The Contender Retires
By Scott Mallon (April 25, 2005)  
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Much to the dismay of many boxing fans, ‘The Contender’ is over and unlike Sugar Ray Leonard, won't be making a comeback. A little over a week before last night's finale of the show, NBC announced it wouldn't be bringing back the Mark Burnett reality show next season. I'm not really surprised but I am a bit pissed off. Even though parts of the show were a little weak, something about it as a boxing devotee made me want to tune in. It would have been nice to see the sport of boxing win this ratings battle. It would have been nice to see the show go on year after year going into syndication, giving boxers the chance they may otherwise never receive, but instead the NBC executives pulled the plug.

While ‘The Contender’ is a reality show about boxing, most boxing aficionados would agree it's more a TV show with boxing characters than boxing reality. Co-producer Bruce Beresford-Redman summed it up best when he said "We can never lose sight of the fact that you can get good character out of boxing, but you don't necessarily get good boxing out of character.” In other words, fighters on the show needed to be able to fight but they also needed to be engaging TV personalities.

Unlike Fox's ‘The Next Great Champ’, ‘The Contender’ has indeed given boxing a much need boost, albeit a small one, but unfortunately very little of the true grit and grime of boxing are shown. I've been in quite a few boxing gyms in my time and other than the ‘yuppie gyms’ where they teach aerobics and Pilates, I've never seen a boxing gym look as sterile as ‘The Contender’ gym. Boxers don't normally engage in stupid challenges running around the Rose Bowl and they don't normally eat, sleep, live and train with other boxers who they'll be fighting. They don't usually have to sign non-disclosure contracts or take a year off because a TV show tells them to either. Moreover, fighters don't normally work the corner of their opponents as they do in ‘The Contender’. Can you imagine Marvin Hagler working the corner for Tommy Hearns or John Mugabi? Can't they afford real corner men?

Behind the scenes the producers of the show are similar to promoters in boxing in that there is much they don't want the public to know. Obviously in order to not spoil the weekly episodes and the finale, the results of the bouts are held back which is contrary to California State Athletic Commission regulations. Yet another discrepancy was the 18 foot by 18 foot ring used for the fights, which is smaller than regulation size.

There is also the issue of the weights of the fighters in the tournaments. For example, Ishe Smith isn't a middleweight, he's a welterweight or at best a junior middleweight, yet he is called a middleweight for the sake of the show. Najai Turpin, who is a story in himself, weighted 150lbs for his last fight before ‘The Contender’. Jesse Brinkley had to lose 10 pounds to make the middleweight limit and was a true middleweight, unlike some of the other fighters. To call the competition a middleweight tournament is misleading.

The public didn't know the fighters were not allowed access to their families without permission, were barred from using cell phones and all credit cards and cash was taken away from them. ‘The Contender’ does however give you a peek into the personalities of the fighters which is perhaps why many boxing fans liked the show. Even with all the shows imperfections, it managed to provide insight into the mindset and life of a professional boxer not often seen. ‘The Contender’ humanized fighters to the average Joe Blow and made boxing more tolerable for the non-fan. The show however wasn't reality boxing; it's the G-rated, highly polished and edited, Don King-less, made-for-TV version of boxing. Thankfully it's also an Oscar De La Hoya-less version. De La Hoya has lost 4 out of his last 10 fights so maybe he ought to concentrate more on fighting and less on golf, singing, promoting shows and making reality TV shows that fail miserably.

TV audiences are extremely fickle and I presume even with absorbing weekly storylines, enough of the right people just didn't care. At least that's what the Nielsen ratings show. The show was expected to draw somewhere in the neighborhood of 15-20 million viewers and yet according to the people who push the all-important buttons, only a third of this number actually tuned in. For reasons I'll never understand, audiences would rather keep drivel like ‘The Bachelor’, ‘The Bachelorette’ or ‘Desperate Housewives’ on the air. Ugghhhhh, spare me, please! Give me ‘The Contender’ any day of the week! Every show has flaws but I'd much rather see boxers have the opportunity to make a decent payday working at their craft than some guy crying because of ‘The Bachelorette’. Supposedly people chosen for ‘The Bachelorette’ are successful, yet they can't find love unless they're on a TV show? Somehow I find that hard to believe. I've found love quite often, in fact far more often than I would have liked and yet I did it without the aid of being on a TV show.

So just what was the problem? To paraphrase one of the producers of the show "the problem was the show is about boxing." ‘The Contender’ is boxing in a Real World format but no matter how you slice it, boxing is about two people inflicting pain upon one another and no amount of editing can change this. Some people just do not want to see human beings intentionally harming each other and prefer to change the channel instead of tuning in. Of course there is so much more to the sport than this, but try telling this to NBC or viewers more interested in ‘The Bachelor’. Network television, like boxing, is a business and if the business isn't making money it's time to close shop. With a 2 million dollar per episode nut to crack, it's tough to be profitable, especially if you’re only getting a third of the viewers you expected.

I'm not certain where the lofty 2 million dollars an episode price tag comes from, but my guess (and it's a good guess) is it went to the talent. I'm not referring to the true talent, the fighters, for as is often the case, it's everyone other than the fighter who is making the most serious cash. The list of people involved in the show is long and with names like Mark Burnett, Sly Stallone and Sugar Ray Leonard, you can be certain they are getting paid and paid well; maybe too well. Perhaps more of the money should have gone to the fighters and for the silly challenges and rewards instead. I'm sure the fighters and the fans would have both appreciated it.

Each of the sixteen boxers received $4000 for the six week shoot. Winners of the first-round bouts got $1000 with the loser receiving $500. Winners of the next round received $2500 with the loser receiving $1000. Those who made it to the final four collected $3500 and $2000 respectively. Of course the ultimate goal was to win the finale and a million dollars. The runner up received a quarter of a million which is still a far cry from what most fighters will ever make.

Whatever you think about ‘The Contender’, it made for good TV and probably helped the image of boxing. I would have liked to see the fights in their entirety; after all they were only 5 round fights and would have given the fans a better look at who truly won. I would have also liked to see more training and less of the challenges, but hindsight is always 20-20. So just how real was the show? We may never know, but boxers make comebacks, so why can't a TV show?
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