One of the real surprises when the cast for NBC's The Contender was announced was that Peter Manfredo, Jr., a promising middleweight with a 21-0 record who was ranked #3 in the world by the World Boxing Organization, had agreed to become one of the 16 contestants on the reality-competition boxing show. A bigger surprise, shown on the March 7 premiere episode of The Contender, was that Peter became the first contestant eliminated from the show, as he suffered his first pro defeat at the hands of Alfonso Gomez, Jr. (now 11-2-1 as a pro).

The show started with the contestants dividing into "East" and "West" teams. A challenge pitted both teams in carrying three large poles up the very steep slope of Mount Lee in L.A.'s Griffith Park. The third pole was locked with a combination lock, and the combination for each lock was posted on road signs along the way up; each team sent a runner ahead whose job was to unlock it before the team got there. Unfortunately for the East, its lead runner, Ahmed Kaddour, became too caught up in his personal rivalry with the West's Ishe Smith. Although Ahmed easily won the race to the pole, he totally forgot the combination, and the East never unlocked the pole until the main body of East runners reached the pole. Although the teams were neck-and-neck up to that point, West easily won the challenge.

As a reward, West was given the opportunity to pick its boxer and his opponent, and the consensus choice was to have its least-experienced boxer, Nevada lawyer Joey Gilbert (8-0), fight the East's smallest guy, Jeff Fraza (16-2). However, the bilingual Alfonso (a natural welterweight (147 lb.) who moved up to the show's 158 lb. middleweight classification) wanted the chance to fight the East's top fighter, consistent with Alfonso's reputation of choosing to fight the toughest opponents, regardless of the impact on his record. Ishe, a top-rated welterweight who handed Alfonso one of his early losses when Alfonso filled in with only a week's notice, supported the choice, and the match was made ... much to the surprise of show producers.

In the main event, spectators (including Chuck Norris and James Caan) were treated to a five-round slugfest, with Alfonso clearly winning Round 1, only to have Peter turn around and totally dominate Round 2, opening a cut next to Alfonso's eye. However, Alfonso came back to take Round 3, as Peter looked arm-weary (and maybe a little depressed that he didn't get a knockdown) after his flurry in the previous round. Round 4 looked even, with Alfonso even engaging in a little showboating, but a late flurry from Peter may have given him the round. Thus, it all came down to Round 5.

Both boxers came out firing -- except that Peter kept missing, while Alfonso landed power punches to Peter's head. As a result, the outcome was a foregone conclusion, and Alfonso was awarded a unanimous decision by the judges. After his defeat, Peter looked completely crushed, crying in the locker room with his wife and toddler daughter and even wondering forelornly, "Where do I go from here?" The answer: home.

The next episode of The Contender will be shown on NBC on Thursday, March 10, at 10 PM ET/PT, following The Apprentice -- giving Contender and Apprentice co-executive producer Mark Burnett three straight hours of programming on TV's most competitive night this week, starting with CBS's Survivor at 8 PM. The Contender will then move into a regular slot on Sunday at 8 PM ET/PT beginning with its third episode on March 13.

So much for the claim in Boxing Monthly that the final bout in The Contender would be a matchup of Peter versus the West's Sergio Mora. Although it is possible that the show would permit some early losers to have a chance to fight their way back in (as, for example, the losers did on Survivor: Pearl Island), that would be inconsistent with Peter's comments to the Providence Journal that he had let down his family and friends and "probably" damaged his career by losing so quickly.

At least Peter seems to have answered the question in his own mind about where he goes from this loss. "I want to keep going. I'm definitely going to keep trying, because that's what fighters do," he said. "Hopefully, I can get another chance. I won't blow it next time."

During the introductions, Ishe Smith (14-0, and also known as "Sugar Shay," in homage to show co-host and multiple class world champion "Sugar Ray" Leonard) was introduced as being disillusioned with the "lack of integrity in boxing today." Later in the show, co-host Sylvester Stallone noted that The Contender gives boxers a chance they've never had before, to take control of their own careers. This raised a question for Alessandra Stanley at the New York Times, for one, who wondered, "Perhaps commendably, Mr. Burnett and Mr. Stallone are intent on rescuing boxing's reputation from corruption. But their efforts to ennoble the sport are so unrelenting it mostly prompts viewers to wonder just how bad things really are. (The words 'Don' or 'King' are never mentioned.)"

For the benefit of non-boxing viewers such as Ms. Stanley, we present a quote on boxing corruption from HBO boxing analyst Dr. Ferdie Pacheco (who became famous as doctor and corner man for Muhammad Ali back in the 1970s), quoting legendary boxing promoter Chris Dundee (whose brother Angelo was Ali's longtime trainer):

"Chris Dundee once told me that you have to shave a boxer from his very first fight, even if you take five bucks, ten bucks off him. You have to get him used to the idea that he's not going to get what he signed for. That way, if he becomes a big fighter, he's used to your taking his money. It was like that long before Don King. He didn't change anything. He just took advantage of what was there."

In other words, the corruption in boxing runs much, much deeper than Don King ... which is why top-ranked fighters such as Peter Manfredo Jr., Ishe Smith and Sergio Mora, who were fighting important 8- to 12-round bouts, agreed to join the show with shorter 5-round bouts in the first place. Boxing "titles" are really held by promoters, not the boxers that won the title in the ring. To get a chance to fight for a title, you either must agree to a deal with the promoter who represents the titleholder or must get a ranking agency to rank you as the #1 contender for the title ... in which case you MIGHT get a mandatory shot at the title.

On top of that, there are four main bodies issuing world rankings: the World Boxing Association, the World Boxing Council, the International Boxing Federation and the upstart World Boxing Organization. Each of these groups recognizes its own champion (sometimes in collusion with a promoter), which leads to a situation such as in the heavyweight class, where four different fighters can call themselves "champion":

WBA: John Ruiz
WBC: Vitali Klitschko
IBF: Chris Byrd
WBO: Lamon Brewster

Note that Don King owns the promotional rights to Ruiz, Byrd and Brewster, so he has a strong interest in keeping them from fighting each other, thus making them more "promotable." No matter how much any one of these fighters might like to prove himself against the others, he simply cannot. As all of these boxers have learned, though, the problem is the "wildcat" system of boxing promotion, not merely Don King. If Mark Burnett, Jeffrey Katzenberg of DreamWorks and Sylvester Stallone can change that, they will have accomplished something far more valuable than producing a hit reality show.