Catching up with 'Contender' pioneers

September, 15, 2010
9/15/10
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Gomez/BrinkleyAP Photo/Danny MoloshokAlfonso Gomez and Jesse Brinkley are former "Contenders" who are in the picture for title fights.
It's probably not being too unkind to say that boxers who took part in the first season of "The Contender" six years ago were viewed with a certain amount of skepticism within the boxing community.

Fighters appearing on a reality TV series, in a sometimes soap opera-type setting, was something the fight game hadn't seen before.

But it worked because the fights were real enough, even if only edited highlights were shown. As for the fighters who took part in the series debut, fortunes have been mixed. That said, Sergio Mora of East Los Angeles has been an unqualified success story. Having won and lost a junior middleweight title, Mora tops the bill against Shane Mosley on HBO PPV on Saturday night.

If Mora upsets the odds and beats Mosley, he becomes a fighter to be reckoned with either at 154 or 160 pounds. (Mora says he can box in either weight class, but needs a longer training camp to make the junior middle limit.)

Here's a look at the career progress of five of Mora's fellow "Contender" contestants.

Peter Manfredo Jr.

Manfredo, from Providence, R.I., was eliminated from the show, but was invited back after another fighter, Jeff Fraza, contracted chicken pox. Having been outpointed by Alfonso Gomez in his initial "Contender" contest, Manfredo won three more bouts -- including a defeat of Gomez in a rematch -- before losing to Mora in the Season 1 final. (He lost by split decision to Mora in the program's "special event" rematch.)

Since then, Manfredo's career has been disappointing. He has lost each time he has stepped up in class, notably when Joe Calzaghe halted him in three rounds in a 168-pound title bout in front of 35,000 in Wales three years ago. Manfredo protested that the British referee, Terry O'Connor, stopped the fight too quickly, asking reporters afterwards, "Did you see my legs buckle?"

Manfredo has since returned to the middleweight division and won his last four fights. At age 29, with a recognizable name and a fan-friendly style, he still has a chance to fight again for a world championship.

Jesse Brinkley

Brinkley was best known on "The Contender" for his constant needling of "World's Best Dad" Anthony Bonsante, whom he knocked out when they fought on the reality series. (A rematch saw Brinkley win an unpopular decision.)

Eliminated by Mora, Brinkley saw his career falter after his appearance on the show. He suffered consecutive losses to slugger Joey Spina and British veteran Robin Reid. Brinkley, a boxer-puncher from Yerington, Nev., was dominating Spina for much of their bout on ESPN's now-defunct "Wednesday Night Fights" series four years ago, but Brinkley wilted after being hurt to the body in the 11th round. Reid, a former world champion, proved too smart and seasoned for Brinkley when they boxed in Newcastle, England.

Brinkley showed a renewed dedication to his boxing career by leaving Nevada to train under the direction of Peter Manfredo Sr. (father of Brinkley's fellow "Contender" contestant) in Providence. He has won 10 bouts in a row, giving his finest performance in his last fight when he outclassed hard-hitting New Yorker Curtis Stevens on "Friday Night Fights" in January.

The bout with Stevens was a world-title elimination match, earning Brinkley a 168-pound championship fight against Lucian Bute on Showtime in Montreal on Oct. 15.

Alfonso Gomez

Guadalajara-born Gomez, from Los Angeles, was arguably the most popular fighter on Season 1. Really a welterweight going up against junior middleweights, Gomez surprised his fellow competitors by choosing the unbeaten Manfredo -- perhaps the favorite to win the tournament -- as his first opponent. Gomez proceeded to pound out a well-earned points win.

Gomez told me in an interview for "Boxing Monthly" that he knew Manfredo was struggling to make weight. "I was very confident in my conditioning and my abilities," he said. "So I took the chance. Luckily, it was a good choice."

He was soundly beaten in the rematch when Manfredo was voted back onto the series. "Both fights were wars and were very crowd-pleasing, and I was very happy with my performances," Gomez said.

Post-"Contender," Gomez has had some exciting wins, notably his knockout victory over Arturo Gatti to end the boxing career of the late New Jersey favorite. A welterweight title challenge against Miguel Cotto two years ago was too big a step up in class, but Gomez, 29, has won his last four fights and can perhaps be maneuvered into another world title fight.

Ishe Smith

An accomplished craftsman, Smith, from Las Vegas, has boxed well against some excellent fighters since his appearances on "The Contender." Unfortunately for Smith, he has been on the wrong end of some close decisions.

Smith was seen as the "difficult" one on the show and not always the most likable of contestants. In a telephone interview in 2008, Smith didn't have a bad word to say about the other competitors, and seemed to feel that with fighters all seeking the same goal grouped together in close proximity there would inevitably be tensions.

It is possible, based on pure talent, Smith was the most gifted of the "Contender" entrants. He boxed beautifully to end the unbeaten career of Polish buzzsaw Pawel Wolak two years ago. In other key fights, the knock against Smith was that he just didn't throw enough punches and allowed himself to be outworked. He has lost his last two bouts.

Miguel Espino

Defeated by Manfredo in his opening bout on "The Contender," Espino worked hard at his boxing and won 11 consecutive fights, culminating in an overwhelming sixth-round stoppage victory over Alejandro Garcia, a former junior middleweight champion.

The willing and gritty fighter from Los Angeles was rewarded with a middleweight title bout against Kelly Pavlik last December in the champion's hometown of Youngstown, Ohio. Perhaps "rewarded" might not be the right word because Espino was outclassed and overpowered, suffering three knockdowns before being rescued by the referee in the fifth round. Espino showed a commendable fighting spirit, though, coming back and throwing punches every time he was hurt until Pavlik's far greater firepower proved too much.

Espino was not considered one of the higher caliber "Contender" contestants, but his loss to Manfredo was close on the judges' cards. He can always say he challenged for a world title and was not disgraced in the attempt.
Graham Houston is the American editor of Boxing Monthly and writes for FightWriter.com.
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