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'The Contender' boxer Najai Turpin commits suicide before the NBC show airs


By Wade Paulsen, 02/15/2005 

Up-and-coming Philadelphia boxer Najai "Nitro" Turpin, 23, one of the sixteen contestants appearing on NBC's upcoming The Contender boxing reality-competition show, apparently committed suicide in a parked car on the Valentine's Day morning of February 14, 2005.

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According to police reports in the Philadelphia Daily News, Turpin was sitting in a Chevrolet Lumina when he shot himself at 4AM ET. Turpin leaves behind his girlfriend, who was the mother of his two-year-old daughter Anje and appeared with him on The Contender ... and who, according to initial reports, was with him at the time of his suicide.

The New York Daily News reports that Turpin's trainer, Perry "Buster" Custus, was planning to pick him up at his girlfriend's house that morning to drive to the Poconos and help train another boxer. Custus said about Turpin, "He had a lot of stuff on his mind. I was going to talk to him about it while we were driving to camp. You never really knew what was going on in Najai's head."

In addition to his girlfriend and toddler daughter, Turpin leaves behind a younger brother, sister, niece and nephew, whom he became responsible for when his mother died when he was 18. One of Turpin's given reasons for appearing on The Contender was to enable him to better support his family.

One potential source of frustration for Najai Turpin might have been the repeated delays in the airing of The Contender, which NBC will finally debut on March 7 before it moves into a regular slot on Sundays at 8PM ET/PT. The show, which is guided by reality-TV "superproducer" Mark Burnett, DreamWorks chief Jeffrey Katzenberg and Rocky star Sylvester Stallone, was the subject of a heated bidding war between NBC and Fox last spring. It ultimately commanded the highest per-episode fee ever for a reality show at over $2 million per episode.

Fox did not take defeat gracefully and instead decided to produce a cheaply-made "copycat" version entitled The Next Great Champ in an effort to "steal" the concept. After winning litigation against NBC, Fox rushed its show onto the air in September -- only to see it get clobbered in the ratings. In the end, Fox burned off most of the episodes of The Next Great Champ on the low-rated Fox Sports Net.

One result of the fisticuffs between the networks was a delay in the air date for The Contender. The show, which was once scheduled to debut in November and end during February sweeps, was ultimately pushed back to a March debut to create some "space" between it and Fox's copycat flop. Boxers on the show were unable to compete again until after the live championship bout on May 24. As a result, The Contender was paying the boxers around $1500 a week (before taxes) until the show's run was complete ... which may have been the most money that Turpin, a seafood cleaner when he wasn't boxing, had ever earned.

Nevertheless, according to trainer Custus, Turpin (13-1 with 9 KOs, not counting his performance on the show, according to NBC) was having trouble with his time off, even though he was doing a lot of sparring sessions. "He told me he was a fighter and fighters should be fighting," said Custis. At the time of his death, Turpin, a natural welterweight (147 lb), weighed about 20 lb. above his fighting weight, according to the Philadelphia Daily News.

NBC spokeswoman Rebecca Marks had no comment regarding Turpin's progress on the show. Since Turpin was a natural welterweight but all matches on the show take place at junior middleweight (156 lb.), Turpin may have been starting at a disadvantage in the competition.

Without knowing details of Turpin's performance on The Contender, some have speculated that his suicide parallels that of Sinisa Savija, 34, the first contestant voted off of the initial production of Sweden's Expedition: Robinson in 1997, who threw himself in front of a train two months before the show aired. Expedition: Robinson later became world-famous as Survivor under Mark Burnett's guidance in the U.S. beginning in 2000, and Savija's suicide led Burnett and other reality-TV producers to subject potential contestants to psychological testing prior to casting.

However, Savija killed himself within four weeks of returning to Sweden, while Turpin's apparent suicide falls several months after the end of competition in The Contender. The extended delay may indicate that the motivating factor for Turpin was not the results of The Contender but rather the pressures of post-Contender life facing a young man from the tough inner city streets of Philadelphia.

As of this time, Mark Burnett is planning to make no changes to the show as a result of Najai Turpin's death. Said Burnett, "Nothing changes. Iím not even going to make any edits [to the show] because itís real.Ē However, the show will acknowledge Turpin's death at some point, probably via an onscreen message broadcast at the conclusion of an episode.

Veteran New York trainer Tommy Gallagher, who was part of the support staff for the boxers on The Contender, told the NY Daily News that Turpin "wasn't a very trusting kid" but that "once he got to know you, he was very warm and friendly." Gallagher characterized Turpin's apparent suicide as "a complete shock."

(Photo credit NBC)


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