The (under)dog days of 'The Contender'
"Contender" grads have a chip on their shoulders: They're forced to prove they're real fighters who made it onto a reality show, and not reality-show-made fighters. Can the reality TV graduates continue to tear up the scripts and upend the odds?
Updated: March 31, 2008, 10:25 AM ETBy Eric Raskin | ESPN.com
AP Photos/Bebeto MatthewsSteve Forbes' exposure on "The Contender" helped land him a fight with Oscar De La Hoya.In the build-up to their September pay-per-view rematch, Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather chose decidedly different avenues for staying in the public eye. Mayweather entered a springier squared circle than he's used to and faced The Big Show in a WrestleMania XXIV match last night, an exhibition whose outcome has been known by all parties involved since the contracts were signed. Five weeks from now, De La Hoya will enter a more familiar ring, the kind where turnbuckle pads aren't ripped open and folding chairs remain outside the ropes, for a fight against Stevie Forbes -- a contest whose outcome is also presumed to have been known since the contracts were signed.
If we've learned nothing else in the last two weeks, however, we've learned this: Alumni of the reality show "The Contender" don't believe in predetermined outcomes. Two Fridays ago, Brian Vera, seemingly a limited club fighter-type who lasted less than two rounds (that's bell-to-bell rounds, not tournament-bracket rounds) in Season 3 of "The Contender," pulled off probably the most unexpected victory of 2008 so far. He was perceived as a made-to-order opponent for wildly hyped prospect Andy Lee, but with toughness, conditioning and desire, he made trainer Emanuel Steward's bluster about Lee look either delusional or dishonest. The underdog scored a TKO in Round 7, and in doing so, established himself as the most feared Vera since the heyday of Norm Peterson. This past Friday night, popular Season 2 contestant Cornelius "K-9" Bundrage followed Vera's lead and primarily by wanting it more, beat considerably more talented ex- titleholder Kassim Ouma on "Friday Night Fights." Bundrage won a unanimous decision, and if not for him losing focus in the middle rounds due to a headbutt-induced cut, he would have flirted with a shutout.
Samoyedny/fightwireimages.comAndy Lee, left, was being touted as one of the best middleweights to emerge in years -- until Brian Vera snapped his undefeated winning streak.
On May 3, Forbes, "The Contender" Season 2 runner-up, gets the chance of a lifetime against De La Hoya. Forbes is listed as an 8-to-1 underdog at BetDirect.com. Three weeks before that, on April 12, Alfonso Gomez, a Season 1 semifinalist and the most popular fighter in the three-year history of the show, faces pound-for-pounder Miguel Cotto. Gomez is also listed as an 8-to-1 underdog at BetDirect.com. Forbes and Gomez were both chosen because "The Contender" gave them visibility and because neither of them has a prayer of derailing the lucrative paths of their superstar opponents. You know, the same reasons Vera was hand-picked for Lee. It begs the question: Can this unlikely "Contender" roll continue in the two highest-profile bouts that graduates of the reality-TV series have ever had? Here's one reason to believe it can: "Contender" grads have a chip on their shoulders to prove they're real fighters who made it onto a reality show, and not reality-show-made fighters. "When we do these press conferences, everybody's trash talking about them being reality-show guys," said Jeff Wald, co-executive producer of "The Contender" and now the promoter of many of the fighters who appeared on the program. "That's why these wins by Vera and Bundrage mean so much to us." After relative embarrassments in some other post-"Contender" fights, most notably Peter Manfredo barely landing a punch against Joe Calzaghe before the ref's panicky intervention and David Banks going belly-up in the third round against Edison Miranda, this newfound momentum is giving the show legitimacy (which is especially valuable given that a fourth season of the show, probably at either light heavyweight or cruiserweight, is in the works for late '08). A win by either Gomez or Forbes would smash the ceiling for reality-TV legitimacy. It would be the equivalent of Omarosa from "The Apprentice" getting elected to Congress. Too bad neither one of these fine fighters has the right tools to pull it off.
Steve Samoyedny/Fightwireimages.com Cornelius Bundrage, left, became the latest "Contender" alumnus to defy the odds and upset the favorite by defeating Kassim Ouma.
Forbes, who held a junior lightweight alphabet title for 20 months at the start of this decade, demands to be taken seriously as a fighter, but on paper, he has everything going against him in a fight with De La Hoya. In 38 pro fights, Forbes has weighed between 129 and 143 pounds 33 times. De La Hoya has been campaigning at 154 and above for the last seven years and will have an enormous size and strength advantage. "The Golden Boy" has three inches in height and five inches in reach over Forbes, plus Oscar has 30 knockouts in 43 fights, as compared to just nine KOs for Forbes. Forbes does have a good chin -- he's never been knocked down in his career -- but even if that holds up against the hardest puncher he's ever faced and helps the slick veteran to go rounds, he still faces the near certainty that nothing he can land will hurt De La Hoya. If you're looking for reasons to bet Forbes at 8-1 on your money, it's fair to suggest that De La Hoya will be rusty (coming off a 364-day layoff, which was preceded by another 364-day layoff) and that at age 35, he could be two steps slower than he was against Mayweather a year ago. Also, with the Mayweather rematch poised to earn Oscar about 10 times as much money as this fight, it's possible that the future Hall of Famer will get caught looking past Forbes. All of that adds up to the faint possibility that the hungrier Forbes can turn in the performance of his life and narrowly outbox De La Hoya in a fight that isn't easy to score. But Forbes should ask Felix Sturm what chance he has of getting the decision in a close fight when there are massive amounts of money waiting to be made on the other side. Against Cotto, Gomez faces some of the same obstacles, and some different ones. Cotto is a moneymaker with a lucrative bout against the winner of Antonio Margarito-Kermit Cintron lined up for the summer, so Gomez shouldn't expect much help from the judges. And with eight knockouts in 23 fights, it doesn't seem that the California-based Mexican is the right guy to tap into the vulnerability we've sometimes seen in Cotto's chin.
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty ImagesForbes, right, is listed as an 8-to-1 underdog.
On the other hand, Gomez has scored four stoppages in his last five wins, suggesting that his power is improving. Unlike Forbes, he's the naturally bigger man here. Gomez held his own at middleweight on "The Contender," whereas Cotto was a junior welterweight less than two years ago. Unfortunately for 'Fonso, Cotto is not past his prime, like De La Hoya is, or coming off a long vacation, like De La Hoya is, or distracted by business pursuits, like De La Hoya is. Cotto is at his physical peak and considered one of boxing's pound-for-pound best (ESPN.com ranks him sixth). Sure, styles make fights, but can you imagine someone whose record the last 16 months includes wins over Carlos Quintana, Zab Judah and Shane Mosley -- all of whom would be heavy favorites over Gomez -- losing to this guy? "Gomez loves being the underdog," Wald insisted. "He was an underdog on the show, he was an underdog against [Arturo] Gatti -- the Gatti people already had his next fight booked against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. -- and Gomez knocked him into retirement. This kid loves being underestimated, although I think people should have learned to stop underestimating him by now." In general, we should have learned to stop underestimating "Contender" alums, who've shown the last two weeks that they aren't content just to contend. These guys come to fight, they come to win, they come to prove they aren't just Mark Burnett's fantasy-world creations. The problem, however, is that Oscar De La Hoya and Miguel Cotto are not Andy Lee and Kassim Ouma, and the will to win just doesn't close the gap as much against them. We know that the will to win will be there for both Forbes and Gomez; we know neither dog will lie down, roll over or play dead. We know they'll continue the streak of doing "The Contender" proud. But not even Vince McMahon could write a realistic script that keeps "The Contender" winning streak alive. Eric Raskin is a contributing editor for and former managing editor of The Ring magazine.
Photo by Al Bello/Getty ImagesAlfonso Gomez is one of the most popular fighters to emerge from "The Contender," but he'll have his hands full against Miguel Cotto.