Wednesday night on Versus brings an unexpected season finale of “The Contender” boxing reality show. They aren’t the two men anyone probably thought would end up in the finale before it started, but Troy Ross and Ehinomen Ehikhamenor (“Hino”) didn’t get there by luck of the draw. No sir. They dispatched with the most seasoned names on the show themselves: Troy Ross knocked out Felix Cora, Jr., while Hino sent Darnell Wilson and Rico Hoye packing.
The last two big men standing in this tournament of cruiserweights have a few other things in common. For instance, both are transplants, with Ross coming out of Guyana and ending up in Canada and Hino ending up in Queens after being born in Nigeria. But they mostly are very different. Ross is reserved, determined. In the ring, he is a southpaw, but otherwise fairly conventional in his approach.
Hino is passionate, showy. In the ring, he is right-handed, but anything other than conventional. I’ve personally enjoyed watching both men ply their craft, slicing through the tournament in very separate ways with relative ease. I nonetheless have my concerns about whether their respective styles will mesh well.
(A complaint about this season: There’s been a dearth of information that is head-scratching. Versus’ website lists two different start times, 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. Nobody actually seems to know how much money they’re fighting for, and while I didn’t catch every single episode, I never heard anyone say. In the past, it’s been as much as $1 million dollars. Likewise, while it it’s a five-fight card, it’s not clear what Versus will air other than Ross-Hino.)
So how’s it going to go down?
Ross may have only had to tackle one of the bigger names of the tournament to Hino’s two, but it didn’t take long for him to become the man to beat. Two straight knockouts, including of consensus tournament favorite Cora in the 1st round, will do that. Along the way, he’s shown he’s pretty good at just about everything. He had knockouts with both his left and right hook. He dominated another fight primarily with his 1-2, jab-straight left. He showed pretty nice ring smarts, with good defense and an ability to take what his opponent gives him. When Lawrence Tauasa stalked forward, Ross picked him apart with his jab before landing the knockout punch. When Akinyemi Laleye showed him a high guard, Ross went to the body. Generally speaking, he was more comfortable keeping his distance, and he showed moments of vulnerability against Laleye by leaning forward after lunging with shots, but once he got inside, he successfully tied up and/or delivered crunching uppercuts.
Laleye gave him moments of trouble, but he more or less coasted through the tournament. His one loss came four years ago, and he very much appears to be peaking. At 33, as a big man, that’s not all that unusual, and his low work rate, with just 21 fights in an eight-year career, may be an additional reason why. In short, he’s been something of a revelation.
Hino, too, won his fights with relative ease, but without much punching power — he hasn’t knocked anyone out in four years, and some of the guys he fought had been knocked out plenty — he had to rely on going to the scorecards. No matter. He’s difficult enough to fight that on most scorecards, he lost nary a round against Wilson, Hoye or Deon Elam.
He’s a confounding mix of shoulder roll defense and unpredictable timing/angles. On defense, Hino is hard to hit cleanly and can take a shot besides. He may have lost nearly every round against his most well-known pre-Contender opponent, Herbie Hide, but Hide had knocked out every opponent he’d defeated since 1993 prior to running into Hino last year. Given Hide’s KO ratio decline since then, it’s possible Hide is just getting old, but a lot of shots brushed off Hino and the ones that connected, he handled just fine. His favorite move is to establish a kind of up-jab, then launch a right hand that — at various points — looks like an overhand, hook or straight shot. It’s weird. Once he gets that cranked up, he then steps through with a left hook. And despite unexceptional height, he is more comfortable keeping his distance and counting on his speed to close the gap. At the same time, he is at his most vulnerable when he stands around posing — he does seem to enjoy himself in there — or when he’s resetting from one of his crazy attacks back into his shoulder roll shell. At 28, he has an age advantage, but it’s neutralized somewhat by Ross’ lack of wear and tear.
My fear, stylistically, is that both men will be more comfortable waiting for the other to initiate, and there will be a lot of standing around. The defensive capabilities of both means we could see a lot of missing, and both would prefer to attack, hold and reset than brawl on the inside.
The cause for hope is this: It’s the finale. We may not know how much money is at stake. We may not know how much of a boost this season of the show, found in fewer homes via Versus than via its predecessors on NBC and ESPN, will give either man coming out, but it’ll be some kind of boost. We do know it’s the biggest fight of each man’s life. Losing won’t be the end, of course: Sometimes, the runners-up on the Contender go on to be more popular than the ones who take home the trophy. But I hope there’s enough incentive for each man to really bring it and make a great fight, because it’s better to hit the market and call yourself “The Contender Season Four Champion” than not.
My prediction: Ross by convincing but not easy decision — I’m thinking seven rounds to three or thereabouts. He’s going to have trouble touching his man, and if he can learn anything from Hide’s win over Hino, it’s to punch in combination, because then something will land.
Confidence: 75%. At times during the tournament, Ross punched in combination, and at times, he wasn’t very busy. He could come out with the wrong strategy. Another mystery is that we don’t know which trainer is in which corner. Whoever has had Tommy Brooks has held a significant advantage over whoever has had John Bray. If Hino gets Brooks, that will keep the fight closer and give Hino a better chance of pulling the upset.
My allegiance: Ross, by a hair. I think he’s the fighter most likely to make a dent somewhere in the top 10 of the cruiserweight division, a division I’d like to see injected with some real buzz, since I prefer these big men, similar to heavyweights of decades ago like Joe Louis, to the current heavyweight division. He’s nice to a fault, but he’s likeable. Hino has the edge in marketable personality — some of the funniest moments of the season involved him making bird and snorting noises between rounds and before fights — but he just doesn’t seem to have the power to make the most fun fights. Hino had some conflict this season, but he’s no jerk. Both are good guys. Both are easy to root for. Especially given their unexpected path.