By Miki Turner
Special to Page 3

LOS ANGELES -- The Solid Rock Gym, "Home of Sergio 'The Latin Snake' Mora," is located on the corner of Whittier Boulevard and Hendricks Avenue, about six miles east of downtown, in a section of L.A. that, let's just say, you wouldn't find on the map for movie stars' homes.

Sergio 'The Latin Snake' Mora
Boxer Sergio "The Latin Snake" Mora practices his KO punch for reality television.
At first glance, you might view this intersection as the corner of Distress and Despair. It is, after all, East L.A.

But look past the abandoned buildings and stucco houses with barred windows. This largely Hispanic community boasts some of Southern California's best Mexican fare, a plethora of mom-and-pop shops and neighbors who know each other's names.

It might not be Beverly Hills, and it might be the "hood," but it's also home to Sergio Mora, one of 16 contestants on NBC's new boxing-themed reality show, "The Contender," which premiered on Monday.

Mora, 25, has spent his entire life here, just a stone's throw away from the small but immaculate gym that might serve as his ticket out. But this is no cash-and-carry deal. Mora, whose introduction to boxing began by beating on his "homies" at backyard barbecues, fine-tunes his craft daily by working out for more than 2½ hours with his trainer of 10 years, Dean Campos.

Despite an impressive résumé that includes the 2000 Olympics and a 12-0 middleweight record, at the time he auditioned for "The Contender," the fighter had no manager and no contract. He was broke and living "like a vagrant."

Now, he's relying on his skills to earn him an opportunity to fight at Caesar's Palace and the $1 million payout "The Contender" promises its winner. But to get there he'll have to win every fight. There's no voting off, no second chances.

In addition to fulfilling Mora's boxing fantasies, winning the contest would help him provide a better life for his 60-year-old mother, Inez, a bakery warehouse worker who single-handedly raised him and his three brothers. His father, whom Mora unaffectionately refers to as a "coward," abandoned the family when Sergio was just 7.

The Fight
The walls of the Solid Rock Gym are covered with photos of Mora with boxing greats such as Sugar Ray Leonard, Fernando Vargas, Hector Camacho, Oscar De La Hoya ... Miki Turner?

Sure, my mind was saying, "no," but it was too late. Campos was already lacing up gloves that provided me with little protection and lots of false hope.

In the ring, Mora taunted me: "C'mon, hit me, hit me. You're bending your arm, c'mon!"

After sparring for two exhausting minutes, I understood why Mora's called "The Latin Snake." He slithered and glided as I continued to sucker-punch the open air.

"They call me that because I have this sort of weird, uncoiling style," he said while demonstrating the moves. "I sort of slither in and out, get really low on the ground, come up and go 'pow.'"

Finally, I connected a right jab to his jaw!

OK, he let me hit him. But let me just put this out there: C'mon, Hilary. I'm ready for you. We'll see who the real "Million Dollar Baby" is. -- Miki Turner
"I hate that my mother has to work in those kinds of conditions," Mora said emphatically. "She's like a slave there. They hate for me to use that word, but that's what the situation is and that's a damn shame. I do this for her.

"She was so good to us. I never knew I was really poor or that not having a father was unusual because all of my friends were bastards, so I was just included with them. She had to raise four boys by herself in a one-bedroom apartment, but we thought it was the biggest space in the world! We didn't know bigger spaces existed. I remember the first time I went in a house and saw a pantry. I called it the closet with food. That's when I realized I was poor -- around 13 -- but my mother, she always gave us the best possible clothes and we never missed a meal."

Mora also credits his mother for teaching him the invaluable lesson of how to read people -- a gift that has proved essential in a sport not known for high ethical and moral standards. For instance, Mora has been approached by a lot of potential managers, but he has had the good sense to recognize when something was amiss.

"Absolutely none of them offered me one dollar," he said. "They just wanted me to sign and fight for them. In boxing, it's so corrupt that if you're not with someone, they're not going to give you fights. You're just going to end up fighting tough opponents that are out of your league.

"All we wanted was a little something -- a little trust money. If I'm going to sign with you, let me know that you're worth it. Let me know that you're going to protect me."

While "The Contender" won't protect him from his opponents, even if Mora doesn't win, the exposure stands to offer some stability.

"If I don't win, I'll see what NBC has to offer me," Mora said. "We're under contract with them, so I don't think they're just going to let you out of that contract. And, if so, I just go back to the drawing board. I'll just do the same thing that I've been doing. This was a unique and great experience. I grew a lot on the show, learned a lot about myself.

"Hopefully America got a good preview of Sergio Mora and I can do something with the recognition I got on the show."

If he does win, however, Mora's first purchase will be a new house for his mother.

"I can already picture giving her the keys in her hand just like [singer] Richie Valens did," Mora said. "I can totally see it -- only I don't want to die [in a plane crash] like he did! I want to see the smile on her face. I want to see her doing laundry. I want to see her stop working and living in a space bigger than this gym."

And that home likely will reside at the intersection of Joy and Triumph.

Miki Turner covers the fusion of sports and entertainment for Page 3 in L.A. She can be reached at dmiki@aol.com.