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Sly Stallone & Sugar Ray Leonard outline NBC boxing reality show 'The Contender'


By Wade Paulsen, 04/02/2004 

Is it Rocky? Is it Spartacus? Or is it the beginning of the end for Don King, Bob Arum and the other big-time boxing promoters?

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The "it" in question is the upcoming NBC boxing-reality series The Contender. This week, series executive producers Sylvester Stallone and Mark Burnett plus show host Sugar Ray Leonard were doing the phone interview circuit to generate enthusiasm for the show in cities with upcoming tryouts. The calls ranged from newspapers (Houston Chronicle, Pasadena Star-News) to radio talk shows (Boston's Dennis & Callahan Show on WEEI). Based on these interviews, it appears that each of the promoters of this show sees it in a different light.

Stallone, for example, continued the comparison of The Contender to his series of Rocky movies, although he admitted that the idea behind the show was Burnett's. Sly was quoted by the Pasadena Star-News thusly: "Like we did in the Rocky movies, what we're going to try to do in this is, it's very important to [show] the involvement of the families. What is their motivation? What is their support group? What makes them tick? What are their fears, their loves, their dedications? Is it just that they are money-oriented, or are they dealing with family responsibilities?"

A big task for a reality TV show, trying to show how a boxer maintains balance between his personal life and the brutal world inside the ring, but Stallone pointed to Sugar Ray Leonard as a person who was able to let people see his family side. Naturally, Sugar Ray agreed.

Sugar Ray noted that his RC Cola commercials with his son, "Little Ray," helped the public see him as more than just another prizefighter, and noted that even his troubled marriage to "Little Ray"'s mother Juanita helped differentiate him. (However, considering the drug use and allegations of wife-beating, it may have made him seem more like Mike Tyson, which would not be a good thing....)

Mark Burnett, however, had a different take on the personal stories. In his Australian accent, he told Dennis & Callahan that the driving focus of the show would be the interrelationship of the boxers. His starting point for comparison was not Rocky but rather Spartacus, the great Stanley Kubrick movie from 1960 that focused on a slave who became a gladiator and later the leader of a rebellion.

In Burnett's eyes, the fighters will be almost like the movie's gladiators. They will live together and train together, but they also know that they'll probably be facing each other in the ring and trying to knock each other out of the competition. Burnett likened the dramatic aspect of the fights to the movie's climactic battle-to-the-death between Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) and his best friend Draba (Woody Strode). Thus, each episode would focus on the boxers' interactions for the opening three segments and then end with a "six or seven minute bout" eliminating one of the competitors.

These two very different visions of the "reality aspect" of The Contender (personal life versus training-camp life) were still hanging in the air when Stallone moved on to another of the show's objectives. He made a point to Dennis & Callahan Show of differentiating The Contender from, say, American Idol in one very important respect. The Contender is not seeking amateur boxers that it could turn into stars. Instead, it is seeking professional boxers (preferably in the junior middleweight or middleweight weight classes) who are fed up with the "corrupt ranks" of big-time boxing.

In other words, the show intends to challenge the power structure in boxing, currently dominated by a few top-tier promoters such as convicted felon Don King, admitted briber Bob Arum and a few others. Burnett, in fact, was quoted by Daily Variety as saying that the show would be used as a springboard for the launch of a new boxing federation that would be "independent of current pugilistic organizations."

As evidence of the seriousness with which the producers take the challenge of creating a legitimate boxing enterprise, Burnett told the Pasadena Star-News that the show would use real referees and judges "chosen by the state in which the fights are held. We want to make sure we are at way more than arm's length from the officiating." So the "fix" won't be in during the fights (even if the editing makes it appear otherwise) ... and the producers will build a working relationship with state boxing commissions, valuable for the future.

In one regard, though, the show will be traditional. Stallone noted that the casting directors will be seeking "fighting clowns" -- boxers who can make jokes and express their personality as well as box. No wonder the host is Sugar Ray Leonard and the special guest will be George Foreman instead of, say, their equally talented but less showy contemporaries Thomas Hearns and Larry Holmes.

One show -- to produce the next big boxing superstar, focus on the personal lives of the boxers, focus on the interpersonal relationships among the boxers, challenge the boxing power structure, and produce fighting clowns. Looks like a big task. We'll see if it's too big.

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