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Reality Check
By Jim Cawkwell (June 19, 2004) 
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The concept of reality television has retained its moniker without actually basing itself in reality at all. After all, 'Big Brother' only works when a selection of the most gruesomely extrovert characters are bundled together with free reign to seek attention. 'Survivor' pitches a group of individuals together in the most extreme, abstract and unrealistic situations possible. Finally, 'American Idol' bears the responsibility for inflicting a nation's own superstar creations on the world, which they discard as quickly as they conceive, a real joke rather than the real thing.

Nonetheless, worldwide audiences gleefully consume this puerile procession in gluttonous quantities. To me, it is creation purely for the sake of it. It is the interactive age they say, a time not only to view reality but also to reach out and become involved in it. The problem though is that none of it is reality as we live and breathe it every day at all.

Executives decide to manufacture the chance of stardom to an individual, simply because they can, not because the individual truly deserves it. Definitive musical superstars are at a premium and those of yesteryear either have faded or are dragged through the dirt of scandalous accusations by the media. Is it any coincidence then, that as a similar scenario occurs in the boxing world that we are about to witness the birth of the reality boxing show?

Mark Burnett, the man responsible for some of the aforementioned programs, is at the helm of production for 'The Contender'. By his side and a feature figure in the show itself is Sylvester Stallone. Burnett is an extremely successful man in a highly competitive field of frequently changing demands. Stallone has not been a film actor of any consequence for many years. These facts compel me to ask the following question of their conception of the project: “Is boxing being offered a lifeline, or are these the acts of a forgotten movie star trying to reclaim recognition and a hot-shot producer fast on the trail of the latest fad?”

If you crave reality, you need not look any further than the boxing industry as it now stands. It is not a fair business, the highest percentage of its participants risk much for little reward, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and there are enough allegations of corruption in boxing to make the most indifferent person take notice. However, not nearly as many do notice as they once did.

Perhaps the collective stench of all these negative factors has driven away too many. Indeed, boxing is no longer a marquee attraction to the viewing public, and most worryingly, it is not an attractive alternative for young athletes choosing between mainstream sports.

In America, a good young athlete can aim himself at basketball, American football or baseball and hope to earn millions without risking his health. In fact, an eager band of scouts, agents and managers are there to make sure he does so.
Similarly, England’s drastic lack of pugilistic talent output can be blamed on its ever-flourishing soccer scene. You could hardly expect a promising young talent to forego the opportunity of earning up to twenty-thousand pounds per week and the lavish lifestyle of a soccer star, only to live in a gym and lay his life on the line for next to nothing as a fighter.

However, the strength of fighters’ hearts has not diminished, even if their numbers have. Fighters are born, not made, and only such uniquely bred individuals belong in the boxing ring, and if 'The Contender' seeks to serve the sport of boxing rather than the careers of its creators, it would do well to portray that fact to the best of its ability.

There are many unanswered questions hovering over the developmental stage of the show. Of course, it has competitors that are already seeking to outdo it. Oscar De La Hoya is spearheading its closest known rival with a show that offers the winner a professional contract under his Golden Boy Promotions company banner.

Does 'The Contender' seek to provide its talent with more than a financial motivation? Will Mark Burnett and company look to pitch their own fighters in at professional level and, if so, how would the boxing community receive them? Perhaps they would be ridiculed by the hardcore boxing contingent. Will the preparation that the fighters receive during the series be adequate to honor boxing and its proud tradition? Will boxing be represented properly at all?

In addition to Stallone, ring legends George Foreman and 'Sugar' Ray Leonard will lend their experience to train the fighters. These individuals could use their influence to promote boxing in a fitting manner and draw attention to the problems that it and its fighters face; or will they simply be million dollar smiles ever widened by prime-time publicity?

Idealistically, Burnett and Stallone would have us believe that they desire to rekindle the public affection towards boxing by giving the underdog a chance he would never hope to receive. 'The Contender' and programs of its ilk could aid boxing’s cause without being a permanent remedy, but even if it does, it will likely be axed as soon as it is no longer a viable use of time and money for its creators.

For however long boxing is afforded the spotlight, lets us hope that it uses the time well.
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