SPORTS

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May 13, 2005

Between the Lines: Salmaci's Contender comeback deserves vote

I know boxing has become passé as a big-event sport, but every once in a while there's that fight that renews my love for "the sweet science." The combination of speed, brutality, movement, and tempo are simply unmatched elsewhere in sports. Forget how you want or have been taught to react in the ring; how are you going to respond when you're left naked, getting pounded left and right with nobody to help and nowhere to hide? That bare-bones instinct helps make boxing, at its best, the most compelling big-event sport out there.

Over winter break, the fight that captured my imagination again was Erik Morales vs. Marco Antonio Barrera III, a relentless 12-round slugfest that perfectly rounded out the current trilogy. Two Mexican boxers, each with his own half of the heavily Latino crowd on its feet the entire fight, relentlessly beat on each other, both refusing to go down and give the other the series edge. Now, NBC's The Contender (Sundays at 7 p.m. and full replays available at contender.tv.yahoo.com) has quickly gotten me back into the sport.

It's easy to get sick of boxing because of the fixes, politics, and sheer violence, but The Contender adds a new face to the sport by emphasizing the fighter as family man, putting each boxer's family in front of the camera. Kids, parents, and wives grimace, cheer, and yell as they watch the matches, giving the usually cliché "I'm doing this so my family can get a better life" some undeniable truth. For the matches, the 12-by-12-foot ring (so small that the California Boxing Commission had to make a special exception) produces action-packed fights that are beautifully edited. The entire hour is emotionally and athletically compelling, despite being manipulative.

Take, for example, the great sports story of one of the competition's 16 original contestants, Tarick Salmaci, who I had the chance to interview this week.

A boxer since age eight, the 32-year-old Salmaci (20-2) has a hearty list of career accolades, including being an Olympic Trials finalist as an amateur, winning the North American Boxing Organization Middleweight Championship as a pro, and being ranked as high as fourth in the World Boxing Organization. Having been promised a world championship shot, Salmaci waited as neither his promoter nor manager ever delivered. Disillusioned with the sport, he quit and became a successful real estate agent.

"I went through a lot in boxing. There's no national commission, no union for the fighters to stick up for the fighters," Salmaci said. "I was given a lot of false promises. I went through a lot in my pro career mentally. Mentally, more than physically. A lot of anguish."

A disciplined boxer who fights off his jab—the only punch he was allowed to throw his first year of fighting—Salmaci got his comeback chance against then-17-year-old Juan de la Rosa in the tournament's first round. Though Salmaci cut de la Rosa's left eye with a straight right, which would knock the young gun out of the tournament, Salmaci lost on a unanimous decision as he was rendered ineffective by his surprisingly wild and raw opponent.

"It was too much too fast," said Salmaci, saying that de la Rosa was an atypically tough comeback fight. "To get my timing back, train, to drop 25 pounds, it all caught up to me. I was drained from all of it. He didn't beat the real me."

With the tournament a fighter short because de la Rosa was medically disqualified, the show producers decided to call a vote to bring back a fighter who had lost rather than Salmaci, who did the damage. Salmaci didn't win the vote, and his comeback was stalled.

Until now. With an online vote at the show website deciding who will fight on The Contender championship undercard (Tuesday, May 24), Salmaci is the most compelling fighter to vote back for my money. He showed that he was the most disciplined boxer in his fight, despite the rust, and boxing needs a guy who loves the sport enough to stage a comeback despite settling down with a family and career in the face of corruption. That passion and hunger should be the motivation Salmaci needs to really show what he has.

"It's hard not knowing who you're going to fight, but it doesn't worry me now," said Salmaci, emphasizing that he has been training heavily for seven months to get prepared. "I've got my mind back. I don't care who I fight, I'm ready for everyone."

With a little help from reality TV (blech), boxing's best features have my eye again. At least until the next fix.