There is so much pressure on boxers – to make weight, to win fights, to put on a show, to promote themselves and their opponents – that it can often seem like the walls are closing in.
Shawn Porter, the former IBF welterweight champion who meets Andre Berto on Saturday in a non-title fight at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn which will be televised by Showtime, is no different than the rest.
Porter is 26-2-1 and lost to Keith Thurman last June in one of 2016’s best fights, but despite his success, Porter feels the weight of the job as much as anyone else.
For help, he turns to one of the few who can relate to what Porter is going through.
Randall Cunningham, the two-time All-Pro ex-NFL quarterback, is now a pastor in Las Vegas.
He’s developed a good rapport with Porter, who said he “fell in love” with Cunningham’s style of preaching. Cunningham is 54, old enough to be Porter’s father, but he treats him as a brother, providing invaluable mentorship.
“Treating him like my little brother because I don’t have any little brothers allows him to be on the same page as me,” Cunningham said. “I try to impart the wisdom with some of the things I went through as an athlete, as well.”
Even the greatest athletes have self-doubt. Prior to a fight, a boxer hears so much about his opponents, sees those highlights all over television and is asked about it incessantly, that confidence can wane. It happens to all of them, but the best manage to brush aside the fears and the worries and compete at their best.
In Cunningham, Porter has found a pastor whose style he likes, but who has shared many of the same doubts and fears. That, Cunningham said, is how he wants to help Porter in his bout against Berto.
“A boxer can lose a certain number of matches, but then there comes a time where there’s that match where you just have to get that one,” Cunningham said. “Before he fights Berto, I’ll be able to tell him about the time we’d lost a couple of playoff games and things didn’t look good. We had to win. We got that victory, we all kept our jobs, got raises and things like that, just by getting that one victory. I think he’s at a point where he’s prepared to do that, and I think God is going to give him this one.”
Porter is among the hardest workers in the sport, and he prepared feverishly in his gym just off Las Vegas Blvd.
For all the acclaim he received for his performance against Thurman – many believe he won the fight – he knows a win over Berto is critical. The division is deep, and a second loss in a row would be devastating.
The winner will be in line for a shot at Thurman’s WBC belt while the loser will have to figure a way to put the pieces back together. That kind of intrigue only adds to what figures to be an excellent fight, but it also adds to the pressure.
Porter, though, said the opportunity to get another title shot is the motivating factor for him.
“I think when opportunities like this come up, that’s when I really get going,” Porter said. “For me, there’s nothing better than fight night. Everything leading up to it is just part of the process. I can tell you that right now, [as] we’re talking [about] the fight, I’m excited and I want it.”
For Porter, the key will be to establish the jab and to work the body. He believes that if he can do that and impose his will upon Berto, he’ll break him down in the second part of the fight.
Berto, though, is as resilient as they come and has only been stopped once, by Jesus Soto Karass. That came in a fight in which he so seriously injured his shoulder that he needed a major surgery to repair it.
Otherwise, Berto has either won by knockout or made it to the finish line in each of his other 34 bouts.
Porter, buoyed by Cunningham’s support, believes he’s ticked all the boxes and is ready for a championship-level performance.
“Every time I see this fight in my head, I feel good about it,” Porter said. “I feel like my speed and my boxing ability is going to take care of the first half of this fight. Once we get going and establish the pace of the fight, which is what we’re going to do, after that, we’ll start working in our feints, our head movement, [and] it’s going to be beautiful. I know that much.
“I’ve seen him in fights where he goes past the fifth and sixth round, and things start to fall apart for him. So if we can get to his body early, and you see everything we do here in the facility, these guys work me almost to death. We’re ready for the 12 rounds-plus. We’re always ready to take more out of our guy’s tank and have a lot more at the end.”
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