The Contender comes to Britain…

05.04.07 - By Jonny Oakley: Friday night and the MetroRadio Arena, Newcastle, saw the inaugural meeting of the Sugar Ray Leonard Cup. This Ryder Cup-esque arrangement pitted Team USA, comprised of 6 boxers from ESPN’s the Contender series under the expert Guidance of Sugar Ray Leonard, against Team Great Britain, Captained by Belfast’s Barry McGuigan. The old adage of ‘styles make fights’ appears to have been heeded by those responsible for recruiting the US competitors. Exponents of a variety of styles were on display, including Alfonso Gomez (15-3-2), popular brawler and boxer in the classic Mexican mould, big-hitter Cornelius ‘K9’ Bundrage (25-2) and slick technician Walter ‘2guns’ Wright (13-2)..

The late inclusion to Team GB of battle-hardened former-world champion Robin Reid (38-5), inactive for almost 18 months, provided much needed ring experience; with no other British boxer having reached the 20 fight mark in their pro careers. Highly regarded prospects Ross Minter (17-1-1) and the outlandish personality and style of Londoner Anthony Small (16-0) also graced the ranks of Team GB. A near sell-out crowd, raucously urging their fellow Britons to victory is testament to the popularity of this franchise, and its potential for growth.

Possessing a tangible appeal to television audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, this pioneering promotional arrangement had a distinctly showman-like characteristic about it in pitching the carefully selected US squad against the somewhat more hastily assembled British outfit. As a showcase event, the evolution of the Contender Challenge clearly owes much to the public appeal of its mastermind, legendary five-division world champion Sugar Ray Leonard. A role mentoring the boxers of the Contender, and a blossoming advisory relationship with WBO world title challenger Peter Manfredo have assured Leonard’s continuing involvement in boxing. Retirements followed by disastrous comebacks against first Terry Norris, then Hector Camacho, characterised Leonard’s later career and signified a huge personality struggling to live without the limelight. Admittedly, a limelight sadly lacking from the current boxing landscape as the sport becomes marginalized from the cultural mainstream. Indeed, Leonard enjoys a mutually beneficial relationship with the sport he once dominated. One can imagine few better ambassadors for the sweet science than Leonard, and the adoration of the British and American publics attracts a far greater audience to the Contender than the adoration of boxing alone could achieve.

Certainly, on this occasion, his busy promotional efforts ensured a thrilling event. Team USA eventually triumphed, winning the challenge 4-2, although this was by no means definitive or convincing - each combatant giving it all for their country, colleagues and ultimately their careers, a fact that can easily be lost in translation if one does not approach the circumstance of this event with careful forethought. Although superb reality television to armchair pundits, the Contender represents a very real, and lucrative, opportunity for burgeoning fighters to make their name and achieve prominence with the networks. Considering this in context, the Contender becomes a microcosm of the boxing world, enjoying a notably squeaky clean moral objective that boxing often suffers without in the public eye. Winning is not enough - fighters subsequently are focussed equally and simultaneously on creating an impression and extending their all-important winning records. Whether this is beneficial to a fighter’s focus or creates unnecessary pressure and hindrance remains to be seen as the first two batches of boxers re-enter the sport in its wider form. For the spectator, this was a spectacular combination of stardom and sport, passion and potential, and a return fixture is sure to be scheduled on the strength of this showing.

Article posted on 04.04.2007

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