For one last Tuesday night, my wife, Jenn, and I were on the reclining couch watching ESPN's "The Contender." Next week, I will be inside Boston's TD Banknorth Garden, where I assume my seat will be less comfortable, covering the season finale of the super middleweight tournament. But instead of watching this episode at 10 p.m. sharp, I used the trusty DVR to delay the beginning for a few minutes because the addictive "Dancing with the Stars" runs over the hour by a couple of minutes. I've also been hooked on that show this season thanks to the participation of Floyd Mayweather Jr. He was eliminated a couple of weeks ago, but I'm still watching. Only after getting over the shock of the elimination of "Cheetah Girl" Sabrina Bryan and partner Mark Ballas -- I thought they were going to win the competition -- was I able to flip over to "The Contender" a few minutes later. A look at the ninth episode:
Last week, Jaidon Codrington advanced to Boston with a surprising first-round knockout of likable Wayne Johnsen. This week was all about the remaining semifinal, which was taped on Aug. 22, between Sakio Bika and Sam Soliman, my wife's favorite fighter in the tournament. She, like Soliman, was in for a rough night.
This wasn't the first time Bika and Soliman fought. On Oct. 15, 2002, they met in a 12-rounder in Australia, where they both live. Soliman won the fight via majority decision on scores of 117-112, 116-112 and 114-114. Bika had a different view of the fight, telling "Contender" viewers, "He didn't beat me. I was robbed."
When they met the first time, Bika was just 10-0 and a prospect out of the 2000 Olympics, where he represented Cameroon. Soliman was 15-7. Both have come a long way since then. Bika would go on to twice challenge for super middleweight world titles. He fought to an aborted four-round technical draw with Germany's Markus Beyer in May 2006 in a fight that ended when Beyer was cut under his right eye because of an accidental head butt and unable to continue. In his next fight, Bika went the distance on HBO before losing a decision to Joe Calzaghe in October 2006. After the Calzaghe fight, Bika won two fights in a row before losing to Lucian Bute in a title eliminator. Bika then entered "The Contender" tournament while Bute would go on to win an alphabet title last week.
When Soliman defeated Bika it was during the early stages of what turned out to be a 19-fight winning streak that didn't end until he lost a highly competitive decision to pound-for-pound star Winky Wright in December 2005. After two more wins, Soliman was stopped by Australian countryman Anthony Mundine in a fight for a vacant belt before he entered "The Contender" tournament. That Bika and Soliman made it to "The Contender" semifinals was no surprise to me at all. In fact, when the original 16-man field was first announced, and before I knew the results of the taped fights, I had predicted that Soliman, Bika and Codrington would make the final four. The other fighter I tabbed to make the semis was Smith. Three out of four ain't bad.
With the rematch at hand, Bika weighed in at 166 pounds and Soliman at 167. After the weigh-in, and with time to fill on the episode, the 11 executive producers found that to be the perfect opportunity for host Sugar Ray Leonard to take us on a trip down memory lane of the season. He and trainers Pepe Correa and Buddy McGirt each shared their thoughts on the participants who had been eliminated.
To refresh everyone's memory, here is how the competition went down: In the first round of the tournament, Codrington knocked out amateur rival Brian Vera in the second round; Soliman won a five-round decision against conniving Max Alexander; Johnsen outpointed loveable underdog Miguel Hernandez; Englishman Paul Smith took a split decision from vain David Banks; and Bika outpointed rugged Donny McCrary in a slugfest. Codrington, Johnsen, Bika and Soliman all advanced to the semis. Although Smith won his match, he was last in the power rankings and medically ineligible because of cuts, and was eliminated. Trust me, my brief description of the tournament results was far less mushy than the Leonard-led recaps set to sappy music.
Before the fight, Soliman sat alone in his dressing room, anointed himself with holy water and prayed. In the other dressing room, Correa led Bika in prayer. It is showing these sort of highly personal moments that "The Contender" excels at and it's these sorts of real-life looks at what a fighter does in those final moments of preparation before doing battle that I really enjoy. Soliman also received the cliched visit from his girlfriend while Bika got a visit from his lady and their baby son. While Soliman pledged to win the fight for his family, friends and country, Bika explained that his motivation was mainly to earn enough money to provide a good education for his son. Bika added that, "I think it's my destiny to win 'The Contender.'"
With Leonard and former "Contender" stars Alfonso Gomez and Sergio Mora at ringside, Bika and Soliman engaged in what looked like an entertaining fight in its edited form. After the first round, McGirt implored Soliman to use his jab better, a theme that he would carry on between each round for the rest of the fight. In the second round, Soliman went down, but it was properly ruled a slip by referee Raul Caiz Jr. The excitable Correa had some fierce words for Bika after the second round: "You gotta box the piss out of him, Sakio!" Bika was simply beating Soliman to the punch and wobbled him in the fourth round. At this point, my wife was not happy. "Oh, poor Sam," she said to me.
Soliman's best moment of the fight came in the sixth when a right hand sent Bika backwards into the ropes. But McGirt knew his man was losing. Before the eighth and final round, he begged Soliman to "fight your ass off for three minutes and we'll carry you back to the dressing room!" In the other corner, Correa told Bika the only way he could lose was if Soliman knocked him out. When it was over, Bika prevailed on all three scorecards, 78-74 (twice) and 77-75.
A disappointed Soliman retreated to his dressing room, where he talked of starting a family with his girlfriend, Maria, while taking a post-fight ice bath. It's the second time we've seen Soliman plunge himself into frigid water this season. What's with that? And what's with the utter lack of light in the loser's dressing room? We get that he lost. No mood lighting needed.
For Bika, it is on to Boston, where he and Codrington will vie for the $750,000 life-changing grand prize. The loser walks away with $150,000. Soliman will also be in Boston, but in the consolation match against Johnsen. I'll be there, too, to cover the card, so this is my last weekly blog on the show. I've done one after each episode for nine consecutive weeks. Now, I am hanging up my blogging gloves next to the power rankings board and walking outside, hoping someone will be there to give me a ride.