June 13, 2024

MOMENTS AFTER HE shattered Billy Joe Saunders’ orbital bone in a TKO victory in May 2021, Canelo Alvarez sat in front of a microphone answering questions from media members. Out of nowhere, another boxing champion entered the room. Demetrius Andrade, wearing a shirt that read “Canelo & Billy Joe are scared to fight Boo Boo,” chose this moment to approach Alvarez. But just as he had dismissed Saunders in the ring, Alvarez dismissed Andrade.

“You fight with nobody … get the f— out of here, man,” Alvarez said.

Alvarez, in an instant, turned Andrade into a meme. And while “Boo Boo,” as he’s called, was laughed off, his talent has always been anything but a joke. His biggest challenge has been an attempt to prove his elite level in the boxing ring against another talented, elite opponent.

Since he represented the United States and his native Providence, Rhode Island, in the 2008 Olympic Games, Andrade has been ticketed for big things in boxing. A slippery southpaw with elite footwork, punching power and superior athleticism, Andrade (32-0, 19 KOs) hasn’t lost many rounds over the years, albeit against opposition far below his level.

On two occasions, he appeared on the precipice of the sort of matchup that could reveal his true talent once and for all. First, there was Jermell Charlo, a fight negotiated by his then co-promoters Artie Pelullo and Joe DeGuardia in 2015 that would have paid Andrade $550,000. That fight fell apart after Andrade’s flirtation with Roc Nation, which resulted in a lawsuit filed by Andrade against Roc Nation. According to that lawsuit, Roc Nation failed to pay him the $550,000 it promised him to decline the Charlo fight.

Then, there was Saunders, who tested positive for a banned substance ahead of their scheduled October 2018 middleweight title fight. The fight was canceled and Andrade faced a replacement opponent.

“He’s another fighter that’s being railroaded by politics in the sport of boxing that never was given his opportunity to show how great he is and hopefully he can do it come fight night with David Benavidez,” pound-for-pound king Terence Crawford told ESPN last week in Las Vegas. “But that’s a big task to tackle given the fact that everybody [is] already matching Benavidez and Canelo against each other, and if it’s a close fight, it’s more money in Benavidez-Canelo than Andrade and Canelo. So, I feel like he’s going to have to win in tremendous fashion.”

Now, finally, Andrade is getting his elite fight. And for the first time ever, Andrade will be an underdog (+300 per ESPN BET) when he faces Benavidez on Saturday in Las Vegas (Showtime PPV, 8 p.m. ET) in a battle of unbeaten super middleweights jockeying for a possible shot at Alvarez, the undisputed champion at 168 pounds.

To ensure he’s in the best possible shape for his first PPV main event, Andrade conducted a 7-week training camp at SNAC System Inc., a facility in California’s Bay Area run by Victor Conte, one of the most notorious figures in sports.

It was Conte who sponsored Andrade and Saunders for VADA (Voluntary Anti-Doping Association) testing ahead of their failed middleweight title fight at a cost of approximately $30,000. And Andrade has entrusted Conte once again to help him prepare for a long-awaited fight in the spotlight at age 35.

The move doesn’t come without baggage, of course. Conte was accused of peddling performance-enhancing drugs to baseball player Barry Bonds, track-and-field star Marion Jones and many others during the ’90s as part of the BALCO scandal. In his second act, Conte has established himself as a sport-science guru and clean-sport advocate in boxing, an industry that lacks uniform drug testing.

Andrade has slowed down during the second half of many fights before — sometimes by design — and has been criticized for showing a lack of killer instinct against boxers who seem ready to be stopped. Against a pressure fighter like Benavidez who possesses heavy hands and wears opponents down, Andrade will need a 12-round gas tank.

Could this latest training camp under Conte be the difference between winning and losing the biggest fight of his life? That’s the kind of edge Conte is confident Andrade will have to top Benavidez.

CONTE SERVED A federal-prison stint in 2005 after pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute steroids and money laundering as part of the famed BALCO scandal.

He has worked with top fighters like Devin Haney, Shawn Porter, Nonito Donaire and a host of other champions over the last 12 years, but his past prior to his involvement in boxing casts a shadow.

“I made that decision to go down the slippery slope. It was a mistake,” Conte told ESPN last week. “I damaged a lot of people, especially my family, but the knowledge that I gained thereafter, and I was able to develop a relationship with [VADA founder] Dr. Margaret Goodman and [VADA vice president] Dr. Flip Homansky and then assist them in any way that I could in [developing testing protocol for] VADA. … And now that’s the most stringent testing program in all of boxing. …

“I think maybe the guilt, maybe the desire to present some form of restitution for my wrongdoing — this has motivated me to do things that I may have not done otherwise. … But the one thing that I do believe is I can tell fighters like Boo Boo, don’t go there because I’ve been there and you don’t wanna go there. If I don’t have that experience, if I hadn’t went to prison, if I hadn’t have been called every bad name in the world, then they may not listen to me like they do now when I say caution, because you don’t want to go down this slippery slope.”

To ensure he’s ready to fight at peak condition, Andrade has endured an intense training camp under the tutelage of Conte, a self-taught chemist who played bass in the funk band Tower of Power in the late ’70s.

“That’s what Victor brings to the table. … He is one of the biggest factors in my boxing career. … He’s not teaching me how to box, he’s teaching me how to take care of my body.”

Demetrius Andrade about Victor Conte

Conte, 73, employs a sports science staff to help athletes reach their maximum potential. He has worked with Andrade since 2014, but said he’s “never seen him this serious before.” And there’s science to back it up.

Andrade’s blood is tested comprehensively over 50 parameters during camp, and his speed, endurance and power output are measured as well. Conte estimated that he has over $200,000 worth of low-oxygen and high-oxygen equipment to accompany Andrade’s track work with legendary sprint coach Remi Korchmny.

The 91-year-old has worked with a Soviet Olympic champion, the San Francisco 49ers and even the U.S. Army. He was also part of the BALCO scandal, and like Conte, pleaded guilty to distributing illegal PEDs to athletes. He avoided jail time in lieu of one year of probation and is serving a lifetime ban from USA Track & Field. And Korchmny has prepared Andrade for a long night of boxing.

“[Andrade is] really ready for the second half of the fight,” Conte said. “And in Rounds 6 through 12 his speed endurance is not dropping off at all. He’s really ready to go like never before. There’s been many camps here [at SNAC]. … Boo Boo’s the captain of the team, he’s been the most loyal. We’ve got the most experience working with him.”

Against a pressure fighter in Benavidez who gets stronger as the fight tolls on, that will be key. Caleb Plant was able to outbox Benavidez for much of the first half of their March bout, but Benavidez eventually wore him down. Conte said Benavidez and Plant used a 22-foot ring, but Benavidez’s team insisted on a 20-foot ring for this bout.

“Everybody talks about, ‘Well [the second half] is when the tide is gonna turn. We don’t see that in training,'” Conte said. “He’s very strong. He’s got three different sparring partners. He is bringing in fresh guys and he’s still beating them.”

EVERY DAY WHEN Andrade wakes up, his sleep and recovery are examined using a MightSat, a new-generation finger oximeter that measures his blood-oxygen saturation, frequency, blood-flow rate, heart rate and hydration.

“I have my ‘do not disturb’ on until 1:00 p.m. I am big on what Victor promotes is sleep,” Andrade said with a laugh. “… If sparring or workouts is at 6:00 p.m., I have my breakfast. … I wanna go back to sleep from three o’clock until six o’clock.”

Conte wants his athletes to say fresh, understanding each has their own optimal schedule to operate.

“We’re not from the school that you drag his ass out of bed at 5:00 a.m. and get him to go run five miles, which suppresses testosterone, he comes back and he can’t get back to sleep,” Conte said. “… He shows up and we’ll tell him, go back to bed. The more sleep he gets, the more energetic he is, the better the training session is. …

“Boxers just do not understand the value. They think that when you’re sleeping, the other guy’s working. But that’s not true. When you’re sleeping, you’re making gains. … I would be willing to say most elite fighters overtrain.”

When he is training, he’s focused on sparring and other old-school boxing work. But rather than running outdoors — roadwork, as it’s called in boxing — Conte has Andrade doing horizontal plyometrics, swimming, running hills and running on the beach.

There’s also a number of SNAC supplements that Andrade takes as well, including ZMA, which Conte invented and has made a small fortune from. The zinc-magnesium compound is a popular over-the-counter sleep aid for athletes around the world.

Of course, there will always be questions surrounding athletes who work with Conte. That’s why, he said, he insists on VADA testing for all his fighters and foots the bill. He’s also sponsored Donaire and Edwin Rodriguez for 24/7, 365 testing in the past at a cost of $20,000.

“I need to be protected …,” Andrade said. “Having Victor, having VADA, mentally I feel good. I don’t have to worry about no funny business. That’s what Victor brings to the table. … He is one of the biggest factors in my boxing career. … He’s not teaching me how to box, he’s teaching me how to take care of my body.”

And when Andrade steps into the ring, he’ll be fighting for more than just vindication and a shot at Alvarez, but proof that Conte’s program works.

“We’re very glad that they agreed to very stringent VADA testing for this fight,” Conte said. ” … They (once) showed up at 9:30 at night, which means that if they’re doing this on Boo Boo’s end, they’re also doing it on the Benavidez side. We know that there is very frequent and very comprehensive testing going on. And so there will be a level playing field, which is what Boo Boo deserves as well as David Benavidez.”

AFTER ANDRADE STEPS through the ropes to face Benavidez on Saturday, his critics — Alvarez or otherwise — will never be able to say that he’s fought “with nobody” ever again.

Benavidez (27-0, 23 KOs) is one of the most feared boxers in the sport for good reason. The 26-year-old is a punishing fighter, a come-forward, nonstop punching machine who is relentless in his pursuit of his opponents.

He twice won a super middleweight title — stripped once for missing weight, once for a positive cocaine test — but hasn’t come close to losing since his split-decision win over Ronald Gavril in 2017. In the immediate rematch, Benavidez lost only one round across all three scorecards. He was just 20.

Benavidez enters the Andrade bout coming off a career-best win, an all-out second-half beating that left Plant battered and bloodied at the final bell. Now, a bout against Alvarez is seemingly within reach for the winner.

Alvarez has two fights remaining on his deal with PBC, which has Benavidez and Andrade in its stable. A fight with Alvarez, of course, would guarantee either man a career-high payday and a shot at the undisputed super middleweight championship.

But not so fast. Conte said the fight includes a one-way rematch clause in Benavidez’s favor, meaning Andrade would likely need to defeat Benavidez twice to earn a crack at Alvarez.

But after all these years simply trying to land the first big fight, what’s one more to possibly win the Alvarez sweepstakes?

“It was Billy Joe Saunders that didn’t want to tangle. GGG [Gennadiy Golovkin], I tried to get in there, went inside the ring and tried to make something happen with him,” Andrade recounted. “The Charlo brothers. Canelo himself, went to his press conference. There’s not one person I didn’t approach in a respectful manner as well to say, ‘Hey, listen, why you guys keep avoiding this fight? What’s the holdup? What’s the excuse?’

“Now I’m at 168 to throw the monkey wrench in there. … All the excuses of not fighting anybody else is out the window because we didn’t give no fuss about making this fight happen. We was excited to make this fight happen.”

It’s not lost on Andrade that it took him until three months shy of his 36th birthday — and his third weight class — to finally lure a fellow elite opponent into the ring.

And it might not be a coincidence that the Benavidez matchup materialized after Andrade’s 168-pound debut, where he scored a shutout decision over journeyman Demond Nicholson in January but looked far from his best. Just maybe, Andrade trains up and down to the level of his competition.

“Of course. It is what it is …,” Andrade said. “I don’t want anybody to misunderstand what I’m saying, but if I’m fighting somebody that’s not on my level, they might be strong, tough, can take a punch, I’m just gonna cruise this way, let him go fight another day.

“But somebody like David and I, we’re two strong, elite guys … He’s gonna bring my level up because he’s going [to] bring the pressure that’s gonna allow me to use all my tools and my skills and we gonna put it together.”

Conte, too, has seen it while Andrade trains in San Carlos, California, roughly 25 miles from downtown San Francisco.

“You’ll see him be faster than everybody else on a drill, but he shuts it down just before he goes across the finish line and makes you wonder, ‘Wow, what could he have done if he ran through the line?'” Conte said. “There’s been none of that going on during this camp. He’s been all out, he’s been giving everything, and I know that this is what he needs in his own mind, independent of everybody else to know, because he’s calling the shots. He’s the boss.”

ANDRADE HAS BEEN fighting for nearly 30 years, and for much of that time, he was recognized as a singular talent, an accomplished amateur who went on to win titles at 154 and 160 pounds as a professional. He’s headlined countless times, including in his hometown of Providence. But he’s never been on a stage like this — a PPV headliner in Las Vegas — with the stakes this high. And despite all those rounds under his belt, between the amateurs, sparring sessions and the pros, Andrade insists that age has taken nothing away from him. There’s merit to that belief.

Andrade hasn’t absorbed much damage inside the ring but instead has heard criticism when he didn’t press for a knockout when his opponent was clearly vulnerable.

When Saunders was denied a boxing license for his scheduled fight vs. Andrade, fringe contender Walter Kautondokwa stepped in and was floored four times by Andrade in the first four rounds. Despite that, Andrade settled for a near shutout victory on the cards. Two fights later in 2019, Andrade dropped Maciej Sulecki in the opening round and then cruised to a shutout decision win, but failed to finish him. Against 20-1 underdog Nicholson (his most-recent outing), Andrade scored knockdowns in the final two rounds.

While Andrade might have lacked the killer instinct in some of those bouts, there was a hidden benefit that could aid him against Benavidez: “My willingness to punch and not get hit.”

“Think anybody at the elite level in boxing has ever been in a slugfest? Anybody that’s at the elite level, it doesn’t even exist,” Andrade said. “Anybody that goes and fights that type of way only has a short-term career. So, their career is not [one of] longevity like myself. And they wouldn’t be here today. So, no top athlete is that dumb enough. …

“My dad [Paul Andrade] had taught me the correct way to defend myself and do what I need to do to win. … Outside the ring, I take care of my body because I know that I have longevity in this sport. And so therefore we’re here today fresh, ready to rumble.”

Conte will be ringside in Las Vegas for perhaps the biggest boxing match he’s been a part of. Sure, he’s been a team member for larger events in the fight game, but not this personally invested after all his work with Andrade, an underdog looking to prove that at 35, he can upset the odds and show he’s the elite fighter he appeared to be all along.

“In boxing, the objective is bodily harm. It’s damage,” Conte said. “So, it’s much more important to have drug testing in boxing than it is any other sport for that exact reason. So, if I can help in that regard, you know, BooBoo’s like my son that I never had. I’m looking out for him. The best way to look out for him is figure out what the other guy’s doing and preventing him from doing any bad stuff that can prevent damage to my fighter.”

“There are many people that will never be able to forgive me,” he added. “They feel that I have no right to ever participate in sports again. … I believe we live in a society of second chances. I view myself as a role model for others who have made mistakes for them to realize that that’s not the end of their life. You can make a comeback; you can be more successful than ever.”

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