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24 OCTOBER 2014

 

More Trouble For "The Contender"




By Thomas Hauser: On the morning of February 14, 2005, at 3:00 AM, Angela Chapple's telephone rang. The caller was Najai Turpin.

Angela and Najai met in 1996 during a summer youth program that they attended after ninth grade. Two years later, they began dating. Angela is now a computer technician. Najai became a professional boxer and also worked as a cook at Bottom of the Sea Restaurant in Philadelphia to support the daughter that they had together two years ago.

Najai's life was in a downward spiral and had been since he'd travelled to California several times the previous year. The first trip was in July 2004. He'd impressed representatives of NBC's TV reality show The Contender at an audition in Philadelphia and was invited to Los Angeles for further testing. He hoped to be one of sixteen fighters chosen to appear on the show, but there was a snag. The candidates were subjected to extensive psychological testing.

Representatives of The Contender refuse to discuss the matter, but the best available information is that a written psychological test was administered to the fighters on Thursday, July 15th, and that psychological-profiling interviews were conducted on July 16th and 17th. One fighter selected for the show says that the personal interview lasted well over an hour and was conducted by a man and a woman. The written portion of the examination took longer. "One of the things they asked me," he recalls, "was if I got depressed or ever considered killing myself."

"Najai came back to Philadelphia after they did the testing," Angela remembers. "He told me, 'I didn't make it because the doctor said I'm manic-depressive.'"

That evaluation had a foundation. It's unclear how much the people who evaluated Najai for The Contender knew about his personal history. But five years earlier, at age eighteen, he had attempted suicide by swallowing 47 Tylenol pills and a bottle of vodka after his mother died.

The statement that Najai made to Angela is similar to what he told Percy "Buster" Custus. Custus runs an inner-city gym in Philadelphia and began training Najai eleven years ago. When Najai filled out an application for The Contender, there were spaces for "mother" and "father." Next to his mother's name, he wrote "deceased." He made no entry at all for "father." Then, beneath his mother's name, he wrote in "Percy Custus" as his "stepfather."

"After the testing," says Custus, "Najai told me, 'Mr. Buster; they won't take me. This guy out there said I was manic-depressive.'"

"I didn't know what that meant at the time," Custus acknowledges. "I thought it meant you got depressed sometimes and had highs and lows, but that it's something you work through."

Then a representative of The Contender telephoned and said that Najai had been selected to be one of sixteen fighters on the show.

But the Contender experience was very different from what Najai expected. The tone was set by a written directive entited "Rules For First Week At Hotel" that instructed the fighters, "There is absolutely no talking between contestants." Note that they were referred to as "contestants" (as on a television game show), not "boxers" or "fighters."

The fighters were further advised "No one is to leave the hotel room without permission and an escort" and "all phone calls to home will be made from the production office in the hotel."

Angela later recalled, "Whenever Najai called me from the office, before we could talk, there was a voice on the phone that said everything in our conversation was being taped. It was like he was in a prison cell."

Each fighter who appeared on The Contender was required to sign a non-disclosure agreement stipulating that any breach of confidentiality would subject the fighter to the "imposition of liquidated damages of up to $5,000,000."

Nonetheless, on condition of anonymity, several fighters who appeared on the show have begun to talk. One says that there came a time when they began to understand how much money was passing into the hands of the show's producers and talked about organizing a strike. "We weren't necessarily counting how much money they were making," says another. "There was a time when some of us were upset at the way things were going. But we decided as a group that we all knew what we were signing up for when we signed the contracts and we should stand by what we signed."

Other fighters went AWOL during production, including one who departed on an unauthorized overnight trip to Las Vegas.

The Contender experience was particularly painful for Najai, who was rooming with Ahmed Kaddour. The TV people liked Ahmed. He was good-looking, wore flashy clothes, had a sexy girlfriend, and shot his mouth off. Najai didn't like him and, at one point, there was a physical altercation between them away from the ring.

There was also grumbling that black fighters were under-represented on the show and that some of the decisions made by the show's producers were motivated by inappropriate racial considerations. One person familiar with the situation says that Najai was subjected to racial taunts and told by another fighter, "All you niggers fold when you get hit on the chin."

By that time, Najai wanted nothing more to do with The Contender.

The rules for participants forbade the fighters from communicating with the outside world on their own. Cell phones, pagers, and email devices were prohibited. To enforce the rules, the fighters were subject to personal searches at any time. But some of the fighters found a way up to the roof, where no cameras or microphones were present. And one of them had managed to smuggle in a cell phone.

"Najai called me from the roof," says Angela. "He said, 'It's awful here. I feel like I'm in jail. I want to come home.' But he was afraid to come home because he was afraid that the Contender people would sue him for breach of contract."

"Najai was so distraught at times that your heart broke for him," says another fighter who appeared on The Contender. "Mostly, he kept to himself. Juan [de la Rosa] was the only person he really talked with."

Najai returned to Philadelphia at the close of the Contender taping. In October, Angela and their daughter moved in with him. But despite the fact that he was home, his unhappiness lingered.

Part of the problem was that boxing, which had been an anchor in Najai's life for more than a decade, had been taken away from him. In the past, he'd fought regularly; first as an amateur, then fourteen professional fights in three years. But after losing a decision to Sergio Mora in August, Najai's career had been put on hold. The contract he'd signed gave The Contender the right to control his ring life through May 24, 2009. Under no circumstances would he be allowed to fight again prior to May 24, 2005. And thereafter, The Contender could limit him to two fights per year.

"After Najai got back from California," says Angela, "he started drinking. That wasn't like him. And he started going to the gym less because he wasn't allowed to fight. The Contender was still controlling life."

Meanwhile, one of the Contender fighters recalls, "After the show, Najai cut himself off from the rest of us. Some of us tried to call him; and for a while, he wouldn't even take the calls. If a guy won't talk to you, what can you do?"

On Tuesday, February 8th, Najai agreed to go with Percy Custus to a training camp in the Pocono Mountains to work with Custus and several of his fighters. Angela went to her mother's home with their daughter so there would be someone to assist with childcare. Unbeknownst to her, Najai returned to Philadelphia two nights later and stayed at home alone for three days. In the wee small hours of Valentine's Day, he telephoned her and said that he was outside her mother's house in his car.

Angela went downstairs and got in the car. It was cold. Najai turned on the heat so she'd be more comfortable.

"What would you do if I killed myself?" he asked her.

"Don't talk like that. We went through that once."

"Would you take care of my daughter?"

"I always do."

Najai reached down with his left hand, pulled out a gun, and shot himself in the head.

*

Last month, in an article entitled the Contender on the Ropes that was posted on this website, I reviewed the history of The Contender and discussed many of the issues surrounding the show. In summarizing the first four episodes, I noted, "Some boxing fans like The Contender. Others find it silly and boring."

Five weeks later, "silly and boring" seem to be carrying the day.

Fighters don't carry logs up a hill in 90-degree weather the day before a fight. That's not how real boxing works, but it happens on The Contender. A fighter doesn't leave his living quarters and go someplace to visit with his wife and children the night before a big fight. That's not how real boxing works, but it happens on The Contender. A fighter's team doesn't leave him alone in the dressing room before and after a fight and make him walk to the ring alone. But that's what happens on The Contender.

Week after week, it's the same show, from the controlled scenes of fighters talking on the telephone with family members to the funeral dirge music that plays as the loser sits in his dressing room. There's excessive crying in every episode. Guys cry when they lose. They cry when they talk about their children. They cry when they reflect upon their mothers and fathers and other loved ones.

And despite being a "reality" show, there are times when The Contender departs from reality altogether. In Episode #8, Peter Manfredo Jr was seen as the chief cornerman for Jimmy Lange, while Jeremy Williams served in a similar capacity for Joey Gilbert. In Episode #9, Ahmed Kaddour and Alfonso Gomez were working the corners. Since these are supposed to be "real" fights, it would be nice to have a real trainer in each corner.

The show gets sillier and sillier. Recent "challenges" have included:

* Hauling Everlast medicine balls up the Sepulveda Dam and putting them in the back of a Toyota truck.

* Demolishing a cinderblock wall with sledgehammers and putting the blocks into the back of a Toyota Tundra. As the fighters were doing this, Ray Leonard said admiringly, "You guys are animals, man," and Tommy Gallagher shouted, "Don't scratch the Toyotas."

* Navigating an "urban obstacle course" that required the fighters to "run through the Toyota traffic jam" (I'm not making that up; Ray Leonard actually instructed the fighters to "run through the Toyota traffic jam"); jump over some hurdles with advertising on them; throw tires in a dumpster; empty the tires out of the dumpster; take the keys out of a Toyota; use the keys to unlock a lock; and climb to the top of a truck with advertising for Bally's on it.

* Running around an obstacle course while wearing Everlast boxing gloves, picking up Everlast medicine balls, and throwing the medicine balls in a basket.

* Pulling harness-racing carts around Santa Anita Race Track. This was one of the most demeaning moments for professional fighters ever on network television. Anthony Bonsante pulled a hamstring muscle during this idiocy, demonstrating from a technical point of view why fighters shouldn't be treated like racehorses.

The "rewards" are comparable. After Peter Manfredo Jr won a mulligan over Miguel Espino, the East team was invited to sit in the audience for The Tonight Show and shake hands with Jay Leno. Afterward, Manfredo said, "It was awesome to shake his hand," while Joey Gilbert declared angrily, "It really sucks losing this reward." That came one week after the West team played poker with Antonio Tarver, who was described as "the only man to ever knock out Roy Jones." Apparently, the masterminds behind The Contender have never heard of Glengoffe Johnson. And let's not forget Episode #8, when the seven remaining fighters [Ahmed Kaddour had not yet returned] were flown to Caesars Palace, where they kissed cocktail waitresses and ate grapes in an infomercial for Caesars. They also drew cards to see who would win a Toyota Tundra. Sergio Mora emerged victorious and ran to the vehicle to the accompaniment of music that sounded like the soundtrack from The Ten Commandments.

These shortcomings haven't been lost on the public. From a financial point of view, The Contender has turned into Jack Dempsey versus Tommy Gibbons, with NBC playing the role of Shelby, Montana, to The Contender's Doc Kearns.

Ratings have been a disaster. NBC was told to expect 15,000,000 viewers per episode, but the number is hovering around 5,000,000. The network has done everything possible to right the sinking ship, including putting additional money into a wave of radio ads and preempting Dateline for an hour-long Contender rerun special on Easter night. But right now, The Contender is running on wishful thinking.

One industry insider says that NBC has already decided against bringing the show back for a second season on network television. But it wouldn't be good business to brand The Contender a failure before it finishes its run, so the public execution will have to wait. If there's a second season for the show, most likely it will be on cable.

Meanwhile, the finger-pointing has begun, with some in the Contender camp complaining that NBC's decision to run the initial three episodes on three different nights during the first week undermined its success. But the scheduling was designed to offer The Contender to the widest possible audience. The fundamental problem is the show itself.

Anyone who has ever been around boxing knows that fighters are the most quotable athletes in the world. But The Contender is so contrived and so antiseptic that not one memorable quote has come out of the show.

Also, reality shows thrive on diversity. As far as viewers are concerned, there must be something for everyone. But all of the participants on The Contender are professional fighters. They're all portrayed as having the same motivation ("I'm doing this for my family; I want to be a champion"). They react the same to winning; they react the same to losing. It's repetitious and boring.

There is one area, however, where The Contender realistically reflects professional boxing. The promoters have made every dollar possible off the fighters. Best estimates are that the show's producers have taken in gross receipts in the neighborhood of $40,000,000. That's roughly equal to the annual boxing budgets of Showtime and ESPN combined.

There's also concern in some circles about the way several of the fighters have been portrayed on the show. For example, in Episode #6, Anthony Bonsante was trashed for betraying his teammates by turning his back on an agreement to fight Jimmy Lange and calling out Brent Cooper instead. This led to Bonsante being branded a "back-stabber" and a "coward." But the fighters have to fight whomever the producers of the show tell them to fight. That's made clear by the promotional contract, which states, "All bouts hereunder shall be against opponents on dates and at sites to be designated by Promoter in its sole and absolute discretion."

Likewise, it was unfair to criticize Juan De La Rosa for withdrawing from the competition because of a badly-cut eyelid, sprained wrist, and swollen knuckles. De La Rosa is a young man who, prior to The Contender, had only three fights in his entire career. If De La Rosa had fought on in the tournament, his eye might have wound up looking like David Reid's.

And most recently, the tape of Ishe Smith's loss to Sergio Mora was edited in a way that made Smith look foolish in the ring. It's unfair to do that to any fighter. Also, several people who were on-site say that Ishe left the ring shouting he'd been "robbed" and pushed a TV camera away from him. That didn't make the final cut.

Mora-Smith was a split decision: 50-45, 49-46, 46-49. "Sergio was badly hurt at the end of the last round," says one of the fighters who was there. Thirty seconds more, and Ishe would have had him. So how do you score all five rounds for Sergio? The truth is, none of us wins five out of five rounds against Ishe. There's no way you can score that fight a shut-out for Sergio, but one of the judges did. If that fight had been in Vegas, Ishe probably would have won. But I don't think The Contender tried to fix the decisions," the fighter continues. "I think it's a question of California judges doing funny things for California fighters all though the show. I can't blame The Contender for something that happens all the time on ESPN."

Still, some of the fighters have begun to question other aspects of the tournament process. Among other things, they're skeptical about the "vote" by which Peter Mandredo Jr was brought back into the fold after losing to Alfonso Gomez.

"Why would we vote Manfredo back?" asks one fighter. "Manfredo had a bad fight against Gomez, but we all knew he was tougher than, say, Jonathan Reid. We're fighting for a million dollars. Don't tell me that a majority of us voted to bring back Manfredo. It's the TV people that voted to bring back Manfredo."

But another fighter says, "I voted for Peter, and nobody tried to influence my vote. My reasoning was, we could vote back Jonathan but that would give someone else an easy fight. So bring back Peter. He was bruised from fighting Alfonso. And whatever happened in his next fight, he was going to bruise the other guy and come out more bruised himself."

Nonetheless, questions linger; including questions about the fighters themselves. They're championship-caliber fighters. Right? After all, Sylvester Stallone tells them, "The only difference between you and the current world champions is that they got a shot and you didn't."

Wrong.

Let's take Brent Cooper as an example. Cooper, fans of The Contender will remember, is the nice young man who told viewers, "My relationship with Jesus is outstanding. The Lord put me here to be The Contender. I don't think God brought me here to lose."

Cooper took a beating during the first two rounds of his fight against Anthony Bonsante. At that point, his girlfriend ran to the corner and told him, "I love you." Properly motivated, Brent was knocked out 38 seconds into the third round.

Cooper entered the tournament with a record of 20 wins, 2 losses, and 2 draws. But let's be honest. Sixteen of Cooper's wins came against opponents who had never won a fight in their entire career at the time he fought them. As for the other four victories; one was against Lester Yarbrough (who is now on a 36-fight losing streak). One was against Bob Walker (who won two fights in his entire career). The other two were against Jerome Hill (whose record is currently 1 win and 48 losses).

Worse, one of Cooper's losses was against Robert Muhammad, who has lost 21 of his last 22 bouts and is continuing to fight after being treated for a subdural hematoma. Cooper's other loss was at the hands of Reggie Strickland, who has been defeated the staggering total of 272 times. Cooper's draws were against Rashawn Gore (in the only fight of Gore's career) and Strickland. That's right. Cooper couldn't beat Reggie Strickland in two tries.

As for the future; the Contender finale is slated for May 24th in Las Vegas. There will be six fights divided into morning and early-evening sessions. The "championship" bout is scheduled for seven rounds; each of the other fights for five. The Nevada State Athletic Commission has granted permission for an extra round to decide each fight in the event of a draw. However, it refused to grant a waiver that would have allowed the fights to take place in a 17-foot-square ring.

All of the pre-taped Contender bouts have been fought in a smaller-than-regulation enclosure. But fighting in a miniature ring so there will be more punches is like playing basketball with nine-foot baskets so there will be more dunks. Professional fights should be contested in a real boxing ring; in this case, a 20-by-20-foot enclosure.

It's unclear what will happen to the 15 remaining fighters once the tournament is over. The promotional contracts they signed purport to bind them to The Contender well into the future. But one prominent boxing attorney said recently, "It's a slave contract. Any good lawyer could get them out of it."

Also, the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act has a section entitled "Disclosures to the Boxer" that declares, "A promoter shall not be entitled to receive any compensation directly or indirectly in connection with a boxing match until it provides to the boxer it promotes the amounts of any compensation or consideration that a promoter has contracted to receive from such match."

Several of the Contender fighters say that this required disclosure has not been made in a timely manner. However, at the same time, they agree with one of their own who declares, "It was tough at times. The producers were learning what it's like to be around boxers, and we were learning the television business. They made mistakes, and we made mistakes. But on balance, they were good to us. Usually, when we complained about something, they tried to make it better. The good outweighed the bad. I'd say they treated us well."

Thus, the biggest legal headache facing The Contender might relate to Najai Turpin. After his death, representatives of the show established a trust fund to provide for his daughter. They've refused to state publicly how much they contributed, but reliable sources put the amount at $100,000. Public donations have increased the fund to $200,000.

In addition, The Contender paid for Najai's funeral, although Percy Custus complains, "They ran these guys like Stallone out here to carry the casket, and then they refused to pay for the headstone. We had to ask them and ask them until finally, I guess, someone there decided it would look bad if they didn't pay for that too."

Complicating matters is the fact that Angela is expecting her second child, a boy, in late-September.

Prior to appearing on The Contender, each fighter was required to sign a contract providing that neither he nor his estate could sue the show, NBC, or various classes of employees, licensees, successors in interest, or assignees for wrongdoing even if such wrongdoing was the direct cause of the fighter's injury or death. But legal experts say that this prohibition would be invalid if The Contender engaged in certain types of wrongdoing.

Also, Najai wasn't the custodial parent for his daughter. Angela was. And Angela says, "As far as I know, I only signed one thing. The TV people came to Najai's home to tape with us. Right before they left, they asked me to sign a paper that they said was a confidentiality agreement and also would allow them to show tapes of me and my daughter on the show. They asked me to sign it right then, and I did. I never had a chance to show it to a lawyer."

Thus, Najai's daughter might have a claim against The Contender and some of its participants independent of his estate. And it's impossible to inadvertently waive the rights of an unborn child.

In the end, Najai Turpin bears the ultimate responsibility for his own death. He's the one who pulled the trigger. And doing it in front of Angela made it a particularly horrible act. But just as clearly, Najai must have been suffering terribly to do what he did. And something was very wrong with his emotional balance.

"Let's be honest about this," says one person who works for The Contender. "The man is sleeping in the closet. You have his psychological test results. If I'm running the show, if I care about him at all, I'm going to give him all the emotional support I can, and I'm going to keep giving it to him when the taping is done and he goes back to Philadelphia. We say over and over that the key to our success is to make viewers care about the fighters as people. And with Najai, it might look to some people like we didn't care about him at all."

In order for The Contender to be held liable for damages, there would have to be a judicial finding of wrongdoing on its part AND a causal connection between that wrongdoing and Najai's death.

Did the people who evaluated Najai's psychological profile on behalf of The Contender find him to be manic-depressive or in some other way more vulnerable to the pressures of a TV reality show than the other fighters? Did they include him in the show knowing that he had a psychological condition that put him at greater risk than the other fighters? How much did Najai's experience in California and being precluded from boxing afterward contribute to his mental slide?

The records of Najai's psychological-profile testing could be very interesting to a plaintiff's lawyer. So might the thousands of hours of Najai and others on unedited tapes. In the event of a lawsuit, there would also be depositions, including extensive questioning of the fifteen remaining fighters. In the event that liability is found to exist, most likely the damages would be considerable. The Contender's own promotional material emphasized the bright future that Najai had in the ring. Two children have lost their father. And the punitive damages could be enormous.

Meanwhile, Angela hasn't decided yet what course of action she wants to take. She's balancing her desire for privacy, the need to provide financially for her children, the hope to get on with her life, and myriad other considerations. But several new developments trouble her.

"In seven years, I never once saw Najai's father," Angela says. "Buster was the closest thing that Najai had to a father. The first time I saw Najai's father was after Najai died, but he's here now. Najai didn't have a will, and now some of his family -- I won't say all of them -- are doing and saying things that aren't right."

"I've heard a lot of ugliness since Najai died," Angela continues. "I've heard stories that the baby's not his. I've heard stories that we were breaking up. And in my mind, that's a spin the Contender people are putting on things. None of it is true. Najai and I were planning together for the future. We were going to move to Delaware. The Contender people told me they want a DNA test for the baby that's coming in September. That won't be a problem. Najai is the father. There's no chance of anyone else."

Then Angela smiles. "Najai always wanted a junior," she says.


Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com. His most recent book -- "Chaos, Corruption, Courage, and Glory: A Year In Boxing" -- is currently in bookstores and can also be purchased through Amazon.com.

April 26, 2005



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