Andre Berto pays it forward, sponsors Haitian Olympian in fight with Russell
Andre Berto and Gary Russell Jr. will probably never face each other.
Russell is a featherweight titleholder and Berto is a former welterweight champion and the speedsters are separated by 21 pounds. They will be on opposite sides of the rooting divide, however, when Haiti’s Richardson Hitchins faces USA’s Gary Antuanne Russell on Wednesday. The two are scheduled to face off in the afternoon session in a light welterweight preliminary bout of the Rio Games.
Russell, of course, is the younger brother of 126-pound titleholder Gary Russell Jr. Hitchins, a 19-year-old from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, is a protégé of Berto, who fought in the 2004 Olympics for the Island nation.
Always on the lookout to lend a hand to Haiti, Berto paid for Hitchins to travel to Azerbaijan in June, where he reached the semifinals and qualified for the Games as a representative of Haiti. Hitchins failed to make the U.S. team, losing to Russell in the finals of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, the second time he has faced and lost to him.
“I’ve been watching him for a while,” Berto told RingTV.com on Tuesday, taking a break from his training in Florida for a possible bout with Danny Garcia, which is still being negotiated. “He was one of the hopefuls to make the (U.S.) team and his story seemed pretty similar to mine when I went through my whole Olympic situation. I have the funds to make things happen so I stepped in. I knew the kid was a great fighter and to give him an opportunity to make his dream come true was something I wanted to do.”
Berto learned of Hitchins’ plight through his and USA Boxing publicist Julie Goldsticker, as well as some of the current boxers on the U.S. team. With Haiti not providing Hitchins with financial support for the trip, Berto served up an assist. Haiti has never medaled in Olympic boxing. “I knew this kid was really close to them as well,” Berto said of the U.S. team. “They just let me know the story and what happened and this kid has a great chance to make the Games and I know that Haiti wasn’t going to be able to fund like he needed to because they haven’t, so I stepped in.”
Berto acknowledged that Hitchins has a tough assignment on Wednesday. Berto is well-versed when it comes with the Russell clan from his own Olympic experiences. He was a favorite to make the U.S. team in 2004 when he was disqualified for tossing his opponent to the mat in his opening bout of the U.S. Olympic Trials. Berto was granted Haitian dual citizenship since his parents are both of Haitian descent, allowing him to represent the country in the 2004 Games.
“I grew up with little Gary Russell, who’s a world champion now,” Berto said. “I know the whole family; I know his dad and all the brothers so I’m very fond of the Russell brothers. I haven’t seen this brother fight yet but if he’s anything like his other brothers — then he’s a beast.”
Berto is known to have a big heart when it comes to his home country. He withdrew from a lucrative fight with Shane Mosley to return to Haiti following the devastating earthquake in 2010. Berto offered on-the-ground help, assisting medical personnel, reportedly even carrying dead bodies to trenches to be buried. “I had to hold 4- and 5-year-olds while they were doing some of the amputations,” he told the LA Times after the earthquake. Berto sees his altruistic deed as a way to pay it forward to the next generation.
“It was just great for me to be a part of this kid’s journey,” Berto said on Tuesday. “If there’s any way that I can assist the situation, I will. Hopefully he can make the people proud. I know he has a tough task in front of him but hopefully he can buckle down and take advantage of this great opportunity.”