I’ve always tried to keep an open mind on The Contender.
Part of this, I confess, is nothing more than being mindful of where I get some of the butter for my bread. I do some work for the company, so was I going to go out of my way to hammer The Contender, and dismiss the franchise as a sad attempt to refashion the sweet science into a format agreeable to generations comfortable with vapid reality show fare?
I am not, even if I felt that way, which I do not.
But I must confess, it hasn’t been easy for me to defend the franchise and the concept recently, after seeing Contender alums flame out disastrously when asked to step up into the next echelon.
Peter Manfredo’s cup of coffee (TKO3 loss) against Joe Calzaghe in April 2007 was personally disappointing to me, as I always am a sucker for an underdog, and hoped that the Rhodie had actually grown leaps and bounds as a fighter under Freddie Roach’s tutelage. All of us were dismayed, I think it’s fair to say, when Alfonso Gomez was schooled by Miguel Cotto on April 12 (Could Not Continue loss, 5). Again, I refer back to my always present inclination of leaning to the underdog. I like to see the ‘dog rise up, take the script in his jaws, and tear it up. My dismay morphed into something approaching anger and disgust when our own Ron Borges reported Manny Steward’s assertion (http://www.thesweetscience.com/boxing-article/5828/promoter-wald-lobbied-commish-timely-stop/) that Contender promoter Jeff Wald had approached the New Jersey commission, and requested a quick leash on his fighter, Gomez, because Wald feared Cotto would do severe damage to the boxer. Why was Wald so concerned for the boxer? Because, Borges learned (http://www.thesweetscience.com/boxing-article/5818/exclusive-docs-thought-gomez-was-near-death/), Gomez had been in the hospital a scant two weeks before the tussle, with a life-threatening illness, and one would presume, he would not be in tip-top condition. That’s a dicey proposition against one of the game’s top three pound for pound fighters, Cotto, and it begged the question for me: should that fight have gone on, with the knowledge that Gomez wasn’t in prime condition, seeing as how six weeks prior he’d been in the hospital, with doctors worried that he was suffering from pancreatitis?
I try to see things from all perspectives, when possible; that desire is incumbent upon a journalist, who strives for fairness in presenting all sides to a story. I can see why a promoter wouldn’t want to pull the plug on a show at the last minute. Money has been expended, money that will not be recoupable.
But, I ask, what about the fan? Remember him and her? Those people that buy the pay per views, and the premium channels, and go to the shows? Don’t promoters have a duty to offer them a card that is totally on the up and up? Should the fan be able to expect a moderate level of transparency?
In other words, we don’t expect to be informed that Fighter A is coming in to a fight with a slightly torn tendon in his right elbow, for example. We comprehend that fighters are always battling some injury or another. But shouldn’t the plug perhaps have been pulled on the Cotto/Gomez tiff when Gomez was battling an apparent near-death illness, which turned out to be a viral infection, just weeks before he was set to go in with one of the game’s most determined demolition experts? Why was there a show must go on mentality, when at the end of the night, the fans in attendance and those watching on TV were left feeling like they’d been duped, that Gomez was thrown to the lion Cotto in exchange for a pile of dough?
With those goings-on in mind, I confess I now take all of Wald’s pronouncements about his Contenders with a dose of salt, a hefty dosage at that. The promoter was on a recent conference call to talk up another Contender alum, season one winner Sergio Mora (20-0-1), who is slated to tangle with WBC 154 pound champion Vernon Forrest (40-2) on a Showtime doubleheader (along with Quintana/Williams II) on June 7.
It seemed like the call started off in poor fashion for Wald, as Lou Dibella inadvertently, one supposes, left Wald off the list of promoters involved in the June 7 card.
Dibella, Gary Shaw, Dan Goossen, Vernon Forrest, Northeast Promotions are working together on that card and have labored to put together a compelling slate. Wald spoke up, and reminded people that he too was part of the deal.
But the call went from bad to much, much worse for Wald when Vernon Forrest unleashed the Viper tongue on him.
Wald lit Forrest’s fuse when he said, “While these guys fight under ‘The Contender’ banner, they fight for themselves and their families. Mora had a career before he came to us. He was brought to us by Fernando Vargas. All these fighters on the phone have promoters. We're just facilitating what it is they do. We had an upset when Gomez beat Gotti. Everybody forgets Gotti was a huge favorite in that. They already booked the next fight. We had an upset when Brian Vera beat Andy Lee.”
Forrest, a 1992 Olympian, a pro since November 1992, a former IBF and WBC welterweight champion and current WBC junior middle champ, took offense, and told Wald he didn’t like being lumped in with a past-his-prime Gatti and the neophyte Lee.
“I'm no Gatti or Andy Lee,” the Viper said, with an edge in his voice. “You have to realize who you're dealing with. I'm on a completely other level than that them. Don't compare me.”
Wald tried to placate Forrest, to no avail.
“Talking about upsets,” said the promoter, who may be best known for being the ex husband of 70s era vocalist Helen Reddy.
“There won't be an upset next Saturday,” said this new version of Forrest. “Trust me on that. You can forget about that (crap).”
The issue lay dormant for a spell, but then a writer (not me, I swear) poked a stick in the hornet nest. “Vernon, can you talk about your desire not to be compared to other fighters?” Forrest was asked.
The Viper pounced. “Gatti and Andy Lee are overrated. So, when you try to compare, you put me right in the middle of those two guys. I'm nowhere on that level. So, when you're talking about fighting a guy with my skill level, it is a whole different ball game.”
Laying low may have been the best course of action for Wald, but the man can’t be faulted for speaking up for himself. Forrest would not hear of it.
“Vernon, we weren't comparing you on that level,” said Wald, using the collective “we” when it was he who started the conflagration, not Mora. “What I was saying is it is real easy to say the guy is going over the hill. Mora is not that little. He won ‘The Contender,’ and he beat those guys.”
“Let me throw something out,” Forrest tried to say.
Wald wanted the floor, though.
“Let me finish,” he insisted.
And then Forrest snapped.
“The only real fighter you had on ‘The Contender’ show was the little guy, Stevie Forbes. That's the only real guy you had on your show. He damn near won the show. So, I am going to call that little boys club ‘The Pretenders,’ not ‘The Contenders.’ Now, I'm going to beat the dog (crap) out of your main pretender on June 7. I want you to know that. So, don't compare me with no Gatti or no Andy Lee. Don't even put my name in the same breath with them.”
Jeff Wald then did the smartest thing he could have done, save for skipping this disaster of a call. He did not answer. But wait. Instead of cutting his losses, and hanging up, grabbing a Coke and moving on to other matters, Wald then poked his own stick into the Forrest hornet nest.
After Forrest promised to lay Mora out on a stretcher, Wald put in his two cents. “Vernon, you don't know me, but you fought in Indianapolis at the Indianapolis Center there,” he said. “I went out of my way to work behind the scenes on that fight and told everyone to invite the people that you handle down in Atlanta from that home that you support. I've been a big fan of yours as a human being for what you've given down there with your fiancé.”
The massage didn’t take. Forrest wanted no part of the surrender speech.
“We’re not talking stories,” he said. “We’re talking business.”
Wald brought out a 2×4, instead of the stick, and whacked the nest like a piñata. “You've been very disrespectful,” Wald said, with what some might term boldness, and others might regard as disrespect.
“I don't know you either,” the boxer said, decibels higher. “Right now we're talking about a fight. This is not a buddy system. We ain't friends, so make your point, but don't bring all the other stuff in there. If you've got a point, make it relevant to what we do.”
Wald countered. “My point is this is a sport and a business, and there's no reason for you to act like that. So I'm surprised. This is the first press conference we've had with any of the fights we've had where the other side has acted like that. That's all. You can be a little respectful.”
Forrest had just about enough, and fired his final flurry, a rat-a-tat bunch of bombs that finished Wald off: “You ain't fighting. You need to get off the line. I got to fight Mora. You ain't doing nothing but sitting back and watching. Get off the line and let me talk to your fighter. The middleman has something to say. You sit back and shut up and enjoy the conversation.”
The promoter steered clear of Forrest from that point on. But bless his stubborn soul, he could not resist another whack with the 2×4 in closing. “I'm interested to see what happens in the ring. First of all, as a fan, it's going to be a great night of boxing. I know what Mora is capable of and what he can do. I've enjoyed watching Forrest, contrary to whatever you heard here, and I can't wait to see Quintana and Williams again. I think that will be a great fight.”
That statement didn’t make much sense, as no one alleged that Wald did not enjoy watching Forrest in action, but the man could be excused for fumbling his words, after Forrest laid such a severe verbal smackdown on him.
One could almost feel sorry for Wald. If we didn’t know that his Contenders have had no shortage of work, and he gets a healthy slice of their pie when they scrap, you could almost feel bad, because ESPN has chosen not to bring the program back for another season.
The Contender legacy is teetering. Mora, for the good of the franchise, and Wald’s standing, needs to pull off a momentous upset over Forrest. The laundry list of Contender stinkers or mediocre outings has simply grown too lengthy for Wald to be able to try and feed the fightwriters optimistic spin about the fighters and their gloriousness. Season Two runner-up Steve Forbes did give Oscar some decent sparring on May 3, while nobody else from Season Two has secured a bout of major consequence. Of the Season Three cast, Brian Vera’s made the most noise, with his March 21 upset (TKO7) of heralded Andy Lee, but champ Sakio Bika has had just one fight, in Australia, since the campaign finished in November 2007.
I have never heard someone other than a fighter get so thoroughly demolished on a call as Wald did by the verbal thunder of Forrest on Wednesday. Hopefully for Mora, and the future of The Contender franchise, that is no harbinger for The Latin Snake’s chances when he meets Forrest in Connecticut on June 7.