It’s About Time: The Contender Debuts
By Coyote Duran (March 10, 2005)  
When anyone asks me why I love boxing so much, I always answer in the same manner: It’s the human story. It’s the personal struggle. It’s man’s own brutal therapy and the answer to his own unanswerable question.

What other single competitor sport can bring such dramatic focus to a solitary participant? NASCAR doesn’t do it for me. A bunch of guys with sponsorship stickers all over ‘em driving 200 miles per hour while only turning left. Hmmm… Golf? Well, the attire can get you in a fight. When you’re 12. That’s about as exciting as it gets for me. But the fight game validates it for me. Sure, there are negatives. The sanctioning bodies. Avaricious promoters. Crap decisions. Blind referees. What makes it worth it is that underneath all the muck-encrusted dreck the sport must continually chip away like barnacles stuck to the ass end of a fishing trawler, there is something shiny and pure. We’ve seen it, fans. We’ve experienced Roberto Duran wiping out Davey Moore in one of his many comebacks. We thrilled at the jaw-dropping sight of George Foreman dropping Michael Moorer to become a 45 year old heavyweight champion. We witnessed the Gatti-Ward trilogy in awe. If I had this entire home page to fill with beautiful moments in boxing, dammit, I could do it.

Underneath those beautiful shiny things lie the stories we’re not normally privy to. These stories are told by men who have many chapters to tell while some chapters to be told haven’t been written yet. The problem is, with the sport enjoying (if you could even call it that) a sheltered cult status these days, less and less get to enjoy these stories.

So when I first heard about the premise of “The Contender”, I went through the roof. It’s bad enough that reality shows have become the television norm, but to make a show about the greatest reality show would be tantamount to making a mockery of the greatest reality show. I was a mess. I couldn’t stop complaining. All I wanted was a new, positive spotlight on a sport that desperately needed it and not another excuse to use the word “alliance” while backstabbing your roommate.

After the ill-fated “The Next Great Champ,” I thought the concept was truly doomed. You know, guilt by association. For every death of “Gigli” must a “Jersey Girl” suffer as well (If you’re a Kevin Smith fan, you share my pain.). Mind you, the buildup was intriguing. This was seemingly more than just a bunch of pugs fighting for the chance to win some craptastic “8 Round World Title.” This was…….personal. There were familiar faces. Really good professional prospects. There were real pros associated with the production from Mark Burnett to “Sugar” Ray Leonard to Jackie Kallen. Then there was “Rocky” himself, Sylvester Stallone (who loves to prank “gullible” young fighters with arm wrestling stories). How could a show go wrong when one of the biggest fight junkies in Hollywood was behind it? The more commercials I saw, the more I wanted to be a part of it and the less offended I felt.

Maybe, just maybe, my sport would be cool again.

Tonight was something neat for me. I elected to tape “CSI: Miami” in the other room because I was going to give this show a chance. I’m glad I did. Because from the opening strains of mood music to the distinctive sounds of The Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris”, I was captured in the vibe. A vibe that emanated from not just the “icon” (Stallone) and the “legend” (Leonard) (as NBC so adequately christened Ray and Rocky), but from 16 souls who fought and would fight to become greater than their human vessels. This was, indeed, real life. Sure the casual fight observer might not know Ishe Smith, but I would. How about Peter Manfredo Jr.? Or Anthony Bonsante? Or Jonathan Reid? Real fighters. On NBC, no less. My heart leapt for these guys. There, I said it. My heart leapt.

It also wept. It wept when the image of Najai Turpin came across the screen. Amid all my forgiving, new-found excitement for this show, I forgot about Najai Turpin. I think I gasped because my wife looked at me and then looked at the screen and immediately knew why. I’m sorry, Najai. We haven’t gotten to see you perform in the show yet, but I’m glad we’ll get to say goodbye.

Getting back to the premise, much like any reality show, there was a physical challenge to determine which losing team member (teams were divided into West coast and East coast fighters) would be picked to fight a member of the winning team. Well, the physical challenge (linking three logs and lugging them up a hill in a race behind the Hollywood sign) was grueling enough but the West coasters, led by a pace-setting Ishe Smith, prevailed. The team member to step up for the big eliminator fight literally stepped up: 24 year-old Mexican native Alfonso Gomez. Gomez, who ironically lost to teammate Smith in his second fight, called out Peter Manfredo Jr. for the episode-ending 5 round fight that would ultimately send one of the young men home.

You’d think the kid with a 10-2-1 with 4 KOs record just announced he was going to play Russian Roulette with a 9 millimeter. He just wasn’t going to win this one. Manfredo was already 21-0 with 10 KOs and holder of the NABO junior middleweight strap. But Gomez wasn’t hearing it.

Fight night came and so did their families. Manfredo’s lovely wife and little daughter on one side and Gomez’ immediates on the other. We got to know these families quite well throughout the course of this series’ opener so their presence made an even greater impact at fight time. If that wasn’t enough pressure, the crowd seemed to be filled with celebrities and they all came to see a fight. And a fight they got. At the risk of sounding whiny, I wish we at home got the same fight. How I itched to score it, but alas, you can’t score a fight edited for the premise of keeping the at-home viewer in suspense. I’ll have to get used to it. What I did see was back and forth action and hard-hitting head and body shots that connected with crushing force. It was all on the line here. I don’t watch other sports (at all. I’m serious.) but I imagine that these two warriors battled with the fervor that a college basketball or football team would when only the love of the sport and the hope of bigger and better were the only stakes to be had. Even Stallone and Leonard were floored. The crowd would join them soon after as the young, hungry winner would be announced.

A young, hungry winner named Alfonso Gomez.

I never saw it coming in the beginning but if the dramatic, slow-motion-into- normal speed action throughout the fight was any indication, there would be no surprise when all was said and done. Manfredo, the heavy favorite, would take his final shower, pack his bag and go home with his family. He was heartbroken and unsure of his future.

And I loved every minute of it.

You see, it’s not the end for Peter Manfredo Jr. Just the end of the show for him. Not to mention he is no longer an undefeated pro. (The loss counted against Manfredo Jr's professional Boxing record.) He’s still a prospect and he’s still a very good young fighter. He’s got a supporting, loving wife and a beautiful little girl who he absolutely adores and fights for. This wasn’t like any other fight for him or for Gomez. They didn’t have 2 months to train. They didn’t fight in their weight classes. It wasn’t even a 10 or 12 rounder. It’s a game and an intense one at that. It’s for all these reasons that Manfredo isn’t really a loser. In fact, for all we’ve seen in this first episode, he’s a big, big winner. As for the first episode’s official winner, Alfonso Gomez gave us all the walking, talking, breathing meaning of the word “heart.” No paper title could ever overshadow that.

Not bad for a premiere episode, I must say. I’ll also say that if the show sticks with this very personal formula, I’ll stick with it, too. Most importantly, I was wrong and I apologize to all parties involved thus far with “The Contender.” Barring a miracle, I really didn’t think a reality show about boxing would work.

I’ve never been so pleased to be so wrong.

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