On Saturday, November 24, one of the biggest welterweight showdowns of 2012 will take place at the Citizens Business Bank Arena in in Ontario, California as four-division world champion Robert "the Ghost" Guerrero (30-1-1, 18 KOs) meets former welterweight champion Andre Berto (28-1, 22 KOs) for the interim World Boxing Council (WBC) title.
Guerrero is a former boxing prodigy, a decorated amateur standout who made his professional debut at 18 and captured his first world title at 23.
Still months shy of turning 30, he is an experienced, well-traveled ring veteran.
But away from the ring, Guerrero has experienced the kind of personal adversities that make even fighting world class boxers seem like a small thing by comparison.
In 2007, his wife and former childhood sweetheart, Casey, was diagnosed with Leukemia.
At first, Guerrero continued to fight while Casey underwent chemotherapy. She went into remission and then relapsed twice, and by 2010, it had become clear that the treatments were no longer working.
Her doctors prescribed the much more serious course of a bone marrow transplant.
As his wife went on a waiting list for an appropriate donor, Guerrero put his boxing career on hold, vacating his newly won International Boxing Federation (IBF) super featherweight title. He split his time between supporting his wife and serving as a full-time caretaker to their children.
Guerrero was able to return to the ring later in 2010, and in April of 2011, he was sensational in winning a one-sided unanimous decision victory over Michael Katsidis, capturing the interim World Boxing Organization (WBO) and World Boxing Association (WBA) lightweight titles.
Another year-plus layoff followed that win, but last July the Ghost moved all the way up to welterweight to capture the WBC interim title by outpointing the rugged Selcuk Aydin.
By winning world titles at featherweight, lightweight and now welterweight, Guerrero joined an elite club.
On Saturday, he will face a formidable opponent in Berto. Count on the ordeal he has been through with his wife to add to his mental edge as he goes to war against the former champion.
On a media call last week, I asked Guerrero how the experience with his wife's cancer has influenced his perspective as a fighter. His answer was insightful:
It gives you a lot of determination, definitely. Seeing what my wife had to go through...she was fighting for her life. So I feel privileged to do something I love, fighting in the ring and competing. What we went through, it really motivates me to take advantage of the opportunities I've gotten.
A lot of observers feel that Guerrero's new-found determination has also shown up outside of the ring, when it comes time to market himself and present himself as an elite talent in the sport. His jump all the way to welterweight took most boxing fans by surprise, but it sent a clear message that Guerrero is interested in going where the biggest fights can be found, regardless of weight class.
On the same media call, Guerrero was asked if he had become "feistier" recently with his rhetoric and his use of social media to call out other fighters:
A lot of people were kind of befuddled that I was talking like that. That's not me, but sometimes you have to get out of your comfort zone. If you don't speak up in this sport, you can get overlooked.
For a champion who wants to avoid being overlooked, Andre Berto is an excellent choice of opponent. The Haitian native has been one of the most electrifying punchers in the sport. His sole career loss came against Victor Ortiz, in a fight that most considered 2011's Fight-of-the-Year.
Berto will be a much stauncher test than Aydin was, a point Guerrero emphasized during the same media call. When asked how Guerrero had looked during his welterweight debut in July, Berto was complimentary, but qualified:
I thought he fought a good opponent and looked good doing it...Guerrero did what he had to do, he kept busy and turned him all night. But I'm a completely different fighter. I'm not going to just come forward and act like a punching bag for him.
Berto versus Guerrero makes for an extremely compelling fight.
They are both athletically gifted, but Berto is the more explosive and naturally larger man. Guerrero's technical skills should create problems for Berto that he hasn't faced before.
For Berto, this will be his first fight back since his suspension for a failed PED test—an issue thoroughly addressed during last week's phone session. "It was a tough situation," Berto stated. "We didn't worry too much because we knew we didn't do anything wrong...it was a contamination of a very small, trace amount."
Guerrero, who had a November 2006 loss to Orlando Salido overturned after Salido tested positive for steroids, sounded willing to let give Berto the benefit of the doubt while they both focused on their upcoming clash: "He took the proper steps to get himself re-licensed."
When asked point-blank if he felt Berto was truly innocent, Guerrero took the high road: "Only God and he truly know. My job is to be ready for the 24th."
Facing what will very likely be the biggest challenge of his boxing career, Guerrero sounded confident: "I'm happy with the style I bring to the ring."