King Kaufman's Sports Daily

"The Contender" is just like real boxing: It's real, but with healthy doses of fiction, and it's better as a TV show than it is as a sport.

By Salon Staff
Published March 15, 2005 8:00PM (EST)

I've been ignoring NBC's reality pug show "The Contender," because it combines two things I've lost patience with: reality TV and boxing. But Salon's Heather Havrilesky, who cannot be doubted, loves it and readers have been urging me to check it out, so this weekend I did.

The decision: pretty good TV, really bad boxing.

Kind of like real boxing.

"The Contender," as you probably know, pits two teams of real pro fighters, West and East. There is a dumb reality TV-style "challenge," and the winning team gets to pick its next fighter, who gets to pick his opponent from the other team. There are various interpersonal dramas playing out among the boxers, sometimes among teammates, and more playing out at home.

The producers have thoughtfully flown the pugs' families to Los Angeles and put them up in houses tricked out with cameras, the better to pimp out these guys' small children to an audience hungry for any adorableness that might be lurking behind the sweat and blood.

The key to enjoying reality TV, it seems to me, is being able to ignore the word "reality" and accept that the enterprise is just a stylized form of fiction. In fact, the first thing a boxing fan will notice about "The Contender" is the lack of sweat or blood, two essential elements of boxing in the real world, by which I really mean real.

The second is that Sylvester Stallone, who along with Sugar Ray Leonard plays mother hen, looks a little weird. I don't know if he's had too many face lifts, but I think I saw a big wad of skin from the back of his head stuffed into his hip pocket. Anyway, the best part of this show is watching Sly supervising the training of the fighters.

Um, folks, Stallone was never a boxer. He played one in the movies is all.

The multiple fictions at the heart of "The Contender" were articulated by Stallone as he addressed the boxers in the first episode. "You are 16 of the best middleweights in the world," Stallone said. "The only difference between you and the current world champions is that they got a shot and you never did."

Right. It's true that these guys are 16 of the best middleweights in the world, if by middleweight Stallone means to include the various lightweights and welterweights who bulked up to participate, and by "best middleweights in the world" he means to exclude everyone but these guys.

An unmentioned difference between these 16 men and the current world champs -- a group that includes the superlative Bernard Hopkins -- is that the current world champions can fight a little.

In Sunday's episode, West fighter Ishe Smith and East fighter Ahmed Kaddour, who lives in Humble, Texas, but is presumably East because he was born in Denmark and/or because he's Lebanese, were the focus. They're both obnoxious in their own way, Smith because he's self-absorbed and a lousy teammate, Kaddour because he's trash-talking boxer No. 4,328,621 who thinks he's a latter-day Muhammad Ali. Some earlier conflict I missed had put them at odds, and from the first minute of the episode it was clear the climactic fight would be between them.

The reason this show works as TV is that it's like a little one-hour sports movie every week. You have the hard training, though really there's more talk about training than actual work. You have some adversity to overcome -- in this case Smith had a crisis of confidence that his wife, who must be a saint to be so supportive of such a putz, talked him through.

You have the odd nice, tangential off-the-field moment, such as when trainer Tommy Gallagher took the team of last week's winning boxer to a men's store to buy new suits, something few of them had ever owned before. And you have the climactic Big Game, in this case a real, sanctioned professional boxing match, complete with movie-style music.

It would have been funny to use the "Rocky" music, but that might have highlighted the blurring of reality and fiction here. Stallone has become kind of a joke in the three decades since, but "Rocky" was a hell of a movie.

The reason it's a classic is that even though it was pure fiction, it portrayed reality beautifully. It spoke truths about real things, not just for boxers but for any underdog, and that means everybody, because we all think we're underdogs.

"The Contender," like all shows in its genre, does the opposite. It uses reality -- or "reality," if you like -- to portray fiction. That can be compelling too, but somehow I doubt anybody's going to remember "The Contender" in 30 years. It's just not as real as "Rocky" was.

Now, real, sanctioned professional boxing is not without its own fictions posing as reality, such as the beefed-up records of fighters who've spent their career beating up on hobos and carnies. Smith came into his fight with Kaddou, which was held in August 2004, with a record of 13-0 with seven knockouts. Kaddour was 18-0 with nine KOs. Sounds pretty good, but you have to consider the opposition.

Smith, one of the show's more accomplished boxers, was a welterweight inching close to becoming an almost-fringe contender when he was cast for the show. He'd fought a couple of ambulatory patients, at least, but his slowing knockout rate showed that he's not going to threaten any of the top 147-pound welters, never mind the bigger guys at 160.

Kaddour is a true middleweight who's spent most of his four-year career winning decisions over moonlighting pickpockets in Europe.

Sugar Ray Leonard, now that's a fighter. Or he was one, a long time ago. Now he's 48 and at the time of taping was about 17 years past his last really good moment in a boxing ring. He sparred with Kaddour, who showed off by going hard on the offensive, trying to show up the old champ. "We all know I'm good," Kaddour said afterward for the camera. "Six-time world champion Sugar Ray? I can play him, make him look bad. That's the best."

Leonard, more than twice Kaddour's age, easily kept him at bay without throwing many punches. He climbed out of the ring and let trainer Gallagher towel him off. "Ahmed," Leonard said, smiling, "gets a little, ah ..."

"Yeah, carried away," Gallagher said. "Until you hit him on the [bleeped] chin. Then it'd be over."

Yeah, Leonard's the boss, but Gallagher's seen a few fights.

Smith won the climactic fight, a five-round decision. It's hard to get a real feel for the fighters' ability because the action is shown movie-style, with only a few highlights presented amid lots of quick cutting and audience reaction shots. But even the carefully chosen snippets revealed that Smith is a counterpuncher who slaps with his left hook and leaves himself open with wide punches. Kaddour appears to lack only speed, footwork, defense and punching power.

But my gosh, he's beautiful. Kaddour has a girlfriend named Brandy who is tall and tan and young and lovely, and she's not in his league. In one scene, Kaddour is looking down from this loft window in the gym and jawing with another boxer. He's shirtless -- young fighters in training have abs to die for, darlings -- and wearing white pants and waving around some Eurotrash shades. It looks like a Calvin Klein ad.

After the fight, Kaddour looks at himself in a mirror and says, "I still look good. Still look good! Can't believe it." Which of course is an Ali thing.

But it's also Kaddour's ticket. Like Smith, he hasn't fought since that August bout, but if he's smart he gave a clue to his career path in the episode's closing moment.

"I'm a warrior and I'm not gonna quit," he said. "Number 1. Hollywood!" And then he made a fist, looked down and, his face in half-light, showed us his knockout profile.

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