By Thomas Hauser
When boxing fans last saw The Contender, the TV reality show conjured up images of the Titanic after the iceberg. One week before its May 24th grand finale, NBC announced that it was canceling the series. Then, for good measure, the network put the Contender's championship fight between Sergio Mora and Peter Manfredo up against the finals of American Idol.
The Contender asked several HBO luminaries to work the finals, but the request was declined. Ultimately, blow-by-blow chores were handled by Al Trautwig with color commentary from Sylvester Stallone and Ray Leonard. The latter two shilled for a rematch throughout the telecast, and Stallone called Mora-Manfredo a "candidate for fight of the year." Possibly, he'd never heard of Castillo-Corrales.
American Idol outdrew The Contender finale by 19,000,000 million viewers. More humiliating was the fact that The Contender finished 2,000,000 viewers behind Rob and Amber Get Married. Shortly thereafter, Mark Burnett and company announced that their next fight card (featuring the four Contender semi-finalists) would be held on July 5th. Like so much else about the series, that too was more wishful thinking than reality.
This history is relevant because the rebirth of The Contender has been announced. Mora and Manfredo will meet again at the Staples Center on October 15th with an undercard featuring Alfonso Gomez versus Jeff Fraza, Anthony Bonsante against Jesse Brinkley, and Jonathan Reid versus Miguel Espino. ESPN will air the fights live and televise a full second season of The Contender starting in April 2006.
The decision by The Contender to have its participants fight each other again and again is like the inbreeding of royal families in Europe centuries ago. It breeds insanity. It's also worth noting that The Contender is a perfect example of how television creates boxing promoters. Without NBC, there would have been no Contender promotional company. Now ESPN is keeping The Tournament of Contenders LLC alive.
That raises a host of questions. Will ESPN promote The Contender at the expense of its own ESPN2 Friday Night Fights (which occupy a different column on the organizational chart)? And will the network that goes ballistic when fighters wear temporary advertising tattoos look the other way when linked to the Contender's product-placement money-machine?
Last season, according to Nielsen's rankings, The Contender had more product placements than any other show on network television. There were 6,085 "brand occurrences" as compared to 3,102 for the runner-up, American Idol.
There's also an issue as to whether ESPN can breathe real life into The Contender. Yes, ESPN is powerful and, yes, ESPN is the biggest name in sports media. But let's not forget; ESPN is the same network that last year was going to make a household name out of Juan Diaz.
In truth (or perhaps one should say "in reality"), The Contender has problems. Let's start with the fighters themselves and the relationships between them. Peter Manfredo and Sergio Mora were popular with the other participants. So were Jonathan Reid, Juan De La Rosa, and Jimmy Lange. And Alfonso Gomez was the de facto mayor of the village. "If I was going to war," one of the Contender fighters said recently, "I'd want Alfonso by my side. He's loyal; he'll fight for what he believes in. He's the type of guy who would risk his life for the group and, if things went wrong, take a bullet and tell you in his dying breath to look after his parents. To me, Alfonso is the heart and soul of The Contender."
But some of the Contender fighters dislike each other intensely. Jesse Brinkley and Ishe Smith were frequently at each other's throats on camera and off. Anthony Bonsante and Joey Gilbert rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, and Ahmed Kaddour irritated just about everyone. Kaddour, in turn, was at war with Smith and told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, "If I saw him on the street today, I'd kill him. Well, I wouldn't kill him because I wouldn't want to waste my time. But I'd rip his lungs out. I hate the guy."
The stuff of rivalries? Not if the public doesn't care. And of greater concern to The Contender is the fact that Smith is now rattling the cage, loudly. Ishe is generally regarded as, pound-for-pound, the best of the Contender fighters. After winning his first bout against Kaddour, he lost a questionable split decision to Mora. He is not a happy camper.
The Contender contracts specifically preclude participants from giving interviews to the media without the show's prior authorization. Some of the fighters have circumvented this prohibition with off-the-record conversations. Smith has chosen to talk openly.
Ishe's grievances against The Contender fall into several categories. First, he believes that several of the show's producers played favorites throughout the taping and undermined the fairness of the process. In that regard, he is infuriated by the decision that went against him in his fight with Sergio Mora.
"I won that fight," Smith says. "You know there was something phony about the decision because one judge gave it to me 49-46 and another judge had it 50-45 for Mora. How can two judges score a fight that differently? How can one judge score every round for Sergio when I had him out on his feet at the end of the fight? They didn't show the crowd booing when the decision was announced. They didn't show the way Sergio staggered around the ring at the end of the fight. To this day, they won't let me see a tape of the whole fight. My own fight! If there's nothing to hide, show me the tape. Show everyone the tape. There's no way Sergio beat me, but the producers are protecting him. I've pleaded with them to let me fight Sergio again, and they say 'no way.' Instead, they wanted me to fight Jesse Brinkley in their next show at 165 pounds. That's not my weight. If they said 154, fine; but not 165. So I told them 'no,' and then they said, 'Well, bring your own opponent and you can fight him at 154 pounds but it will be an off-TV fight. The only way you get on TV is if you fight Jesse at 165.'"
"And that's the way it is," Smith continues. "Under the contract, as long as they pay me my minimum [ $50,000 a fight for two fights a year], they can keep me from ever getting exposure or fighting a world-class fighter. They can keep me from ever testing myself to see if I can be a world champion. I don't want to fight five-round fights against bring-your-own opponents. I don't want to be a carnival act like Butterbean. I want an opportunity to be recognized as a great fighter. I want to be a world champion, not a make-believe Contender champion. How do I know if I can fight a Winky Wright when they won't let me fight more than five rounds? David Estrada just fought Shane Mosley. I beat David Estrada. These guys have no respect for fighters. They're playing with fighters' lives as a hobby and I don't want to be part of it anymore. I want to fight real fights; not Contender nonsense. I want to be a real fighter, not a TV-reality-show guy. The people who are running The Contender don't know the difference."
Smith is now saying publicly what some other fighters have been saying privately. But Ishe has taken things a step further by filing for arbitration before the California State Athletic Commission. His case is expected to be heard in late August. If he wins, he'll be free and clear of The Contender.
At this point, the outcome of the arbitration proceeding is uncertain. But Smith could prevail based on broad public-policy arguments or technical violations of state and federal law. One source suggests that he might win his freedom based on an addendum to the Contender promotional contract that was required under California law. According to that source, a careful reading of the addendum could lead the commission to conclude that the Contender's exclusive promotional rights to Smith expired in March of this year.
That would please Smith. "There were some good people involved with producing the show," he says. "I'm not complaining about all of them. But forget about the idea that the people running the show are all good guys who made a lot of money in other businesses and now they're trying to make a contribution to boxing. That's bullshit. These are rich guys who want to get richer and make their egos bigger by promoting fights. They told us, 'We're not like Don King; we're not like Bob Arum.' And they were right. They're worse than King and Arum. At least King and Arum get championship fights for their fighters. Now they're threatening to sue me if I give interviews like this. Not even King and Arum do that to their fighters."
Smith has his own agenda. But the question remains, "If these guys are such wonderful promoters, why do so many of their fighters want to leave them?" That in turn leads to the thoughts of a television executive for a rival network, who says, "The major print media abdicated its responsibility to report honestly on The Contender because the people in charge didn't want to lose NBC's advertising dollars. So what we got was a lot of puff pieces on Sylvester Stallone and Ray Leonard. No one was looking at how the development of these guys as fighters was being impaired. And no one was looking seriously at what happened to Najai Turpin."
Najai Turpin. There's that name again. Turpin was the Philadelphia fighter who committed suicide after appearing on The Contender. Smith says one of the show's producers told him that, while Najai's death was a tragedy, it might be "good for the show." And Ishe recently told BoxingTalk.com, "They have the blood of Najai Turpin on their hands. They drove this man to killing himself. I firmly in my heart believe that they played a big role in the excess stress on this man's life. They knew that Najai was an individual that could have a problem dealing with something like this. The producers knew that Najai had attempted suicide at least once before when his mother passed away. They thought him being a little unstable would be good for television."
Turpin left behind a two-year-old daughter named Anyae Chapple. Anyae's mother (Angela Chapple) was pregnant with Najai's second child, a boy, at the time of his death. The baby is expected in September. A lawsuit for wrongful death could follow.
Meanwhile, The Contender keeps rolling along, albeit with lowered expectations. Richard Schaefer (CEO of Golden Boy Promotions) recounts a moment when the show's producers were negotiating with Oscar De La Hoya to serve as their host. Ultimately, the deal fell apart and De La Hoya launched a TV reality show of his own. Schaefer says the deal-breaker was The Contender's insistence that Golden Boy be folded into the Contender's own promotional company. "We're the future of boxing," he says he was told.
There was a time when most people in the sweet science thought it would be good for boxing if the The Contender were to succeed. Now, a growing number think it would be better for the sport if series failed. Still, as long as the show is on the air, one hopes for the best. And that leads to a letter I received from a reader after two previous articles I wrote were posted on SecondsOut.com (The Contender On The Ropes
and More Trouble For The Contender
"Dear Mr. Hauser," the letter read. "You've been awfully hard on The Contender. In a lot of instances, you had very good reasons. But I think it would be helpful if you offered some suggestions on how to make The Contender a better reality boxing show in the future."
Fair enough. The Contender could have worked. Here's how.
Suggestion #1: Using a TV-game-show format demeaned boxing and, in the end, made for bad television. Forget the "challenges". Pulling a harness-racing cart around Santa Anita Race Track has nothing to do with boxing and wastes valuable air time. Also, deep-six the "rewards". Viewers don't need to see Jackie Kallen (wearing an outfit reminiscent of the clothes Julia Roberts wore in early scenes from Pretty Woman) shopping with Sergio Mora in a product placement orgy on Rodeo Drive.
Suggestion #2: Show each fighter in his real home environment rather than in the antiseptic Contender and Contender family housing. Let viewers see where these guys really come from and what their lives are really like.
Suggestion #3: Have the fighters live the way real fighters live when they're training for a fight. And don't do silly things like leaving them alone in the dressing room before a fight. That's not the way boxing works. Follow the mantra, "Anything that compromises the real routines of the fighters compromises the show."
Suggestion #4: Cut the trite lines. Viewers got tired of hearing fighters say over and over, "I'm doing this to support my family." Most people who have jobs do it to support their family.
Suggestion #5: Bringing a fighter's young children to a fight to see their father beat up other people and get punched in the face is a frightening experience and, in the eyes of some, a form of child abuse. In the quarter-finals, Jesse Brinkley KO'd Anthony Bonsante in the fifth round in front of Bonsante's sobbing daughter. Enough said.
Suggestion #6: Stop telling us that these are championship-caliber fighters. Peter Manfredo Jr, who was constantly touted as one of the best middleweights in the world, proved to be a .500 fighter against good club-fight opposition.
Suggestion #7: Don't try so hard to get likeable telegenic guys. Get guys with hard edges. And to quote Ishe Smith, "Stop trying to make The Contender a 'white' show. Boxing isn't a white sport." Ishe might have gone over the line when he said that his website would soon feature a photo of himself picking cotton while wearing a Mark Burnett T-Shirt. But the bottom line is that only four of sixteen fighters on The Contender were black. That's not a "real" boxing demographic.
Suggestion #8: Show us the fights. The grand finale was exciting. It wasn't world championship boxing. To the contrary, it was contested on the level of a good club fight. But Peter Manfredo and Sergio Mora showed some skills and fought with heart. It was enough to make viewers wish that, in previous weeks, The Contender had opted for more realism and less schlock. The way the episodes were cobbled together supports the view that the producers didn't really believe in boxing; that they felt the fights had to be altered because they weren't good enough to stand on their own. Thus, rounds were cut in half. The same punch was shown several times from different camera angles so that it looked like multiple blows. One person who was on-site for the fight between Jesse Brinkley and Anthony Bonsante says that Bonsante was only knocked down once despite the fact that, on television, he was shown being knocked down two times. There's a lesson to be learned in the fact that the most dramatic and satisfying viewing experience that The Contender offered the public was its only full-fledged start-to-finish "real" fight.
Suggestion #9: Adapt a format that doesn't involve compromising the health and safety of the fighters. Anthony Bonsante, we were told, fought a week after he tore his hamstring muscle. Alfonso Gomez went into his semi-final fight against Peter Manfredo with the skin around both eyes bruised and swollen. On September 21st, Jesse Brinkley suffered a cut on his left eyelid that required five stitches. California State Athletic Commission records show that Brinkley was suspended for sixty days after that fight. Then remarkably, he was cleared by a commission doctor to fight Sergio Mora three days later and the cut opened up again.
That raises some troubling questions. It appears as though, when it came to The Contender, normal medical standards were not adhered to by the California commission. "These guys got away with all sorts of things because they were TV guys and they had money," says one journalist whose investigative report on the show was killed after a telephone call to his editor. Another source says that at least one California commission doctor was paid quite well by The Contender for extensive medical work he performed at the same time he was performing official duties for the commission. How well? The estimate is in the neighborhood of $100,000.
The California State Athletic Commission is now under new leadership. On June 12, 2005, Armando Garcia became its executive officer. He is now responsible for managing the commission on a day-to-day basis, but what happens next is uncertain. The Contender has tentative plans to begin shooting its second season in California before the end of this year. However, on January 1, 2006, the commission will cease to exist and its responsibilities will be folded into the Department of Consumer Affairs, which will then establish an athletic bureau. Garcia may, or may not, be the new bureau chief.
The Contender announced to the world that it was going to reform boxing and do right by fighters. On the medical front, it appears to have fallen far short of that goal. Indeed, Ishe Smith complains that, while he and the other fighters were promised medical insurance, he's still paying the full amount for his own family policy.
Also, when it comes to fighter contracts, The Contender seems to have played an ugly game of bait-and-switch.
Tarick Salmaci was one of the fighters on The Contender. "It was a great experience for me," he says. "Whatever you write, I want people to know that I'm very grateful and happy that I was on the show."
Still, one thing sticks in Salmaci's craw. Like all of the fighters, he signed a contract that bound him to The Contender for a period of up to five years. In return, he was guaranteed at least two fights a year after the May 24th grand finale. Those fights were to be for a specified minimum purse. In Tarick's case, the minimum was $75,000 per fight. (Salmaci had a higher minimum than Ishe Smith by virtue of finishing higher in the Internet "fan favorite" voting.)
But there was a problem. The Contender contract was terminable at will by the promoter. Salmaci lost to Juan De La Rosa in the first round of the Contender tournament on September 9th of last year. Then, a week after the May 24, 2005, grand finale, he received two letters from The Contender on the same day. The first letter terminated his promotional contract. The second letter said he could continue fighting under The Contender banner if he signed a new contract that would pay him a minimum of $10,000 a fight.
"If I was twenty-three years old, I might do it," says Salmaci. "But I'm not. I'm thirty-three. My future is now."
Nor is Salmaci alone in what happened to him. Ahmed Kaddour, Jimmy Lange, and Joey Gilbert were released under similar circumstances after refusing to accept a similar cut in pay. Meanwhile, at least six of the other Contender fighters are believed to have accepted the pay cut that was demanded of them.
So . . . Let's take a poll. Who still thinks that The Contender is going to clean up boxing?
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.