'Contender' contestants benefit to varying degrees
Those who have appeared on "The Contender" readily see the benefits of the exposure, though success after the experience varies, Michael Rosenthal writes.
Grady Brewer and "The Contender" reality television series have had a perfect marriage.
The fighter from Lawton, Okla., has a compelling, heart-wrenching story, the kind of story the casting department looks for in its contestants. He has had to work grueling, 12-hour days curing tires so he can support his family while pursuing his boxing dream.
He is well-spoken, meaning he has the ability to tell his compelling story to those who are hooked on the series.
And, even though he had a mediocre record of 18-11 when he was selected for the show, he's a pretty good fighter. He faces the more accomplished Steve Forbes in "The Contender" finale on Tuesday in Los Angeles -- on ESPN -- in which the winner will earn $500,000 and the loser $75,000.
Indeed, since the second season of the show began shooting in January, Brewer went from a struggling nobody taking fights on short notice to someone with more fame and earning power than all but the biggest-name fighters.
Not all of the 32 contestants in the two seasons of the series have experienced that level of success, and some find aspects of the show objectionable. Still, it seems all but a few would do it again -- win or lose.
"I never thought this would happen for me," said Brewer, who had made an estimated $80,000 total in his 29 fights before the series. "I'm not saying I didn't believe in myself; I was always working for something like this. I was just looking for a chance and 'The Contender' came at the right time.
"Now people know who I am and I'm making some money. The money gives me a whole new start in life; I can be in control of what I want to do from this point on."
Sergio "The Latin Snake" Mora can relate to Brewer.
The undefeated fighter from Los Angeles defeated Peter Manfredo Jr. in last year's finale, walking away with $1 million for that fight alone and the kind of fame he once dreamed of.
Mora acknowledged that one drawback of the experience is that some people don't take him seriously. Several fans, apparently unaware that the contestants are real fighters, have asked him when he plans to turn pro even though he's been toiling anonymously since 2000.
However, that's a small price for the monumental boost the show gave to his fledgling career. He has a nice nest egg and a contract with the show's boxing promotional arm, which promises more big-money fights and a path to a possible world title fight, plus the recognition.
Mora related one story that illustrates the reach of the series. He approached a well-known world champion -- he wouldn't say who -- one day at an airport to say hello. And, during the conversation, giddy fans approached Mora, not the titleholder.
"It was a slap in the face of the person I was talking to," Mora said. "That's when I realized the power of TV. I go up to the guy to get a picture and an autograph, to give him my respects, and people come up to me. ...
"It's always the same thing. 'You're that guy. The contender. The Snake. Sergio Mora.' I haven't gotten tired of it yet."
The series won't lead first-season contestant Tarick Salmaci to any kind of championship: He's retired. However, the Dearborn, Mich., resident revels in the memory of his experience.
Staples Center, Los Angeles
All bouts are fought at a weight limit of 150 pounds.
Salmaci first retired in frustration in 2001 when he couldn't land a world-title shot; then he earned a bachelor's degree at the University of Michigan and started a career in real estate. Three years later, at 32, his brother convinced him to audition for a new reality series centered on boxing.
"I go down to for the audition and they say I gotta box one round. I say, 'I have a tape.' They say, 'Does 'American Idol' take tapes?' Well, I hadn't picked up a glove in three years, but I beat the hell out of some guy for one round.
"Then they ask, 'Can you get down to 158 pounds [the fighting weight in the first season]?' I was 185 pounds. In two months, I had to get down to 158. I said, 'Of course, I can do it.' And I was on the show."
Salmaci, not at his best because of the rust and weight loss, was beaten in his two bouts and never fought again. Still, for him, the experience was invaluable.
If he had won the competition, he's convinced, he would've had his springboard to a world championship. So, in his eyes, he was able to walk away from boxing knowing he had given it his best shot.
"I would've always wondered what I might've accomplished," he said. "It was better late than never. I got an opportunity, an opportunity I thought I'd never get. I blew the opportunity, but I did the best I could with what I had at that point.
"And so much has opened up for me. People know who I am now. I'm doing well in real estate. Really, it was the best time in my life."
Jimmy Lange, who beat Salmaci by a close decision on last year's final card at Staples Center, feels much the same way.
Lange, from Great Falls, Va., will acknowledge that while this is a reality series it isn't the real world of boxing. Among the differences: The natural weights of the fighters vary greatly, the five-round fights for mostly veteran fighters, no time to study up on your opponent, potentially three or four fights in a month and living with your opponents.
"It was more of an amateur reality show," he said.
However, Lange emphasized that taking part in "The Contender" was "huge."
"I'm in boxing because I want to be a world champion," said Lange, who continues to pursue his dream. "I was ranked, I think, 12th as a junior middleweight in one of the [sanctioning] bodies before 'Contender' and that's as far as I got. And none of us was making good money. I wasn't starving but I had to work three jobs.
"What 'Contender' did was put me in front of, what, eight [million] to 10 million people every week. The best boxers in the world don't get in front of 10 million people. It gave me a name, made me recognizable.
"I went from fighting in front of 1,500 people to fighting in front of 6,000-8,000 people, from making at most 10-12 grand a fight, to 60-80 grand a fight. That's an enormous boost. I still have a smile on my face."
Not everyone who took part in "The Contender" is smiling.
Michael Clark, at 35, entered this season's series as one of the most accomplished fighters but lost his only bout, a majority decision to Cornelius "K9" Brundage in July, and had to pull out of a scheduled bout against Freddy Curiel on Tuesday's undercard.
Clark said he was never comfortable with the format and, obviously, was disappointed with the outcome.
"I'm a 12-round fighter fighting five rounds," he said. "I had to change my whole game plan. The first couple of rounds, I usually feel a guy out, pour it on a bit and then back off because I'm ahead on points. In five rounds, you can't do that. It threw me out of whack big time. ...
"These guys aren't even in my class. If anyone could beat me [in a longer bout], it was Steve Forbes. Those dudes are a bunch of pansies. They never won a national Golden Gloves title, never won Junior Olympics, like me."
"Was it a waste of time? Heck, no. It was fun. I had nothing going on at the time. I had just gotten out of a contract with [promoter] Don King and was a free agent. It was something to do and I made some money. Why not?"
Ishe Smith, part of last year's series, acknowledged the benefits of taking part. The instant fame, which he agreed can elude even the best in the business. Even today, he said, people recognize him regularly.
At the same time, Smith, who managed to get out of his contract with "The Contender," might be the most critical of the show.
The Las Vegas resident believes he was the victim of bad editing, which made him out to be a bad guy. More significantly, he believes he was the victim of a bad decision when he lost to Mora on the show -- his only career setback.
Smith objects not only to the judging -- he lost a split decision -- but the way it was portrayed on TV. Clearly, the disappointment haunts him as he continues his career with Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions.
According to Smith, only an edited version of the fight was shown on television; the booing of the crowd when the decision was announced was not shown; the fact that it was a split decision was not even announced; the announcer said only that it was decided by decision.
Thus, he said, the real story never got out.
"It's supposed to be a reality show," he said. "I gave up a lot to be on that show. I was ranked in the top 10 in every organization. I trusted them. ... It upset me, upset my family. I was portrayed to look dumb.
"When you lose, normally you can go back, watch the tape and see what went wrong. I can't even do that. I've never seen the whole fight. I can only keep replaying it in my head, over and over again. I can't accept it. In the end, I was depressed for two months."
Several of his fellow contestants dismissed Smith's comments as the sour grapes of someone disappointed with defeat. Even Smith admitted that he would have a different outlook had he won.
Indeed, most of the fighters and others who took part in some way believe it was a positive experience -- both for them and the sport.
Sugar Ray Leonard, the host of the show and mentor to the fighters, knows a little bit about boxing. He's not surprised that viewers have latched onto the contestants and their stories for two years now.
"This show is about guys who never got their shot," he said, "about guys left for dead, frustrated family men, fathers who only want to better their lives through boxing. This is their shot.
"And no one can dispute what this has done for the sport; it's humanized the people in it, the fighters, their families, everyone."
Boxing publicist Debbie Caplan, who is not connected with the show, agrees with Leonard.
"The dedication involved with being a successful boxer goes beyond what most athletes go through," she said. "They go to training camp for two months. They don't go to movies, to bars, to restaurants. They train and they diet. That's it. For the first time, with 'The Contender,' people can see what they go through.
"People can look into their personal lives, get to know them and their families, and understand the sacrifices they must make in order to be successful. I think it's inspiring.
"I love that about boxing. It's been my life for a long time. For others to understand that is nice."
Michael Rosenthal covers boxing for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
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