'Contender' runner-up Manfredo says it's personal

10/10/2006 - Boxing

The number of neighborhood grudge match battles has diminished in recent years, as the number of club shows that featured the local turf wars has dwindled. But on Saturday (ESPN2, 10:45 p.m. ET) in Providence, R.I., first-season "Contender" runner-up Peter "The Pride of Providence" Manfredo Jr. will step in with the aggressive banger Joey Spina, and neighborhood bragging rights will be up for grabs.

Both fighters were born in Rhode Island, but for the 25-year-old Manfredo (25-3, 11 KOs), who lost on the first-season finale to Sergio Mora in May 2005, the business turned personal when word filtered that Spina was dissing him.

In November 2005, Spina fought Jose Spearman in Providence and, Manfredo says, he came to the ring accompanied by a rap song that featured lyrics that slammed Manfredo and proclaimed Spina as the man in the region.

The blood-red battle lines were drawn.

"He's got a big mouth and he has no respect for anybody," Manfredo told ESPN.com by phone after finishing a workout at Freddie Roach's Wild Card Gym in Hollywood, Calif. "He's a loudmouth punk and on October 14, I'll show him who's boss."

For Manfredo, who makes no secret that his primary motivation when he hangs the gloves up is to earn a living to take care of his wife and two children, Spina's talking has made this outing more personal than he's used to.

"He's said he's the King of Providence, maybe he's jealous of my appearance on 'The Contender,'" Manfredo said. "'The Contender' made me a household name. I mean, if I walk down the street with Floyd Mayweather and Antonio Tarver, people will know me before them."

Manfredo noted the power of sustained publicity on a recent trek. In February, Manfredo and the missus went to the Dominican Republic for some rest and recreation. There, he was surrounded by autograph seekers and people holding disposable cameras wanting a photo with the fighter.

"I was in people's living room for 16 weeks," he said. "Off of that, I've earned good paydays, paydays that people who fight for titles don't get."

The lure of the bling hasn't been the main motivator for Manfredo since his dad, a pro karate fighter, took him to the dojo when he was four.

"I don't care about titles or being the best," said Manfredo, a 5-foot-9 righthander. "My main goal is to work for money to feed my family."

Manfredo, who took on Mora in a rematch five months after "The Contender" climax and lost a disputed decision, for the most part has succeeded in attaining his goal. He bought a house in Connecticut in December 2005, where he and his family live, and also purchased several other rental properties.

"I fight for my family," he said. "I went to a boxing gym when I was 6 years old and basically, I was dragged into it by my dad [Peter Sr.]. I liked it and I'm glad I went. Boxing has taught me discipline, respect, I learned to become a man. It taught me how to earn money for my family. And I earn it the hard way."

Spina, 29, is a rough-and-tumble customer, far cruder a technician than Manfredo. The owner of a 19-0-1 (14 KOs) mark, some of Spina's comments to the press have hinted at a tinge of jealousy that Manfredo's star has soared so high, so fast.

But to Manfredo, the climb wasn't a straight shot to rock stardom notoriety and fat paydays. When the first season of "The Contender" kicked off in late 2004, the then-undefeated boxer was 15 pounds over the middleweight limit and felt seriously out of his element.

"Everyone on the show knew I was overweight, so they were all gunning for me," he said. Manfredo lost a decision to Alfonso Gomez in his first "Contender" bout and it seemed as though his reality-show stint would be a short one. But a fighter got sick, so the Rhode Islander was brought back in to the fold and made the most of it. He beat Miguel Espino and Joey Gilbert, and then stepped in again with Gomez. This time, he earned a unanimous-decision victory, and that brought him to the finals against Mora. But along the way, Manfredo not only had to shed the weight, he also loosened some of his family ties.

"Before I first hooked up with Freddie, me and my father were beefing," he said. The stakes on the table for "The Contender" finale were getting to the Manfredos, and tempers were frayed. "I was fighting for a million dollars and I'm the first fighter my dad has had make it to this level," Manfredo said. "We trained from January to May 2005, so I was overtrained. I was dead tired after the third round in the finale.

"Then I went with Freddie and the father-son fighting stopped," he said. "You had my old man telling me 500 things in the corner and I can't remember one. Freddie is nice and calm in the corner."

He had been trained all of his fighting life by his father, and had gotten used to having that familiar voice in his corner, and the familiar way Pop wrapped his hands.

"I was petrified on the show, at first," he said. "I was living with guys I was going to fight. Then I loosened up later. But the experience was tough. I mean, we had silly challenges the day before the fight. But I became a man on my own. Nobody was watching me, I had to do it for myself. It's the hardest thing I ever did."

And to Spina, if he's miffed, if he's of the belief that Manfredo took a shortcut-route to prominence, Manfredo has a message: "I had to earn my paydays. Spina doesn't know what we went through."

The TV face time also meant that esteemed trainer Roach knew of Manfredo and agreed to work with the fighter at his gym. The two hooked up in August 2005, after some friends of Manfredo floated the idea to Roach, who trains fighters such as super featherweight stud Manny Pacquiao and multi-weight titlist James Toney. Manfredo rented an L.A. apartment and received the sort of sparring that would be only a dream in New England, a relatively barren fistic breeding ground, before his rematch with Mora.

The loss, he says, benefited him, as most analysts felt he beat Mora, and he both out-threw and out-landed the victor.

The boxer, who wants to be regarded in the same vein as other New England-based boxers such as Marvin Hagler and Vinny Pazienza, has been in L.A. working with Roach for a month. He trains at his father's gym in Rhode Island also, but admits that the time with Roach has been invaluable.

Come Oct. 14 at the Dunkin' Donuts Center in Providence, Manfredo is fully confident his superior sparring, experience and technical edge will prevail.

"He's strong, but I feel I'm just as strong. He's not on my level," Manfredo said. "His mouth, though, is past my level. If he fought half as good as he talked …"

Aside from his own scrap, Manfredo is expecting a bang-up show. "It's a neighborhood rivalry," he said, "so there will probably be more fights in the stands than in the ring."

Michael Woods, the news editor for TheSweetScience.com, has written for ESPN The Magazine, GQ and the New York Observer.