Out of the ring for 14 months, former two-time welterweight titleholder Andre Berto said he has felt like a "caged animal" while unable to fight.
He had lost his first welterweight belt on a decision to Victor Ortiz in April 2011 in one of the year's most action-packed fights, but rebounded in September to stop Jan Zaveck in the fifth round to claim another version of the 147-pound title.
That victory set Berto up for a much-anticipated rematch with Ortiz that was scheduled for June -- a fight Berto wanted so badly that he vacated his title in order to face Ortiz instead of making his mandatory defense. However, the month before the fight, Berto, who had agreed with Ortiz to undergo random drug testing conducted by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association, flunked a urine test. He tested positive for the steroid norandrosterone.
The fight was canceled, Ortiz instead faced (and lost to) Josesito Lopez, and Berto, labeled by many as a drug cheat, was left in limbo.
It didn't help Berto's image that one of the members of his training team was Victor Conte, the founder of the notorious BALCO Laboratories and mastermind of the biggest performance-enhancing drug scandal in history -- although Conte claims to be doing everything aboveboard now after serving time in prison as a result of the BALCO mess.
"It was a tough situation. But me and my team, we really didn't worry too much because we knew we didn't do anything wrong," said Berto, who has steadfastly denied taking any performance-enhancing drugs. "It was just the fact of just coming out and proving that. After we did, we hired some real top-level scientists and attorneys that really go in, take a sample and find out exactly what it was, and we found out exactly what it was. It was a [food or nutritional supplement] contamination -- a very, very, very small trace. But we presented all the results to the [California] commission, and everything's cleared up and we were able to move forward.
"But it was just sad that we had to go through all of the bull that we had to go through. Like I said, right now we're here and we're excited. We're happy and ready to get back in it."
Interestingly, Berto did not need an open hearing to persuade the California State Athletic Commission that he was clean following his failed VADA drug test and the cancellation of the Ortiz fight. He simply was granted a license in August after applying for one and subsequently passing a CSAC-issued drug test, clearing the path for his return to boxing.
He will make that return to challenge interim welterweight titlist Robert Guerrero, who at first said he wasn't interested in fighting Berto because of the failed drug test. They meet on Saturday night (HBO, 10 ET/PT) at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, Calif.
It's an intriguing, 50-50 fight between two of the best fighters in the sport, and it also figures to produce fireworks.
"Here's a young man [Guerrero] who wants to fight the best in order to become the best, willing to take all comers," said Golden Boy promoter Oscar De La Hoya. "And this fight here with Andre Berto is a dangerous fight for both of them, but that's really what these guys are all about. It's fighting the best and giving the fans the best show possible."
In the televised opener, former welterweight titlist Carlos Quintana (29-3, 23 KOs) of Puerto Rico will face prospect Keith Thurman (18-0, 17 KOs) of Clearwater, Fla., in a scheduled 10-round bout.
While Berto is seeking to earn another high-profile victory, he is also fighting to clean up his reputation after the steroid scandal.
"This last year, it's been one of the hardest years I really had to go through," said Berto, one of several high-profile fighters to fail drug tests this year, including Lamont Peterson, Antonio Tarver, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Erik Morales. "It has definitely matured me just as a man. Just to get ready for everything in your head.
"Just like they always say, it's always a storm before a blessing, man. And I went through a helluva storm within this last year, and it does put me in perspective with a lot of different things, and I'm right here in the position just to move forward. Me, I'm blessed. The family's blessed, and we're ready just to move forward and make it happen."
Guerrero and his team didn't really want the fight with Berto, 29, of Winter Haven, Fla., based on concerns about the failed drug test. In 2006, Guerrero lost a featherweight title fight to Orlando Salido, but the result was changed to a no-decision when Salido tested positive for a steroid after the fight. Still, Guerrero, who, like Berto, hopes a quality performance will lead to a fight with Floyd Mayweather Jr. next year, accepted Berto because he was the highest-profile opponent available to him.
"I can't wait to get out there," Guerrero said. "I'm just champing at the bit. All the hard work's done; now all that's left is to go in there and fight."
When the deal was being negotiated, Guerrero wanted VADA drug testing -- which had previously caught Berto -- for the fight, but he ultimately agreed to use its competitor, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, because that's what Berto, manager Al Haymon and promoter Golden Boy wanted to use.
Guerrero (30-1-1, 18 KOs) was careful with his words when asked if he believed Berto (28-1, 22 KOs) was a cheater.
"Everybody's guilty until they're proven innocent, and he was proven innocent," Guerrero said. "Like he said, he hired the right people, he took the proper steps and did the right things to get back licensed, and we go from there. But I've been in situations with people who've been on steroids and been in the ring with somebody on steroids, so we take real caution against that because every time we step in that ring, we're putting our life on the line. And when somebody enhances, they're playing with somebody's life."
Guerrero was asked a second time if he thought Berto cheated.
"Who knows? Only God knows and he knows," Guerrero said. "So that's the least of my concern. My concern is to be prepared for this fight and to go do my job."
Guerrero, a 29-year-old southpaw from Gilroy, Calif., is a former featherweight and junior lightweight titlist (and former interim lightweight titleholder). He jumped up two weight classes to welterweight in July for his first fight after a 15-month layoff, which was caused by a torn rotator cuff and subsequent shoulder surgery. He looked sharp as he handled Selcuk Aydin, a bigger man, to win a unanimous decision and claim a vacant interim belt.
"I feel really good at welterweight," Guerrero said. "If I didn't have confidence in myself, I wouldn't even move to 147. You have a tough guy like Aydin in there, who's a hard puncher with both hands. Wherever he hits you, it's going to hurt. So to stand in there and trade with him and trade combinations with him, you push yourself to the limit. You test yourself, and that's the type of guy I am. I'm going to test myself all the whole time I get in that ring. One of things that everybody knows is that I can take a shot in that ring at 147 pounds."
Berto was ringside to watch Guerrero-Aydin in San Jose, Calif., because he was in California dealing with getting relicensed.
"I think he put on a good performance," Berto said of Guerrero. "But at the end of the day, me and Aydin, we're two completely different fighters. Aydin basically [was] like a punching bag all night. But Robert did what he had to do. He came in there, and I think he looked good at the weight, and he did what he had to do. He stayed busy and kept turning him all night. And fighting a guy like Aydin, that's what you have to do."
Berto, however, said he wasn't ringside that night to scout Guerrero for a possible fight, even though it eventually came about.
"I didn't think so at the time at all, because I was worried about my situation, the things I had to clear up," Berto said. "The time is here. And he's here in the welterweight division now and he put on a good show against Aydin, so I respect him for that."