Welterweight champion Berto gives up fight for his people

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Andre Berto is heading to Haiti instead of Las Vegas, something that the welterweight champion could not have imagined little more than a week ago. He has no choice because there’s work to be done there that, for now, is far more important than anything he does in the ring.

At least eight of his relatives are dead, he said. Others, like his sister, Naomi, and her daughter, Jessica, are homeless and helpless in the aftermath of the earthquake.

AndreBerto
ANDRE BERTO

He struggles to comprehend the devastation he will see when he lands in the country he represented in the 2004 Olympics. He knows he can do only so much to help in the few days he hopes to be there.

But he knows he must go.

“Some things are bigger than what you do in your professional life and career,” Berto said in a phone interview last week. “You see things happen to your family and a country you’ve tried to help inspire and it takes a toll on you.”

That toll forced Berto to give up what he thought would be the greatest moment of his life. He was to fight one of boxing’s greats, Shane Mosley, this week at the glittering Mandalay Bay resort in a bout that not only would have given him a seven-figure paycheck, but put him in the mix for megafights against the likes of Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao.

But he couldn’t train while family members desperately worked the phones trying to find out who was safe, who was dead, and who was missing in the birthplace of his parents. He found it hard to eat, even harder to sleep, as the worrying took its toll.

Finally, he decided he couldn’t go on. There would be other fights, but he had only one family.

“It was just something I had to do,” Berto said. “I just feel it’s part of my culture and that anybody else in my position would have done the same. Right now the whole world is looking at Haiti. They see the struggles and the damage they’re going through.”

Berto, who has won all 25 of his professional fights, knew about some of those struggles even before the quake hit. His father, who immigrated to Winter Haven, Fla., from Haiti in 1980, told him stories about it and he witnessed it firsthand when he visited the country last year to help hand out 10,000 pairs of shoes on behalf of the Carma Foundation. The organization founded by musician Wyclef Jean’s sister, Melky.

He goes back knowing that the unimaginable poverty he saw before is now matched by the unimaginable horrors of the earthquake.

“The main thing is to kind of try and boost the morale of the people a little bit and just be there to try and help in any I can,” Berto said. “I also hope to reunite with some family. My sister and niece were right there in the hardest hit area, but they’re OK, even though their house was destroyed.”

Berto hopes his boxing career will be okay, too. He waited a long time for a fight against someone like Mosley, a fight that could have helped make him a big star.

To give it up just days before it was to happen was tough enough. Knowing that boxing is a cruel sport that will move along without him is plenty tough, too.

Indeed, Berto had barely withdrawn from the fight when promoters started negotiating an even bigger fight for Mosley against Mayweather. Both boxers say they want the fight, and all indications are that it could happen the first week of May in Vegas.

On Jan. 21, Pacquiao and Joshua Clottey were joined by cheerleaders from the Dallas Cowboys in New York City to promote their March 13 welterweight fight that could bring more than 40,000 people to Cowboys Stadium.

And there is a good chance that if Mayweather and Pacquiao do prevail they might end up fighting each other in a bout that would be even bigger than the fight they somehow managed to botch in March.

“I hope by the end of the year we can put the big one back together again,” HBO president Ross Greenburg said.

Had Berto fought and beaten Mosley, he would have been in the middle of a hot 147-pound division. His name would be at or near the top of the list for fights that would make him millions of dollars.

Instead, he was trying to hitch a ride on a flight to Haiti with the doctors of Project Medishare.

He understands boxing won’t wait for him. His family and country come first.

“Whatever they decide to do, they decide to do,” Berto said. “I have to do what I have to do.”

(Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org.)

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