The hit TV series first aired in 2005, I looked back on the first season for Boxing News.
“BECOMING a world champion was one thing but The Contender changed my life”, explained winning fighter Sergio Mora.
Viewers followed the lives, hopes, dreams and fears of sixteen boxers as they battled it out in a quest to become a champion. The winner would not only walk away with The Contender title, but also a cheque for $1,000,000.
Split into two teams, contestants were put through a gruelling schedule of training, competitive challenges, filming and fighting. The format was simple, win all your fights and walk away with the cash prize and shot at the big-time.
“I got to see another side of life that many only dream of. I’m fortunate and blessed to have been selected to be part of that show and to win it”, recalls Mora.
“I wasn’t aware of The Contender until it was suggested to me by a sparring partner. Fernando Vargas, a two-time world champion, vouched for me and I showed up the day of audition. My sparring, interviews and personality caught their attention”.
Mora, known as ‘The Latin Snake’, is fighting his way back into world title contention having previously held the WBC light middleweight strap. This, he believes, wouldn’t have been possible if he hadn’t defeated Peter Manfredo Jr in Las Vegas for The Contender title. “The power of network television is like unlike anything else, it was before the days of social media”, he remembers.
Despite that loss, Manfredo Jr, a popular character among Contender hopefuls, went on to have big fights against Joe Calzaghe, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr and Jeff Lacy. All ended in defeat.
A points loss to Joey Gilbert in the early stages of the tournament for Jimmy Lange did little harm for his career. “The Contender got me a lot of recognition and helped me draw 8,000 people, headlining the Patriot Centre, which I’m very proud of”, he says.
“It was great period in my life, and I hated to see it end”, recalls Lange. “The experience of being on such an overwhelming stage taught me a lot. It gave me a comfort when similar situations arose. I don’t have bad memories of the show”.
Coming out of retirement for The Contender, was Tarick Salmaci. “The biggest thing it taught me was that no matter where you are from, no matter your background, race or religion, we are all the same. People who you think are different from you because of their race or religions are more like you than you think”.
Former five-weight world champion Sugar Ray Leonard co-hosted the series with Sylvester Stallone, offering invaluable help and advice. “Being around Sugar Ray Leonard and Sly Stallone was great”, Salmaci tells me. “Sugar Ray is a master at the sport, he hadn’t lifted a glove in ten years and got in there and played with everybody in the ring. Nobody could touch him. He’s like the Michael Jordan of boxing.”
Ten years on Sergio Mora is far from done with boxing. Injury to IBF champion Jermain Taylor meant another crack at title success was recently taken from The Latin Snake. Although no matter which titles end up on his mantelpiece, he’ll always remember what The Contender did for him and his family. “My biggest achievement will always be being able to retire my mother from working and buying her a house and car. Winning the WBC world title was second”.
Following The Contender…
The Contender winner went on to win the WBC light middleweight title defeating the late Vernon Forrest.
Defeated Arturo Gatti in 2007. Fought unsuccessfully for world titles against Miguel Cotto and Saul Alvarez.
Took his own life in 2005. His death was not linked to defeat on The Contender.
Fought for WBC & WBO middleweight titles against Kelly Pavlic in 2009. Hasn’t boxed since.
Juan De La Rosa
Rarely fought outside of Texas after The Contender, ending with a career record of W21-L4-D1.
Became a manager and promoter as well as running a successful real estate business.
Continued fighting but hasn’t fought since losing to Tony Jeter in November last year.
Fought last in 2010, now a criminal defense lawyer based in Nevada.
Won the IBF world super welterweight title after defeating Contender season 2 contestant Cornelius Bundrage. Now fights out of Floyd Mayweather’s gym.
Peter Manfredo Jr
Fought twice for world titles including a third round defeat by Joe Calzaghe.
Still fighting, aged 42, Reid hasn’t won a fight since 2010, having lost his last five bouts.
Not fought since 2013. His only career defeats came at the hands of Contender hopefuls Smith and Gomez.
After a four-year layoff, he came back to defeat Sam Hill in 2014. His career record stands at W33-L12-D3
Lost his IBF title shot against Lucian Bute in 2010 and went on to fight once more in 2011.
Didn’t fight again after losing on The Contender season 2 in 2006. (Fraza left the first series with chickenpox). Killed after being hit by a train in 2012.
Lost last four fights before retiring in 2008. Now working as a personal trainer