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NBC's 'The Contender' comes out swinging hoping to be Mark Burnett's next reality knockout


By Wade Paulsen, 03/05/2005 

For the first time since 1976 and only the second time ever, a motion picture focused on the world of boxing, Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, won the Best Picture Oscar at the Academy Awards. Will that success translate into a wider interest in (or even a wider tolerance of) boxing? NBC's new reality-competition boxing series, The Contender, which premieres at 9:30 PM ET/PT on Monday, March 7, certainly hopes so.

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The Contender is executive-produced by three entertainment-industry powerhouses: Mark Burnett (Survivor, The Apprentice), the reigning king of reality TV, Jeffrey Katzenberg of DreamWorks, the former Disney creative honcho, and actor Sylvester Stallone, who wrote and starred in the first boxing movie to win a Best Picture Oscar, Rocky. To win rights to the show, NBC had to pay the highest per-episode price ever paid for a reality show. Judging by a screener of the premiere sent by NBC to Reality TV World, it looks like the price was worth it, with the well-produced show appealing to both boxing and non-boxing fans alike.

An ongoing worry for NBC concerning The Contender has been whether TV viewers, especially the Adult 18-to-49 demographic that forms the backbone of reality television viewers, will respond to the personal drama of a reality-competition series focused on the "sweet science" of boxing, which has been in severe decline in the United States ever since the retirement of heavyweight legend Muhammad Ali. One way to deal with that is to make most of the show about something other than boxing.

As Stallone states during the premiere's opening voiceover, The Contender "is about the lives, loves, hopes, dreams, and fears" of its "sixteen heroes." Similar to the approach taken in Million Dollar Baby, The Contender's actual boxing is secondary. taking a backseat to the "up close and personal" profiles of the boxers' lives and the strategy employed by the teams in setting matchups. In a sense, the fight that culminates each week is a tribal council or a boardroom session, with the difference that the losers (despite their tough-guy image) are free to cry.

One question lingering in the background -- and the first question that everyone asks about The Contender -- is the portrayal of Najai 'Nitro' Turpin, the 23-year-old Philadelphia welterweight who committed suicide on February 14 of this year. Najai's most visible moment in the premiere is his super-short re-creation, before he's even formally introduced, of the famous run up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art from Rocky, and we learn shortly thereafter from Stallone that Najai is "fighting for a better life for his family." Other than that, Najai is seen in a sparring match -- and that's about it, consistent with the findings that his suicide was unrelated to the show.

As previously disclosed, the boxers are divided into two teams: East and West. The boxers live two-to-a-room in what is apparently a converted industrial building (reminiscent of the fake apartments in Trump Tower occupied by the participants in The Apprentice), on a second floor that overlooks an open area containing the program's "Contender Gymnasium" training facility, in the style of 1950s factory offices that overlooked the factory floor. The boxers' families are located in off-site "Contender housing," and the boxers are apparently allowed to spend the night before the fight with their families (and a few million of their closest friends via the ever-present cameramen).

Each week, the teams will compete in Survivor-style "challenges." The premiere, for example, features the teams in Los Angeles' Griffith Park, racing to the top of Mount Lee (where the "HOLLYWOOD" sign is located), with a couple of included activities that give one of the teams unexpected difficulty. The winning team gets a great privilege: to select both the boxer from its team that it wants in the five-round match at the end of the episode AND the boxer from the opposing team that he has to face. Losing boxer in the match is eliminated.

Obviously, a lot of strategy comes into play at this point for the winning team; it's very important to send your guy out against someone that he can beat. In the premiere, the winning team is swayed to pick the match-up by the fact that one contestant on its team really wants to fight a contestant on the other team, and the rest of the team yields to his passion. Whether that was a good strategic decision can only be determined in the ring, which leads to an absorbing final match that will draw in everyone who watches it, boxing fan or not.

The boxers in The Contender are fighting for a huge prize for young professionals: the championship bout of the show will be staged in the famed boxing venue at Las Vegas' Caesar's Palace in May, and some of the "lucky losers" will be invited to appear on the undercard. But that's hardly the focus of the premiere.

Much of the show is also devoted to color: the head trainer Tommy Gallagher, whose New York accent sounds like a throwback to the days of Damon Runyon (though the audience doesn't get the salty story of Tommy fighting the boxing bear ... at least, not yet); the presence of Stallone, who is both admired and teased by the boxers (one boxer actually asks Stallone about his state of mind when he agreed to play the lead role in John Landis' 1991 so-called comedy Oscar); the urgency of the cornermen during the showdown bout ("You better win Round 5" and "Die in the ring tonight!"); the ringside "narration" of Stallone and show host Sugar Ray Leonard; all supported by music composed by DreamWorks' Oscar-winning in-house composer Hans Zimmer. But the boxers' personal stories, like the story of Hilary Swank's Maggie in Million Dollar Baby, dominate the production.

Why did CBS counter-program against the premiere of The Contender by moving new episodes of its successful Monday shows Two and a Half Men and CSI: Miami from "sweeps month" in February to this Monday? Probably because NBC's boxing show is so good that, if viewers watch the first episode, they might get hooked, even if they don't care for boxing.

Of course, as is typical for a Mark Burnett show, product placements are everywhere. Burnett and DreamWorks acquired a minimum 5% equity stake in longtime boxing equipment maker Everlast (now worth about $1.5 million), were paid $4 million by Toyota to be the integrated auto sponsor, and picked up more moolah from Gatorade, Sierra Mist and The Home Depot. If three series of at least 10 episodes of The Contender are made, Burnett and DreamWorks will end up with 15% of Everlast's total equity. In addition, Burnett will get licensing royalties from all sales of Contender-branded products by Everlast. No wonder almost everything worn by the boxers is an Everlast product. Despite the high production values and the appropriateness of the products used, the sheer volume of product placements in the premiere -- particularly the omnipresent Everlast logo -- feels more than a bit forced, although perhaps not unlike the boxing industry at large.

In both the caliber of its boxers and its production values (even with all the product placements), The Contender towers over Fox's "copycat" show The Next Great Champ, a dismal flop this fall. After that fiasco, there is no guarantee that a large part of the TV viewing audience is willing to watch a boxing reality show, no matter how much higher the production and athletic values are or how much more color and personal drama has been added. In the wake of Million Dollar Baby's victories at the Oscars (Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director), though, there's hope.

Although we are not free to divulge any "spoilers," we note that an online British boxing magazine seems to think that it already knows the two boxers who meet in the live finale of The Contender. Boxing Monthly claims that the East's Peter Manfredo, Jr. (21-0, 10 KOs) will face the West's Sergio Mora (12-0, 3 KOs) in the finals. We'll see soon enough whether Boxing Monthly knows something that the rest of us do not, but (having some experience with the difficulty of spoiling previous Mark Burnett reality-competition shows) we would bet real money against the accuracy of this spoiler.


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