexander, he was far better against Berto. Porter dominated Berto throughout. Knocking him down twice until the referee called the fight in the 9th.
This was how the stage was set when Alexander and Berto walked into the ring at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. Two men who were once spoken of as more than future belt-holders (which both became), but as the possible future of the sport. Nine days ago, the only thing these two fighters held was a 5-4-1 record over their last ten combined bouts.
They weren’t fighting just each other. No, both were taking on a second opponent besides the man across from them. They were fighting irrelevance. The winner would still be in the running for another good payday. The loser would likely be relegated to that of an opponent. A stepping stone for the hungry wolves on the come.
For both fighters, the ghost of losses past returned. Alexander started out fast, dropping Berto in the third. As the rounds wore on, Alexander became fatigued, and Berto landed just enough to make him wary. Berto was once again a bit too easy to hit. Berto was gifted with strength and athleticism, but the chin, while not made of crystal, was certainly not forged in iron.
The latter rounds became a bit of a slog. To my eyes, Alexander had done enough to score a less than stellar win. When the split decision came in favoring Berto, I was surprised, but not shocked. Alexander could not finish. He had been out-toughed. Again.
It’s no revelation to anyone to describe boxing as a tough game. Two men walk into an arena with the intent to do one another bodily harm, and then proceed to do exactly that. Among all the major sports, none will break your heart more than this one. You are all alone in there. Standing on canvass, caged by ropes, doing your best to hit and not get hit.
Talent will only get you so far. A great boxer is something more than his skill. Even the purest practitioners of the form need to have something extra to be truly great. Skill is important. It is the base that provides the opportunity for greatness. Will is that which allows one to achieve it.
If you were to take Alexander’s skill and Berto’s power and toughness, drop them into a blender and pour them into a cup, you would likely have one hell of a potion. Both have something the other does not. Neither will ever get what the other has.
The history of boxing is full of fighters who were very accomplished. Those who got near enough to the sun to bask ever so fleetingly in the warmth of its glow. Just before getting burned.
Devon Alexander and Andre Berto are two such fighters. There is no shame in that. They have had good, honorable careers. They were in the ring both literally and metaphorically. They took their shot. They simply never became all that we, and probably they, thought they might.
As I watched their fight come down to the final bell, it was hard not to feel a sense of sadness. I remember when they were prospects and then champions. On Saturday, August 4, there was no belt on the line. No title to fight for. There was nothing to be achieved other than relevance. Which is certainly no small thing, but surely not where either expected to be.
At the end of the fight, as the cards were being read, winner be damned, I don’t know that either achieved the modest goal they had fought for.
The end for both is all but nigh.
As Bob Dylan once sang, “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.”