Five and a half years after competing in Season 1 of "The Contender" reality TV series, Jesse Brinkley will find himself fighting for a world championship when he meets 168-pound champ Lucian Bute in Montreal on Friday (on ESPN3.com for U.S. residents).
Sergio Mora, who defeated Brinkley on "The Contender," has been a champion at 154 pounds and boxed to a draw with Shane Mosley on pay-per-view last month. Alfonso Gomez, who outpointed Brinkley on "The Contender," had his big chance against Miguel Cotto, while fellow contestants Peter Manfredo Jr. and Miguel Espino fought for major titles against Joe Calzaghe and Kelly Pavlik, respectively. But for the 33-year-old Brinkley, it's better late than never.
Brinkley faces a formidable undertaking, meeting an undefeated southpaw on the champion's home turf in front of a huge, passionate crowd at the Bell Centre that will no doubt be roaring every time a punch lands on the American visitor.
Bute has won 26 consecutive contests, and he has stopped five of his past six opponents in championship fights. He was a world-class amateur on the international circuit, he is 4 inches taller than the thick-set Brinkley, and he simply seems the faster and more talented of the two boxers.
Brinkley has done all that could be expected of him in his preparation, leaving the home comforts of Yerington, Nev., to train for 10 weeks in Providence, R.I., under the direction of Peter Manfredo Sr., the father of Brinkley's fellow "Contender" contestant.
"It's a difficult fight, but he's physically prepared," Manfredo Sr. told ESPN.com. "He's done over 150 rounds of sparring, and we've got a lot of southpaws here -- and some good ones: Demetrius Andrade, the  Olympics kid; Vladine Biosse, the undefeated tough fighter out of Providence; and a bunch of others. [Brinkley's] head is on straight, he's been dieting correctly, he's been looking pretty good in sparring, and he's ready to go."
Brinkley looked his best ever -- almost like one of the ring mechanics from a bygone era -- when he outclassed Curtis Stevens in an elimination bout on "Friday Night Fights" in January. Considered the underdog by bookmakers, Brinkley outboxed, outfought and beat up his New York opponent, almost knocking out Stevens in the last round. A win such as this can give a boxer a huge surge in confidence, but Manfredo is under no illusions about the task that faces Brinkley on Friday.
"[Bute's] a lot more difficult than Curtis Stevens," Manfredo said. "He's difficult to defend against, he tries to bring you into shots, he steps back, he looks to counter, he's got a nice little jab -- but we're going to give it our best shot. He's got to do the best he can.
"I want him to use his jab from the outside and not just run in, keep away from that left hand because [Bute] has a beautiful left uppercut to the body and a real nice left uppercut to the head -- he's knocked his last few guys out with that shot. So we'll try to position ourselves away from that as best we can, keep on the outside in the first couple of rounds, and we're looking to catch him with a couple of shots, because Jesse's a sharp puncher. If he can put a couple of shots on [Bute's] chin, then we've got a shot."
Brinkley is boxing better than ever, with nine wins in a row, and he surely is fitter and more dedicated to his boxing. But there are many who believe that the Romanian-born Bute is the world's best 168-pounder and that Showtime's troubled Super Six tournament wasn't complete without him. Bute's left hand is a major threat, especially when he throws it to the body. Brinkley has been hurt to the body in past fights, notably when he lost to Joey Spina on the old "Wednesday Night Fights" series -- although in fairness that was more than four years ago.
"It's a difficult, difficult, difficult task," Manfredo said of Brinkley's toughest fight yet. "But he's in the best shape of his life and he's really done what he has to do to give himself an opportunity to win this fight -- the conditioning, the running, the dieting, the sparring -- and maybe Bute's underestimated us. I've done everything in my power, and so has Jesse, to go in there and try to upset him. He's getting paid decent, but it's not for the money; he wants to get in there for this one to see how he can do against this monster, and we don't go in there to lose. And Bute's only human, he's not indestructible."
As good as Bute is, he was down and hanging by a thread in the last round of his first fight with Librado Andrade. This gives the Brinkley camp encouragement. Brinkley has 22 knockout wins on his record, and he was a punch or two away from getting his 23rd stoppage victory in January's bout with Curtis Stevens. If he can avoid Bute's left-hand firepower in the early rounds, be patient and time his opponent for a big right hand or a left hook, he has a slim chance at pulling off what would be one of the year's biggest upsets.
In truth, though, it is difficult to see that happening. Although Bute is widely considered to have been fortunate to escape Andrade two years ago, he believes he was not as well conditioned as he could have been. "It was an experience I learned from," Bute told me in an interview for Boxing Monthly. "I was not satisfied with the way it ended -- and neither were my fans in Montreal, in Romania and worldwide."
And in the rematch last November, Bute made no mistakes, easily outboxing Andrade for the first three rounds, then finishing the fight in the fourth, dropping his challenger with a left to the head before crumpling him for the full count with a perfectly placed left-hand drive to the body.
Bute was again highly impressive in his latest fight, blowing out heavy-handed Colombian Edison Miranda in three rounds. The conclusive win came just 11 months after Miranda had lost a 12-round decision to Andre Ward, the leading American boxer in the super middleweight division.
Perhaps Brinkley can keep out of trouble for several rounds and land enough punches to be competitive, but to win he can't think defensively for too many rounds -- and once he starts to let his punches go, he is more likely to get caught. Bute is a precise hitter, quick to spot an opening. If Bute starts to get his left hand on target, the end might not be long in coming.
I'm expecting Bute to win by stoppage anytime after the start of the eighth round. Brinkley is coming to give all he's got, but the gap in talent and punching power simply looks too wide for him to overcome.
Graham Houston is the American editor of Boxing Monthly and writes for FightWriter.com.