Knockout punch

You don't have to be a boxing fan to get knocked out by the brutal, heartbreaking thrills of "The Contender."

By Heather Havrilesky
Published March 8, 2005 3:13PM (EST)

Despite the muscle behind it, NBC's new boxing show, "The Contender," has faced so many challenges along the road to its premiere, it could be considered an underdog. First Fox aired a similar show called "The Next Great Champ," which failed to win much of an audience. Then, the debut of "The Contender" was delayed -- three different times. And just three weeks ago, one of the contestants, Najai Turpin, committed suicide.

That's a pretty intense development path, particularly for a show with such big names attached to it: reality guru Mark Burnett, Dreamworks' Jeffrey Katzenberg, Sly Stallone and Sugar Ray Leonard. But if the premiere of "The Contender" (the shows airs Thursday at 10 p.m., and then in its regular slot on Sunday at 8 p.m.) is any indication, things are only going to get more intense from here. Mark Burnett's love of extremely dramatic cinematography and music, which can seem overblown and cheesy on shows like "The Apprentice" and "The Restaurant," works perfectly on "The Contender." After all, this is not a show about words. We won't be watching the contestants bicker or scheme against each other or argue over where to build the shelter; we'll be watching them beat the crap out of each other.

And these aren't the high-strung yuppies of "The Apprentice" or the middle-class Boy Scouts of "Survivor" who can always fly home to their cushy lives and well-paying jobs if they don't win the big prize. These are largely working-class guys whose big dream is to box, and win the $1 million prize. If they lose, they may very well lose their dreams.

In fact, the stakes sometimes feel so high that "The Contender" can be difficult to watch -- and not just because both Stallone and Leonard, icons of '80s masculinity, appear to have had their faces lifted so tight you could bounce a quarter off them. The boxers don't seem to notice that their macho heroes have transformed themselves into meticulously manicured, middle-aged girly men -- either that, or the guys are too excited over recognizing some extremely respected fighters in their ranks. "They got some real mama jamas in here, baby," one of them says, impressed with the competition.

Early on, Ishe, a well-known fighter from Las Vegas, starts harassing Ahmed, one of the guys he sees as a potential threat, jeering at him while he throws punches with a trainer. "I've got a great mind, and I thank God for that," Ishe tells the camera. "I'm going to use it to my advantage."

"I know I'm professional," Ahmed says, sounding far less sure of himself. "I don't have to worry about him."

Trainer Tommy Gallagher responds, "You're already worrying about him. 'Cause that's all you do, is talk about him."

"Ahmed, let me tell you something," Sugar Ray Leonard chimes in. "You know, I was the best at the head game, other than Ali. And you're saying that it doesn't bother you, but you're talking about it, you're talking about Ishe. You know what you're gonna do, right? Just do it, man."

I don't even watch boxing, but this might be the most intense reality show ever made, and as such, it's likely to be a big hit. Even as the bravado and the tough-guy mantras fly like sweat from a punching bag -- "Just treat this as your shot!" "Shut up, put up, go hard, or go home!" "If you blow it, you blew it!" -- it's clear that this is their shot, and tenacity and the right attitude have everything to do with being victorious in the ring.

When they arrive, the guys are split into two teams, East and West, and later compete against each other in a grueling race that involves dragging logs up a steep hill close to the Hollywood sign. The winning team gets to decide which boxers will fight each other first. The West team wins, and they meet to plot out their strategy. Under the leadership of Ishe, they quickly and diplomatically decide that the least experienced guy from their team should fight first, possibly taking on the smallest guy from the East team, Jeff.

Suddenly, this little guy on the team named Alfonso speaks up. He wants to fight first. Who does he want to fight? "Manfredo," he says, referring to Peter Manfredo, the guy who's considered by many to be the best boxer on the East team. He's won 21 times and is undefeated. The guys all gasp. Some of them obviously think this is a bad idea.

Manfredo also admits that he's surprised by the choice. "I really don't know what their strategy is, but I have a lot of respect for him [Alfonso]. I think he's got a lot of heart."

Alfonso seems to respect Peter as well. "I saw his size. I know he's ready, he wants to fight. He's going to be tough to beat. But I know I can beat him. There's no doubt in my mind I can beat him."

"As soon as we take the best fighter, the whole team is going to crumble," Alfonso says.

The night before the fight, Alfonso goes into the ring and visualizes himself winning, throwing his hands up over his head signaling a victory. "If you imagine it, it can happen," he tells us in a voice-over.

Peter talks to his wife and hugs his baby daughter, seeming nervous that his future could be decided so quickly. But Peter's wife seems confident in his abilities. "My husband is the best boxer here," she tells the camera. "He's gonna take this all the way."

While the West team is clearly worried about the outcome, they're also impressed with Alfonso's courage. "This could be his fight of a lifetime," one says. "If he gets beat, he got beat by one of the best."

Even while they're warming up, you can hardly stand to watch. Alfonso is this little guy, and he's looking in the mirror whispering, "Somebody's in trouble!" Meanwhile, Peter is much bigger and taller, has a much wider wing span and looks quicker. Somebody really is in trouble!

But when the fight is over, miraculously enough, Alfonso is left standing in the ring with his arms over his head, just like he imagined, and Peter is heartbroken.

Afterward, Peter cries in the shower as his wife and kid look on. "For some reason, this sport, this game, is like a fire burning inside of me. It feels like it exploded. I've been fighting since I was 5 years old. Where do I go from here?"

"The Contender" is compulsively watchable, and largely because the stakes for its competitors, like Manfredo, are so incredibly high.

Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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