- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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If it's 10 p.m. ET on Tuesday, it means it's time for "The Contender" around my house. Please, no phone calls. No text messages either. Normally, my wife, Jenn, a big fan, and I settle on the reclining couch to watch. We've done it each week since the premiere. Typically, the hour entails her asking me a million questions and offering commentary on the evening's drama while I shush her so I can hear the conversation and take notes to help me write this weekly blog on the show. But last night was different.
Instead of the series showing us more about the four remaining fighters in the tournament, more of the power rankings board, more of Blue Team trainer Pepe Correa's awesome one-liners and more of Sugar Ray Leonard telling us that "every round counts," there was a break between the end of the first round of the tournament last week and next week's start of the semifinals.
ESPN and "The Contender" folks opted to make Episode 7 its version of "a very special episode." That meant a live fight between welterweight Alfonso Gomez, the most popular participant from the first season, and rugged former world title challenger Ben Tackie.
OK, as much as I like "The Contender," I dig live boxing action more. My wife, not so much. So on this night, I was alone on the reclining couch. She was upstairs. She watched the recap of the first six weeks of the tournament at the start of the episode, at one point shouting to me downstairs, "Go Gold Team, Go Gold Team, Go!" Then she turned it off and put on Showtime's "Dexter." (Sorry, ESPN suits.)
Before the episode came on, however, ESPN Classic for the first time televised a live fight, a so-called "Contender" special, from the same card as Gomez-Tackie at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. It featured first-season "Contender" winner Sergio Mora facing Elvin Ayala in a middleweight bout. Make no mistake: Mora, who got $100,000, was supposed to win and rather easily. It didn't work out that way. Ayala came to win. He fought his rear end off. It was an exciting and close fight that was ruled a split draw, a perfectly legitimate outcome until you look closer at the scorecards. Judge Max DeLuca had it 95-95. Good card. Judge Raul Caiz had it 96-94 for Ayala, also a perfectly acceptable card. Judge David Mendoza, however, scored it a laughable 99-91 for Mora. The fight could have gone either way. A draw was fine, but Mora did not win nine rounds. I liked ESPN analyst Teddy Atlas suggesting to blow-by-blow man Joe Tessitore that the California commission have a little talk with Mendoza.
When it was over, Ayala stood in the ring smiling. For him, a draw with the hyped-up Mora was as good as a win. He'll get more fights and more paydays off his far-better-than-expected performance. For Mora, the draw is a disaster. He can kiss a proposed shot at middleweight champ Kelly Pavlik bye-bye. The draw for him might as well be a loss because all those who viewed him as nothing more than a reality series creation have even more ammunition now.
Mora (19-0-1, 4 KOs) was coming back from a 14-month layoff during which he turned down a shot at then-middleweight world champion Jermain Taylor and then saw a Sept. 15 fight with former junior middleweight titlist Kassim Ouma canceled at the last minute because of an injury to main event fighter Juan Manuel Marquez. Although Mora was in good physical shape to fight Ayala, Atlas nailed it when he suggested that Mora's problem was that he wasn't in mental shape for the fight. Mora probably figured he would blow through Ayala, whose two losses came to season three "Contender" participant David Banks. It sure sounded that way as Mora spent much of the pre-fight buildup talking about challenging new Pavlik instead of beating Ayala (18-2-1, 8 KOs).
When ESPN Classic's coverage ended, I flipped the channel to ESPN for the main event disguised as an episode of "The Contender." Gomez was returning from his brutal seventh-round knockout of legend Arturo Gatti on July 14. Anyone who knows me knows that Gatti is probably my all-time favorite fighter. They know that I even named one of my cats "Thunder," after his nickname. So during the pre-fight features, did ESPN really have to show the highlight of Gomez knocking Gatti out over and over and over? I counted five times. There might have been a couple of more, but I closed my eyes.
Tackie (29-8-1, 17 KOs) was a legitimate opponent for Gomez (18-3-2, 8 KOs) to face coming off the Gatti fight. Tackie has fought numerous world champions, makes pleasing fights and has never been stopped or even dropped. Gomez did what he figured to do -- outpoint him in a grueling fight. Gomez was a bit quicker and a bit slicker as he staved off Tackie's relentless pressure. In the end, he earned a deserved decision, 98-92 (twice) and 97-93. Perhaps it was a little bit closer, but Gomez clearly won to set up a possible fight with Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. in the first quarter of 2008.
Seated ringside for the show were this season's "Contender" semifinalists: Jaidon Codrington, Wayne Johnsen, Sakio Bika and Sam Soliman. Of course, the semifinals were taped weeks ago but will air over the next two weeks. On Oct. 23, we'll see Codrington-Johnsen and on Oct. 30 we'll see Bika-Soliman. The winners of those bouts will duke it out for the $750,000 grand prize live on "The Contender" season finale on ESPN on Nov. 6 in Boston.
All in all, this was not a real episode of "The Contender." It was more like an episode of "Friday Night Fights" with the ubiquitous "Contender" theme music. But one thing could have made it feel more like the series. Don't you think at the end of the episode, the producers should have shown the defeated Tackie hanging up his gloves and walking out of the Home Depot Center?