ESPN takes series 'The Contender' out of the ring
By Dan Rafael
Updated: April 11, 2008, 1:25 AM ET
Days before Alfonso Gomez, one of the most popular alumni of boxing reality series "The Contender," climbs into the ring to challenge welterweight titleholder Miguel Cotto, the series that made him a star was canceled.
ESPN, which televised the second and third seasons of the series, pulled the plug on the show that helped fighters such as Gomez, Sergio Mora, Peter Manfredo and Steve Forbes gain recognition and launch them into important fights. The series also returned host Sugar Ray Leonard to the national spotlight.
Sugar Ray Leonard (center), one of the faces of ESPN's "The Contender," which was KOed Thursday, celebrates with his winning team of fighters from last year's "The Contender Challenge" between the U.K. and U.S.
"It was a hard decision to make. We were talking to [promoter Tournament of Contenders] about a renewal but we couldn't come to terms," ESPN vice president of series development and production Ron Wechsler told ESPN.com on Thursday.
The series, however, likely will find new life on another network.
"We're sorry it didn't work out at ESPN, but we're in the process of making another deal," said TOC promoter Jeff Wald, one of the executive producers.
Wald would not say what network he was negotiating with but added, "Hopefully, the deal we are working on will be closed in the next few days. 'The Contender' is the show that will not die. The show is a success with the fans and it became that without much marketing or promotion. With the exception of Ron, who was in our corner from day one, the show was mishandled right from the beginning."
The first season of "The Contender" focused on middleweights and ran on NBC, but was canceled shortly after Mora defeated Manfredo for the tournament title at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
ESPN picked up the show, which was co-produced by reality series hitmaker Mark Burnett, and ran two more seasons, a junior middleweight tournament in the summer of 2006 and a super middleweight tournament that concluded last fall.
Grady Brewer defeated Forbes in the second-season finale and Sakio Bika stopped Jaidon Codrington in the eighth round of the third-season conclusion in a wildly exciting, drama-filled slugfest that went down as one of the best fights of 2007.
During each season, the group of fighters selected to participate lived and trained together in a Los Angeles compound. Each episode culminated with a fight and the loser was eliminated from the tournament.
"We have the greatest respect for TOC, Jeff Wald, Mark Burnett Productions and DreamWorks and we stand by the quality of the show," Wechsler said. "But it's a very competitive marketplace and the ratings weren't as strong as they were the year prior."
Gomez's fame from the show was responsible for him landing a fight with popular Arturo Gatti last summer, and Gomez pulled the upset, knocking Gatti out and sending him into retirement. That victory paved the way for his big shot against Cotto on Saturday night.
The show was also responsible for Manfredo getting a shot at super middleweight world champion Joe Calzaghe in April 2007, although Manfredo was stopped in the third round.
Of all the fighters who participated on the series, Forbes has landed the biggest fight of them all -- a May 3 match against superstar Oscar De La Hoya.
Other former contestants also have found success after the show. In the past few weeks alone, third-season fighter Brian Vera scored a TKO upset against heralded prospect Andy Lee and Cornelius "K9" Bundrage, who was on the second season, upset former junior middleweight titleholder Kassim Ouma.
"The show ended on a high note with an amazing fight," Wechsler said of Bika-Codrington. "And now we have two alumni going into big fights. We're proud of our involvement in the series and the people who participated in the show. That some of these guys are fighting in these important fights shows their viability outside the series."
Dan Rafael is ESPN.com's boxing writer.