AROUND THE RING
"Contender" returns for third season
"The Contender," the popular ESPN reality series, is getting back in the ring for a third season with a mix of experienced contenders and youthful prospects among the 16 super middleweights who will vie for the tournament title and $750,000 grand prize.
The series, which stars Hall of Famer Sugar Ray Leonard as host and mentor to the boxers and counts reality TV hit maker Mark Burnett as an executive producer, began production last week in Los Angeles with the fighters going through interviews, background checks, and physical fitness and psychological tests. The tournament's five-round bouts begin filming next week.
The new 10-episode season debuts Sept. 4 (10 p.m. ET) and will air Tuesdays through the live finale on Nov. 6 at the TD Banknorth Garden in Boston.
"I think what we've got this year is a combination of experienced guys who have fought for world championships and very good prospects who will wind up fighting for world championships," said "Contender" promoter Jeff Wald, one of the executive producers.
Said Ron Wechsler, ESPN vice president of scripted content: "'The Contender' has grown into a global brand that has come to represent world-class action inside of the ring and compelling human interest outside of it. This season, we look toward the stacked super middleweight division to continue to bring the most entertaining fights and dedicated fighters to our audience."
Here's the rundown of the 16 fighters in the field, which will be trimmed to 10 by the end of the first episode (in alphabetical order with age, hometown and pro record):
• Max Alexander (26, Camden, N.J., 14-1, 2 KOs).
• David Banks (24, Portland, Ore., 14-2-1, 2 KOs).
• Sakio Bika (28, Sydney, Australia, via Cameroon, 22-3-2, 14 KOs).
• Henry "Sugar Poo" Buchanan (28, Capital Heights, Md., 14-1, 11 KOs).
• La Farrell Bunting (27, Las Vegas, 16-3-1, 16 KOs).
• Jaidon Codrington (23, New York, 16-1, 12 KOs).
• Miguel Hernandez (32, Chicago, 20-5, 10 KOs).
• Wayne Johnson (29, Lyndhurst, N.J., 16-1, 9 KOs).
• Donny McCrary (24, St. Joseph, Mo., 23-5-2, 13 KOs).
• Les Ralston (25, Buffalo, N.Y., 16-2, 9 KOs).
• Danny Santiago (34, Ocala, Fla., 29-3-1, 19 KOs).
• Paul Smith (24, Liverpool, England, 20-0, 12 KOs).
• Sam Soliman (33, Melbourne, Australia, 33-9, 13 KOs).
• Brian Vera (26, Austin, Texas, 14-0, 9 KOs).
• Rhoshii Wells (30, Las Vegas, 18-2-2, 10 KOs).
• Rubin Williams (31, Detroit, 29-2-1, 16 KOs).
The fighters this season are, as a whole, more accomplished than they were in the first two seasons. Bika, Soliman, Santiago, Williams and Wells have all fought for world titles. Bika was also a 2000 Olympian for Cameroon and Wells a 1996 U.S. Olympian. Codrington and Smith are notable prospects.
In addition to beefing up the level of fighters, producers have also vastly improved the training staff. Gone are Tommy Gallagher and Jeremy Williams, who have been replaced by Buddy McGirt, one of the best trainers in the sport, and Pepe Correa, who worked with Leonard and former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis, among others, during his 40-year career.
"We've upgraded the trainers. Buddy is as good as they can possibly get and a good guy and great television, and Pepe is a guy who is collaborative, calm and experienced," Wald said. "The balance of personalities between Buddy and Pepe is incredible. It's a real upgrade."
One of the chief complaints from boxing fans about the series in seasons past is that the bouts that end each episode were heavily edited down to just a couple of minutes of action. That has been addressed for this season.
While episodes will be structured similarly to previous seasons, more of the bouts will be seen each week. In addition, every bout will air in its entirety, most likely on ESPN2.
"The good news for the hard-core boxing fan is that the fights will be available on one of our network platforms," Wechsler said. "We want to continue providing 'Contender' fans with the show that they love and we also want to give hard-core fans what they want."
A fourth season is being discussed with heavyweight as the target division.
Middleweight prospect John Duddy (21-0, 16 KOs), who has become a big attraction in adopted hometown New York City, returned to his native Ireland for his first pro fight there on July 14 and suffered a cut over his left eye in his lopsided decision win against Alessio Furlan. The cut will force Duddy to postpone a scheduled Aug. 26 fight until probably Oct. 6 in Belfast.
"Circumstances, healthwise, have changed the scheduled date," Duddy said. "Cuts are part and parcel with the game. Cuts come with the job. I was actually cut three times in the last fight, all by head butts, but cutting isn't a problem for me. The fight before that, I had a small nick [against Dupre Strickland], and I came out of the fight against [Anthony] Bonsante without any cuts."
The Duddy-Furlan bout was offered on pay-per-view, but those who missed it can watch a replay on New York regional sports network MSG, which is available via satellite dish, on Aug. 11 (8 p.m. ET).
Duddy, who was a top amateur in Ireland but had fought all of his previous pro bouts in the U.S., enjoyed his trip home.
"It was a great experience for me," said Duddy, who lives in Queens. "Everybody was so supportive. I can't compare fighting at Madison Square Garden and in Ireland. I'm looking forward to hopefully experience more at both places.
Donaire not ducking anyone: Nonito Donaire, who pulled off a big upset with a sizzling fifth-round knockout of heavily favored Vic Darchinyan on a cracking left hook to win a flyweight title on July 7, hopes that fight is just the start of a run of major bouts for him. Like Darchinyan, Donaire (18-1, 11 KOs) wants to fight top opponents.
"We have no problem going for title unification fights in the U.S. or in the Philippines against [Omar] Narvaez, [Takefumi] Sakata or [Pongsaklek] Wonjongkam," promoter Gary Shaw said. "On the other hand, Nonito had been campaigning as a [junior bantamweight] and challenging one of those world champions, including Cristian Mijares, who destroyed Jorge Arce, is very tempting, too. I am confident we will have a game plan for Nonito's next fight shortly. However, I can promise you one thing. We will not be fighting in Thailand. If Wonjongkam wants to fight Nonito, it will be on an international stage in front of a worldwide television audience."
• The proposed fight between light heavyweight titlist Chad Dawson and former champion Antonio Tarver, which was being negotiated for Sept. 29 as part of Showtime's free preview weekend, is dead, Dawson promoter Gary Shaw told ESPN.com. "We couldn't generate enough money out of a site to satisfy the Tarver side," Shaw said. Shaw said Dawson (24-0, 16 KOs) would still keep the Showtime date and probably make his second defense against Adrian Diaconu (24-0, 15 KOs), the Romanian-born, Montreal-based mandatory challenger. There is a purse bid scheduled for Aug. 10 in the event the sides don't make a deal. Diaconu became the mandatory challenger with an ESPN2-televised third-round knockout of Rico Hoye in a May eliminator.
• Former heavyweight belt holder Nikolai Valuev (46-1, 34 KOs), the 7-foot Russian who lost his belt via majority decision to Ruslan Chagaev on April 14, will return Sept. 29, and his handlers at Sauerland Event are finalizing a deal with Canadian opponent Jean-Francois Bergeron (27-0, 19 KOs), a 34-year-old southpaw with a glossy record built against lower-tier opponents. Valuev, 33, who fights out of Germany, will fight Bergeron in Oldenburg. "I want to win my title back and that is why I have to put aside Bergeron," Valuev said. "I will defeat him no matter what. I can't wait to get back into the ring. I have something to prove. I have learned from the first loss of my career and will bounce back stronger than ever."
• Official numbers are in for the Bernard Hopkins-Winky Wright HBO PPV fight on July 21. The fight at Las Vegas' Mandalay Bay, which Hopkins won via unanimous decision to retain the light heavyweight championship, generated 305,000 buys and $15.3 million, according to HBO PPV's Mark Taffet. Golden Boy Promotions CEO Richard Schaefer said last week he estimated that it did between 300,000 and 330,000. "We are pleased with the pay-per-view performance of the Hopkins-Wright fight. At 305,000 buys, it performed well within expectations," Taffet said. "Following Barrera-Marquez, De La Hoya-Mayweather and Cotto-Judah, the Hopkins-Wright event continued the strong run of high-profile fights which have HBO PPV on pace for a record-breaking year in 2007 amidst a great resurgence in the sport of boxing."
• The Oct. 13 fight between heavyweight titlist Sultan Ibragimov and former four-time champion Evander Holyfield in Moscow won't be the only title bout on the card. It is expected to also feature Russia's Dimitri Kirilov (28-3, 9 KOs) facing 2000 U.S. Olympian Jose Navarro (26-2, 12 KOs) for a vacant junior bantamweight belt. Both men have faced bitter defeats in title bouts. Navarro, who has had two shots, was on the wrong end of split decision to Katsushige Kawashima in Japan in one of the most derided decisions of 2005. In Kirilov's last fight in May 2006, he had the same thing happen in a split decision loss to Luis Perez.
• Former cruiserweight champion O'Neil Bell, who was supposed to headline the season finale of ESPN2's "Wednesday Night Fights" on Aug. 8 against Louis Azille, has pulled out of the bout for unspecified reasons, according to Leon Margules of Seminole Warriors Boxing. Margules said Azille (19-3-2, 15 KOs) would remain on the card and face Lawrence Chapman (19-4-2, 13 KOs) in what will become the co-feature. Hot middleweight prospect Joe Greene, 21, has been elevated to the main event. Greene (15-0, 11 KOs) will fight his first scheduled 12-rounder against Darryl Salmon (16-1, 4 KOs), who is coming off a six-round decision loss.
• In a search for heavyweight titleholder Wladimir Klitschko's next mandatory challenger, the IBF plans to sanction a four-man tournament with the winner earning a title shot. If the IBF has its way, the field will include Calvin Brock (31-1, 23 KOs) and former titlist Chris Byrd (40-3-1, 21 KOs), both of whom were knocked out by Klitschko last year, along with American up-and-comer Eddie Chambers (29-0, 16 KOs) and Alexander Povetkin (13-0, 9 KOs), the 2004 Russian Olympic gold medalist. If the proposed fights come off -- which is certainly not set in stone -- Byrd would face Povetkin with Brock facing Chambers. The winners will fight with that winner earning a fight with Klitschko. Chambers and Povetkin are all for it. "This is the opportunity I've been looking for," Chambers said. "It's sort of like the NFL playoffs. Win a couple of rounds and get to the Super Bowl against Wladimir Klitschko. That's just what I intend to do -- not only get to the Super Bowl, but win it too, a world heavyweight title. But my focus and attention right now is preparing for my semifinal opponent, Calvin Brock." Said Kalle Sauerland, Povetkin's co-manager: "This is the chance Alexander has been waiting for. We have no doubt he will prevail in this interesting tournament."
• The Nevada State Athletic Commission announced that the suspension of featherweight Orlando Salido will be lifted Aug. 5 and that he has been fined $5,833 as a result of testing positive for the steroid nandrolone following a title victory against Robert Guerrero in November. The IBF immediately stripped Salido after the positive test. Now Nevada officials have officially changed the result of the bout from a Salido victory to a no decision. Guerrero went on to regain the vacant title by knocking out Spend Abazi in February.
• With the Miguel Cotto-Shane Mosley fight close to being finalized for Nov. 10 (HBO PPV) at New York's Madison Square Garden, Top Rank is beginning to formulate its portion of the undercard. One fight it's interested in doing would match former junior bantamweight titlist Martin Castillo against Jorge Arce, the division's most exciting fighter. Arce is coming off an April loss to titlist Cristian Mijares. Castillo has won two in a row since losing his title and a long layoff to undergo surgery to remove scar tissue from around his eyes. Although Castillo manager Frank Espinoza is interested in the fight with Arce, he feels his man needs at least one more tune-up fight before seriously considering it. Another Top Rank fighter who could appear on the card is New York junior middleweight Yuri Foreman, who is coming off a lackluster (and controversial) decision against Anthony Thompson at the Garden on June 9.
• MSG Network's increased commitment to boxing will be on display again this month. The New York regional sports network, which is available on satellite services, will replay a pair of fights that originally were available only on pay-per-view. It will air Roy Jones' July 14 decision victory against Anthony Hanshaw along with Derrick "Smoke" Gainer's controversial undercard victory against Carlos Navarro on Aug. 4 (8 p.m.). As noted earlier, MSG also will carry a replay of John Duddy's points win against Alessio Furlan, a fight that also took place July 14 in Ireland. That fight will air Aug. 11 (8 p.m. ET).
• Featherweight titlist Injin Chi of South Korea relinquished his WBC belt this week and plans either to compete at junior lightweight or participate in K-1 events. Chi's decision means that interim titlist Jorge Linares, the 21-year-old phenom, will inherit the full title. Linares claimed the vacant interim belt July 21 with a 10th-round knockout of Oscar Larios. Chi (31-3-1, 18 KO) had been scheduled to defend against Larios in May, but Chi, 34, withdrew with a hand injury. Chi held the belt twice. He won the vacant strap against England's Michael Brodie via seventh-round knockout in 2004 and made two defenses. After losing it, Chi regained the via unanimous decision against Rodolfo Lopez in December.
• A few members of the British press corps are getting a little ahead of themselves, reporting that 20-year-old blue-chip prospect Amir Khan (13-0, 10 KOs), the 2004 British Olympic silver medalist and a major star in his country, will face newly crowned junior welterweight titlist Gavin Rees on Dec. 8 in London. Khan promoter Frank Warren set the record straight, however. "These reports are premature and inaccurate and are to be disregarded," Warren said in a statement. "Khan's next officially scheduled fight is on Oct. 6 at the Nottingham Arena against an opponent to be confirmed. No further dates or venues featuring Khan have been announced by Sports Network and any announcements will be made by way of press release or press conference."
• New York junior middleweight Sechew Powell (21-1, 12 KOs), released by promoter Lou DiBella, has signed a promotional deal with Seminole Warriors Boxing and Bad Dog Productions. "I'm ready to take the next step in my career, and I'm confident that my new promotional team will get me there," Powell said. "The rest is up to me." Powell's only loss came to former titlist Kassim Ouma, but he rebounded in his last fight to win a decision against Ishe Smith in February. Powell's first bout with his new team will be Aug. 24 in Miami.
"I don't get why Vazquez keeps blaming the last fight on his nose. I punched him. He got hurt. He did not trip. He got hit. It's what boxers do. For him to say I won because of the nose injury is not fair. This time, I am going to hurt him all over his body. Maybe then he will respect me for what I did in the first fight."
-- Junior featherweight champion Rafael Marquez on former champion Israel Vazquez, whom he meets in a rematch Saturday night (Showtime, 9 ET/PT) five months after Vazquez suffered a broken nose in their first action-packed fight and lost the title.