By Thomas Hauser: Ten months ago, I wrote an article about The Contender for this website. I recounted the plans of the show's producers and closed with the words, "At some point, The Contender will become more than a game, and reality in its truest sense will intervene."
On February 14, 2005, reality intervened. Najai Turpin, a 23-year-old boxer from Philadelphia who had lost in the first round of the Contender competition, shot himself to death.
Prior to The Contender, Turpin had a professional record of 12 wins and 1 loss with 8 knockouts. By all accounts, he was a hard worker, a good person, and a quality fighter. Despite what he did in the ring, there was a gentleness about him. A lot of people who come from where he came from have hard insides. They have to in order to survive. But Najai had a personality that bordered on sunny and innocent. He was also very quiet and kept a lot inside.
TV "reality" shows put a great deal of stress on their participants. High-pressure situations are constructed to entertain the viewing public. Contestants live in a fishbowl, where every mistake and embarrassing moment is magnified.
Also, unlike most reality shows, The Contender has the potential to impact enormously on the real jobs of its contestants. If a truck-driver goes to the South Pacific for some Survivor fun and games, his old life is there for him when the show is over. Fighters who appear on The Contender will benefit from the attendant publicity. But they're precluded by contract from plying their trade outside the confines of the show for almost a year. And even then, they're bound to the show's promotional entity.
Because of these and other pressures, both The Contender and The Next Great Champ (its rival on Fox) administered psychological tests to prospective fighters in the form of written questions and a personal interview. In each instance, the television network and the program's insurer required it. The tests were administered by an outside group and sought to determine the fighters' ability to deal with stress, anger management skills, and their predisposition to depression and other forms of mental illness.
In the case of The Next Great Champ, close to three dozen candidates were tested. One insider recalls, "There were a couple of guys who we liked a lot who we lost because of the psychological testing."
As the selection process for The Contender narrowed, each of the fighters vying to be among the sixteen finalists was similarly tested to determine how suited he was to cope with the emotional rigors of a television reality show. The Contender test was graded on a scale of 1 to 6. Most of the fighters chosen as finalists scored a 6. Najai Turpin finished last out of the sixteen fighters chosen. His score was 3.
"They knew going in that there was a problem with Najai," says one person familiar with the test results. "I don't know how far the word spread internally. I'm sure there were a lot of people who didn't know about the results; and obviously, no one thought that Najai would commit suicide. But the tests showed that he was a fragile guy."
The Contender has five equity participants with varying degrees of input into the show. They are Mark Burnett (who's best known for having created Survivor and The Apprentice), movie executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, show business veteran Jeff Wald, Sylvester Stallone, and Sugar Ray Leonard. NBC is paying a higher price per episode for The Contender than has ever been paid for a TV reality show. It has backed the project with a huge promotional budget. And there are other revenue streams as well.
According to a February 10, 2005, article in The Hollywood Reporter and information gathered from other sources, Contender Partners LLC. will reap the benefit of:
(1) A license fee from NBC of close to $2,000,000 per episode.
(2) The right to sell six commercial spots per episode. NBC sold these spots to Contender Partners LLC at a discount with the understanding that they could be resold at a profit.
(3) All product integration fees, including stock warrants to purchase up to five percent of the stock in Everlast Worldwide Inc at $2.75 per share. Everlast is the exclusive supplier of boxing equipment, active-wear, and shoes for the show and is featured prominently in every episode. The warrants were worth several hundred thousand dollars at the time the deal was made but have increased in value as Everlast stock has risen. As of the close of business on March 24th, the stock was selling at $10.09 per share. If The Contender returns to NBC for a second season with at least ten new episodes, Contender Partners LLC. will receive warrants for an additional five-percent stake in Everlast. The same is true for a third season, which could give them a total equity interest of fifteen percent in the company.
(4) A significant portion of ticket-sale revenue from the grand finale, which will be contested live in Las Vegas at Caesars Palace on Tuesday, May 24th.
(5) Future promotional rights to all of the fighters in the show. The fighters still alive are Anthony Bonsante, Jesse Brinkley Brent Cooper, Miguel Espino, Juan De La Rosa, Jeff Fraza, Joey Gilbert, Alfonso Gomez Jr, Ahmed Kaddour, Jimmy Lang, Peter Manfredo Jr, Sergio Mora, Jonathan Reid, Tarick Salmaci, and Ishe Smith.
(6) Various other commercial rights to the name, story, and likeness of each fighter; for example, the right to make a feature film about Najai Turpin.
Each episode of The Contender to date has had a common structure. The fighters have been divided into two teams (East and West). The teams compete in a "challenge," and whichever team wins gets to determine the match-up for the fight shown at the end of the episode. In addition, there's a "reward" for whichever team was represented by the winner of the previous week's fight. And of course, there's a lot of personal interaction between the fighters, their families, and the camera. That plays to Burnett's strength, which is getting viewers emotionally involved with the characters on his shows.
Some boxing fans like The Contender. Others find it silly and boring. The challenge in the first episode involved fighters carrying logs up a hill. In Episode #2, they ran around the Rose Bowl, picking up pieces of a cloth puzzle. In Episide #3, it was "Contender Dodge Ball." Episode #4 saw the fighters pulling a 5,000-pound Toyota Tundra along a dry river bed, picking up Everlast heavy-bags with letters on them, and, at the finish line, assembling the bags so they spelled out the word "Contender." The most obvious purpose of this exercise was product placement for Everlast and Toyota.
The "challenges" are reminiscent of "trash-sport" television from the 1970s. For those too young to remember, in one episode of ABC's Superstars televised in 1973, Joe Frazier found himself in a 50-yard freestyle swimming race that gave new meaning to the phrase "down goes Frazier."
"You think he's kidding," Jim McKay cried as Frazier thrashed around in the water and began to sink. "He is not kidding."
The "rewards" given to fighters on The Contender are as inspiring as the "challenges." In Episode #2, viewers were supposed to get excited about watching George Foreman eat hamburgers with the "west" team. The "east" team wasn't invited because Peter Manfredo Jr. had lost the fight that ended Episode #1.
Other rewards to date have been an "awesome" dinner with Sugar Ray Leonard at an "exclusive" restaurant and a shopping spree for suits with Tommy Gallagher serving as a fashion consultant. Getting fashion tips from Tommy Gallagher is like getting advice on business ethics from the folks who ran Enron. Given the fact that the clothing store's outdoor signage was prominently displayed, one assumes that an exchange of goods for services was involved.
A more serious criticism of The Contender has been that it's phony. Boxing, in the ring, is the most basic and honest of all sports. But The Contender is contrived on its face.
Reality in boxing is Don King handing Hasim Rahman a duffel bag filled with cash to lure him away from Cedric Kushner. Reality in boxing is Gatti-Ward and Mike Tyson biting off part of Evander Holyfield's ear. Reality in boxing is Dan Goossen on the telephone day after day at five o'clock in morning, talking with people in Mongolia to arrange a fight for Lakva Sim. In the real world of boxing, sixteen fighters don't live together in a beautiful training center and do everything that they're told to do when they're told to do it.
The rebuttal to this criticism is that a reality show isn't a documentary. A reality show takes people and puts them in situations they wouldn't normally be in and entertains viewers by showing them how the participants react. But the bottom line is, when you mix fantasy with reality, you get fantasy.
Contracts and gag clauses give the producers of The Contender the right to filter out any whiff of reality that might interfere with their chosen story line. The show doesn't tell its audience about the contractual requirement that the fighters are forbidden to bring a cell phone, pager, computer, credit card, or cash with them. There's an inherent phoniness in "intimate private" moments that are recorded when a husband and wife know that cameras are rolling. And let's not forget that the fighters and their loved ones have long since been asked to leave the wonderful Contender family housing and have returned to their previous surroundings.
Also, the fights that end each episode are flawed. For starters, they're contested in an unusually small ring; one that is smaller than the 18-by-18-foot minimum required by law in some states. Five rounds of boxing are reduced to five minutes of cut-and-paste action with a good portion of those five minutes devoted to camera shots of Stallone, Leonard, and others in the crowd. The bouts are accompanied by background music that builds to a crescendo and sound effects that exaggerate the power of punches. During the introduction of fighters and the fight scenes that follow, viewers hear loud roars from the crowd. But looking at the television screen, it's clear that the mouths of most crowd members are closed.
These failings haven't been lost on the general public. The Contender has done better than expected in England. But in the United States, it has been a ratings disappointment. Survivor and The Apprentice each averaged roughly 20,000,000 viewers per show. By contrast, The Contender started its run with 8,100,000 viewers and is now down around 6,700,000. That puts the show far behind its primary Sunday-night competition and looking very much like a fighter who's five rounds into a 15-round fight and just trying to survive.
Men don't like The Contender because it isn't real boxing. Women don't like it, period. Following Mike Tyson around for fifteen weeks would have been less expensive, garnered higher ratings, and been more interesting "reality" television. Also, the show's ratings can be expected to take another hit on April 3rd, when it loses sports fans to the season opener between the Yankees and Red Sox on ESPN.
But there are issues regarding The Contender that go beyond whether or not it's compelling TV drama. The first of these issues deals with the fighters themselves. At the start of each episode, Sylvester Stallone tells them, "The only difference between you and the current world champions is that they got a shot and you didn't." But that's not quite true. The Contender features sixteen hard-working young men. However, at this stage of their respective careers, only a few of them are A-list fighters. Yes, they entered the tournament with impressive won-lost records. But those records were built against opponents who had won only forty percent of their fights.
Moreover, there's a significant size differential among the fighters. Some, like Sergio Mora, are natural 160-pounders. But Najai Turpin, who lost to Mora in the fourth episode, fought his last fight prior to the tournament at 150 pounds. Ishe Smith weighed in for his final pre-tournament bout at 146.
And the size differential could have been more lopsided. Paulie Malignaggi is a talented junior-welterweight with a 19 and 0 record. His last fight was at 139 pounds. Paulie has personality, style, and a big mouth. In other words, he's perfect for The Contender.
"They were begging me to do it," Malignaggi says. "They told me, 'Do it; it will be great for your career. If you don't win, you'll still be a star.' And I was tempted. I think they're good people and it was a fantastic opportunity. But in the end, the weight difference was just too much, so I turned them down."
Malignaggi's promoter, Lou DiBella, takes a more cynical view. "It was, 'Paulie, we love you' and 'Paulie, you're great,'" DiBella recalls. "But it was clear that they didn't care about Paulie because, if you love a highly-skilled light-punching 140-pound fighter, you don't try to put him in the ring with guys who weigh 160."
Chucky Tschorniawsky is another 140-pounder who was courted by The Contender. He's a charismatic club fighter whose personal life has been filled with drama. "You're from Philadelphia; you're the real Rocky; you can do it," Chucky T was told. But Tschorniawsky declined, so The Contender made do with another Philadephia fighter; Najai Turpin.
Also, returning to the fights that end each episode of The Contender, there's no way to know what they were really like because the producers only show viewers what they want to show them. Each fight is edited in a way that makes it impossible for viewers to know who really won. And the contracts for The Contender require that each fighter waive his right to challenge any decision rendered against him in the tournament, including his right to challenge a decision under the Rules and Regulations of the California State Athletic Commission.
The judges' scores aren't announced on The Contender, but they are released by the California commission several days after a bout is televised. These scores are instructive. On television, Ishe Smith versus Ahmed Kaddour looked like a down-to-the-wire barn-burner. But in reality, the bout was scored 50-45, 50-45, 49-46. Jesse Brinkley ousted Jonathan Reid by the same margin. Meanwhile, Alfonso Gomez's victory over Peter Manfredo was presented as a back-and-forth struggle that was up for grabs in the final round. But the judges scored it 50-45, 49-46, 48-47.
Thus, promoter Dan Goossen declares, "The fights are phony on their face. You've got a phony soundtrack. You've got make-believe trainers. We know who the producers want us to think won each fight but not who really won. There's no accountability regarding the judges or any way to tell if the decisions are fair or not."
There are also questions regarding the extent to which the California State Athletic Commission bent its rules and regulations to accommodate The Contender. The commission chose to bypass the requirement of federal law that fight results be promptly reported. That's understandable given the nature of a TV reality show. But in Episode #1, Alfonso Gomez Jr suffered an ugly cut on his right eyelid that required sutures. How long would Gomez have been suspended under normal circumstances?
"The cut was a concern," acknowledges Dean Lohuis (executive officer of the California State Athletic Commission). "It was deep enough that Gomez was placed on 60-day suspension with the understanding that he could be cleared to fight earlier by a physician. They had fights every three days," Lohuis continues. "Gomez was cut on August 18, 2004, and cleared to fight again on September 15th."
It would be instructive if a public accounting were made of all compensation paid directly or indirectly to CSAC physicians by The Contender. And what other accommodations were made? For example, has there been timely financial disclosure to the fighters as required by the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act?
Next, there's the criticism that The Contender has failed to explain to a national television audience what it takes from a physical point of view to be a fighter; the skills involved and what it feels like to be punched in the face or body by a pro. To the contrary, it has trivialized the demands of the job with glimpses of Sylvester Stallone working out in the ring. Stallone is an actor, who wrote and starred in one of the best boxing movies ever. He is not, nor has he ever been, a professional fighter.
Also, Mark Burnett's genius as a producer is his understanding of everyday people, both as participants and viewers of television reality shows. But professional boxers aren't everyday people. There's something very different inside them. There has to be, given what they do.
Here, the thoughts of Tokunbo Olajide are instructive. Olajide is a promising junior-middleweight with a 20 and 2 record and 17 knockouts. He's also a promising musician (trumpet and piano), immensely likeable, articulate, and thoughtful.
"Tommy [Gallagher] was the first to tell me about The Contender," Olajide remembers. "I told him, 'It's not me; I'm not interested.' Boxing isn't a game, and I didn't want to be part of a game show. Then Gary Shaw [Olajide's promoter] said it would be good for my career and I'd be perfect for it, so I agreed to do a screen test at the New York Hilton. The Contender people called me the day after the test and said they'd love to have me on the show. Then they sent me the contracts. I read them. And it was 'no way, no how.' The contract was like indentured servitude. And it was demeaning. I could see right away that they'd have me doing clown stuff."
"I look at the show, and it's ridiculous," Olajide continues. "It has nothing to do with what a boxer's life is like. It's a circus with professional fighters playing silly games for other people's amusement. Team dodgeball? Come on. It's the reality show formula; copy, cut, and paste. And it's obvious that they're oblivious to the fighters' dignity. This isn't an attempt to make boxing better. It's about making money. The bottom line for the show, the only line for the show, is how many people watch it."
The people behind The Contender take issue with that view. They've talked openly about their desire to restructure boxing for the betterment of fighters and the sport. They plan to stay in the business through a promotional entity that includes contracts with the Contender fighters among its assets. And they've ruffled a few feathers with their plans for the future.
"Mark Burnett and Jeffrey Katzenberg are talking like they spent the last twenty years at Gleason's Gym instead of Spago," says Showtime's Jay Larkin.
"In our reality business," adds Dan Goossen, "I'm used to other promoters trying to talk to my fighters behind my back and lure them away if they can. But for people to make a grandstand show of saying that they'll be doing things the right way and then doing things the same old way is very discouraging."
Success in other areas of business doesn't necessarily translate into success in boxing. Sylvester Stallone tried his hand at real boxing promotion in the early 1980s. His debut card was Sean O'Grady versus Pete Ranzany in Las Vegas in 1982. The experiment didn't last long. Last year, Sugar Ray Leonard Promotions closed its doors.
But whatever comes next, let's hope that The Contender does right by the fifteen remaining fighters when the show's run is over. And let's hope that it does right by boxing too. In other words, no "people's championships." Boxing already has too many phony titles.
Meanwhile, on the streets of Philadelphia, Najai Turpin has become a symbol of "reality" in its truest sense. Based on what is publicly known, it would be irresponsible to say that The Contender contributed to his death. But it's pushing the envelope to say (as those involved with the show have done), that his participation in the show and the restrictions that The Contender placed on his life afterward had no bearing whatsoever on the tragedy.
Percy "Buster" Custis is part of the fabric of boxing in Philadelphia. He has been training fighters for twenty years. Custis started training Najai when Najai was twelve years old and became the proverbial father figure in the young man's life.
"I'm not blaming anyone," Custis says. "Najai did what he did, but I'll tell you a few things. When they wanted Najai on the show, they were calling me three and four times a day. But once they got him out there, they blocked the phones and he couldn't even call me unless he got their permission to use the phone in their office. I think they let him call me once; that's all. Under the contract he signed, he wasn't allowed to talk about the fight afterward, so that was something he had to keep inside. And under the contract, he wasn't allowed to fight again until the show ends. That's a long time for a young man to stay away from something he loves. Fighters want to fight. Sugar Ray Leonard came out of retirement three times because he wanted to fight. Boxing made Najai happy. And the Contender people wouldn't let Najai fight for eight months after he lost. There's no way to know what that did to his mind."
"And another thing," Custis continues. "Someone who was out there for The Contender told me that Najai won his fight. He said, 'Man, I don't know what's going on. Najai whipped his ass.' Now, I don't know if that's right or not. I'm not saying Najai won the fight because I don't know. But it would be interesting to see a tape of that fight. It would be interesting to see tapes of all their fights. I try to be positive about things. I try to look for the best in everyone, including the Contender people. But I know one thing. I'd never send another one of my guys to them."
At the end of Episode #4, Sugar Ray Leonard appeared on camera and informed viewers of what he called "the heartbreaking news that Najai Turpin had passed away." The Contender is a reality show. Why not tell viewers the truth; that Najai Turpin put a bullet in his head.
"The show was never the problem," Najai's brother, Diediera said recently. "Boxing and all of that was never the problem. It was a personal problem."
That might be so. But Najai's death is part of a high-stakes game. There were a lot of publicists for NBC and The Contender at his funeral. And one wonders what happened to the article that Sports Illustrated was planning on The Contender. It was known in boxing circles that Franz Lidz, a conscientious researcher and talented writer, was putting considerable time and effort into a feature story. Then, according to a reliable source, a call was made from NBC to TimeWarner (SI's parent company), complaining about some of the questions that Lidz was asking. The article never ran. And, oh yes. NBC televised a Sports Illustrated swimsuit-model-search reality show earlier this year.
In television, as in boxing, ratings have a way of making people do strange things.
It should also be mentioned that Dean Lohuis was at ringside for all of the Contender fights, including Sergio Mora versus Najai Turpin, which each judge scored 49-46 in Mora's favor. Lohuis's notes on that fight read as follows: "Non-stop action. Every round competitive. Very close bout. Phone-booth war. Both gave it everything they had. Scores do not do justice to Turpin's effort."
The Contender still represents an enormous opportunity for fifteen of the sixteen young men who were chosen to participate as fighters. It has made them far more marketable than they were before. "I told them 'no,' and that was the right decision for me," says Paulie Malignaggi. "But I think the show is great. I look forward to watching it each week. I was talking to Ishe Smith a few days ago. Ishe fought on Showtime, he fought on ESPN, and no one knew who he was. Now, wherever he goes, people recognize him. I think The Contender is great for boxing."
But a contrary view is expressed by those who think that, with all the money and talent involved, The Contender should have been something more. And to its most severe critics, The Contender epitomizes words spoken by Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront: "You don't understand. I could've had class. I could've been a contender. I could've been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am."
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.