How ‘The Contender’ helped make—and almost break—Sergio Mora

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His bank account was like a Bret Easton Ellis novel: Less than zero.

Sergio Mora

Sergio Mora's win on "The Contender" set the stage for future big fights, like his 2010 clash with Shane Mosley.

When Sergio Mora landed a spot on the first season of The Contender reality TV show a little more than a decade ago, he would have needed a small loan to qualify as broke.

“I think I had minus three dollars or something like that,” he says of his malnourished checking account, which was as starved of funds as a runway model is just plain ol’ starved.

Less than a year later, Mora would become a millionaire. The timing was everything.

When he was coming up the boxing ranks, Mora made a promise to himself that if he hadn’t made it in the sport by age 25, he would go back to school and do something else with his life.

Enrollment beckoned: Mora was just seven months shy of his 25th birthday when he won The Contender in May 2005, earning a seven-figure prize check along with it.

But what sounds like a rags-to-riches success story has a few more plot twists to it.

The Contender put Mora on the verge of stardom, but it also put a huge, glowing, Volkswagen-sized target on his back at the same time.

“It was definitely a huge gift and a huge curse,” says Mora, who will challenge 160-pound champion Daniel Jacobs (29-1, 26 KOs) on August 1 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, in a fight airing live on ESPN (9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT).

Although he was four years into his pro career and had a dozen wins under his belt when he signed up for the series, Mora was dismissed afterward by some as an overnight sensation whose record didn’t warrant the type of attention he was suddenly getting.

That he fought in an awkward style, possessed the camera-ready good looks of the obligatory older guy in every boy band and is a naturally outspoken dude who wouldn’t bite his tongue even if it was made of chocolate surely didn’t help any when it came to the haters.

For Mora (28-3-2, 9 KOs), it was more of the same. From the time he turned pro, he felt little love from the industry’s gatekeepers, even after a promising amateur career.

“I knew I had the goods as an amateur, and yet no one wanted to sign me as a pro,” he says. “I mean, I made the Olympic trials. Not only that, but I went to the finals and lost to the guy who was the eventual bronze medalist, Jermain Taylor, in a very close fight.

“If they did want to sign me,” he continues, “they wanted to sign me to these extensive, long contracts with no money down—that’s where fighters get taken advantage of. So I refused Top Rank. I refused Golden Boy, and I went on my own. And whenever you resist the establishment like that, that’s when they say, ‘(Screw) this kid.’ The prima donna label was already there, even when I was 1-0. The Contender just multiplied it and showed it to the world.”

Still, Mora says that he has no regrets about appearing on the show.

The Contender opened a huge door for me that wasn’t there before,” he says.

And the series seriously juiced his public profile, which is something that Mora thought he wanted. Until he got it.

“The trouble came when all of a sudden, everyone knew your name, knew your story, knew your mom’s name, your dog’s name,” Mora says. “You couldn’t really go anywhere, because you go to the mall, you go to a restaurant, and you’re bound to get recognized by at least one person.

“When it was fresh off that show, it was flattering. But then it was scary, because the times I wanted to have my own privacy and just be by myself, I couldn’t have that. That was actually a rude awakening.”

Being on national TV once a week for 16 straight weeks has a way of opening one’s eyes.

But as an audience of millions was discovering who Sergio Mora really was on The Contender, he was doing the same.

“You never stop learning in boxing,” he says, speaking of the sport and himself at once.

Follow all the action of Jacobs vs Mora on our fight page.

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