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Sergio Mora edges Ishe Smith, Alfonso Gomez whips Ahmed Kaddour on NBC's 'The Contender'


By Wade Paulsen, 04/25/2005 

In the ninth and tenth episodes of NBC's reality-competition boxing show The Contender, both the good and the bad parts of the show's formula were on display, and not necessarily to the show's best advantage.

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In the two quarterfinal bouts, Sergio "The Latin Snake" Mora (now 14-0, 3 KOs) won a split decision over Ishe "Sugar Shay" Smith (now 15-1, 7 KOs), while Alfonso Gomez, Jr. (now 12-2-1, 4 KOs) dominated Ahmed "Baby Face" Kaddour (now 18-2, 9 KOs) in winning a unanimous decision. However, the boxing was secondary to the surprising rise of a coalition -- the so-called "Gutless Four" -- that changed the competition into a pale imitation of executive producer Mark Burnett's Survivor, while the show once again served up an unsatisfying edit of the actual boxing that is supposedly central to the show.

The ninth episode opened with the seven remaining contestants voting to bring back a previously defeated contestant into the second round -- a bizarre decision by the producers, since it had the effect of giving someone a "bye" into the quarterfinals. As shown in the show's eighth episode, Contender co-host Sylvester Stallone lobbied for the choice of Ahmed, despite the fact that other boxers such as Miguel Espino performed better in their first-round fights. Perhaps Stallone, a veteran of years in Hollywood, was seduced by Ahmed's pretty face.

Because of the hostile relationship between Ahmed and Ishe, a group of four contenders -- Jesse Brinkley, Peter Manfredo, Anthony Bonsante (who was afraid to fight Jimmy Lange in an earlier episode) and Joey Gilbert -- formed a secret coalition to vote for Ahmed, to the surprise of Ishe, Sergio and Alfonso.

When the boxers returned to the loft, a confrontation played out between Ishe and Jesse. In two very different edits, the version shown on TV made Ishe look confrontational and almost out of control, while the less-edited version shown on the Contender web site showed Jesse as the instigator of the fracas ... and led Sergio, who appears to have a lot more wattage upstairs than most of the other contestants, to the conclusion that someone within the coalition was feeding false information to the other coalition members. At the time, Sergio's conclusion was ignored by an angry Jesse, who challenged Ishe to a fight on the spot and said that he wanted to fight Ishe that week.

For the quarterfinals, the East and West teams were eliminated, and the individual challenge winner for the week was given the right to either fight or to act as matchmaker. The challenge involved a three-stage medicine ball race, with four eliminated at the start, two eliminated at the second stage, and a final head-to-head showdown. The four survivors of stage one were Jesse, Joey, Sergio and Ishe. In stage two, Jesse won, with Ishe prevailing in a head-to-head battle with Joey for second place -- only to drop the medicine balls just as he was crossing the finish line, leading to Ishe's disqualification. Jesse easily defeated Joey in the final stage, giving him the power to set up the match between himself and Ishe that he had clamored for.

However, Jesse earned the "Gutless Four" nickname for his coalition by choosing to match up Ishe and Sergio, thus forcing one of the potential undefeated finalists out early ... while Jesse chose to make alibis that he needed "more time" to recover from the group's trip to Las Vegas that was shown in the last episode.

The fight itself was a war, with Sergio seeming to land more punches and Ishe landing punches with a lot more power behind them. Because only tiny excerpts from the fight were shown, even in the so-called "complete version" on the web site (for example, only about 30 seconds of the three-minute round four are shown -- and no round except for the last one has more than 60 seconds of action shown), it is completely impossible for viewers to score the fight at home -- one complaint that several boxing sites had made about the show after witnessing the first episode.

In addition, in both episodes, the fact that the fight was scored as a "split decision" -- meaning that one judge scored it for Ishe, while two others scored it for Sergio -- was edited out (although the call is included in the web footage, meaning that the decision to keep it off the air was deliberate). Even the authoritative boxing web site BoxRec.com was misled by Burnett's sleight of hand, incorrectly showing the fight as a "unanimous decision" for Sergio. So much for Mark Burnett's stated goal to clean up boxing.

Of course, judging disputes are a part of boxing, and all boxers can be caught up in them, especially in short fights such as the ones on The Contender. There is no reason to believe that this split decision represents anything different from a normal divergence of opinion. However, to completely cover up the existence of such a divergence, as Burnett did in the episode editing, would be considered "going too far" by even such "tainted" promoters as Don King.

In the tenth episode, the "Gutless Four" coalition was justifiably proud of itself for eliminating Ishe (though the question of whether their gratitude should actually be directed at the two judges in the majority is unclear), but the editing now revealed that Sergio's supposition during the Ishe-Jesse confrontation was correct -- one member of the coalition was manipulating the others. That person: lawyer and Stallone favorite Joey Gilbert, who was busy trying to turn Ahmed against Sergio and Alfonso while they went on a reward with Stallone to a golf course (and thus couldn't do anything about Joey's manipulations).

The challenge for the episode involved a two-stage harness race, with the fighters acting as the horses, and their families acting as the jockeys -- with a Toyota SUV going to the winner. In the first stage, "Gutless Four" member Anthony pulled a hamstring while, in his words, trying to impress his daughter by winning the car. The other three members of the coalition finished one-two-three and went to the second stage. In that stage, Joey took a huge lead and then abandoned the race one step from crossing the finish line, allowing Peter to win the challenge and the car.

Sergio tried to explain to Peter and the other coalition members how Joey was manipulating them, but to no avail. Peter then lived up to the coalition's "Gutless Four" nickname by becoming the third member of the group to chicken out, choosing to make the match that Joey wanted, Ahmed versus Alfonso. At this point, The Contender drifted dangerously close to "Jonny Fairplay" territory.

Although Ahmed landed one good punch in the fifth round that briefly staggered Alfonso, Alfonso was clearly in control throughout the fight and won in convincing fashion. Thus, the coalition members are the only four left to fight in the quarterfinals, and two of them have very sore hamstrings (Joey and Anthony) -- indicating that the final four will likely include Peter and Jesse as well as Sergio and Alfonso.

The previews for episode 11 indicate that Peter fights Joey, which appears to set up an episode 12 bout of Jesse versus Anthony. All in all, as each of the rumors surrounding the show (including the return of Peter after a defeat and the Sergio-Ishe split decision) comes true, the matches appear to be heading toward the rumored finale of Peter versus Sergio.

In the meantime, as the show continues to founder in the ratings (overnights showed that the double episode actually dropped from the already-low ratings of Dateline NBC), some of the boxers have started to look at life after The Contender. In particular, Jonathan Reid (33-2, 19 KOs), who was eliminated in the second episode, has accepted a 10-round fight on a June 2 undercard in his hometown of Nashville, TN. Looks like the poor ratings may have damaged the plans of Burnett and Stallone to launch their own "pro boxing federation."

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