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'The Contender': Junior Lightweight

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 7, 2005; Page C01

How ironic that a reality show called "The Contender" has itself been vying for a spot and a premiere date on the NBC schedule for months. The show, set in the boxing world, finally premieres tonight, at 9:30 on Channel 4, and among other things it offers is a chance for viewers to give their yawn muscles a really rigorous workout.

Contrived by Mark Burnett, the Ziegfeld of the reality show (he invented "Survivor," among others), and co-hosted by Sugar Ray Leonard and Sylvester Stallone (just "Sly" in the opening credits), the series gives 16 aspiring middleweights the chance at a made-up crown and, better by far, a $1 million purse. And if you have shopped on Rodeo Drive, you know that a purse could cost a million dollars. Oh, but this is a cash prize, not something covered in alligator.

In "The Contender," a series co-hosted by Sugar Ray Leonard and Sylvester Stallone, 16 middleweights vie for a title and a million dollars. (Byron Cohen -- NBC)

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By way of getting us in the spirit of things, Stallone introduces the show tonight: "Life is a fight," he says. "Everyone gets knocked down. What matters is how fast you get up. That's what this show's all about. 'The Contender' is about the lives and loves, dreams and fears of 16 heroes as they battle it out in the quest to become a champion."

What, pray tell, makes them heroes? Is a guy who goes out and gets a normal job, one that doesn't glorify violence and date back to the Stone Age, necessarily any less of a hero than one who puts on baggy trunks and trades slugs with another bozo in a sport that even Stallone admits is corrupt? Professional wrestling is really less harmful and more entertaining in its ridiculous way than boxing, and beyond the obvious differences, there is this: In wrestling, the dishonesty is right there in the ring. In boxing, it's behind the scenes and far more unsavory.

(The series has its own unintentionally tragic side. One of the contestants, Najai Turpin of north Philadelphia, killed himself on Feb. 14, having failed to realize his own dreams. The series reportedly will mention his death in a later episode. )

"The Contender" tries to put a happy, wholesome spin on the business of two men beating each other's brains out for money. In the first installment, the word "dreams" and the phrase "a better life" must be heard 30 times each as we get to know the fighters and their families. The boxers are conspicuously good-looking and free of facial scars, cauliflower ears and broken noses, with such exceptions as Peter Manfredo Jr., who has a proboscis like the one Jack Palance sported in "Requiem for a Heavyweight" and yet a wife who's a knockout.

Manfredo fights tonight; each show will end with a five-round match that eliminates a contender, until there are two punching it out for the million bucks. In the locker room before the fight, Manfredo says, "The only man that can beat you is yourself." And his adorable little girl, 3 or 4, says " 'Bye, Daddy! I love you!" and gives him one more hug before her mommy takes her out into the auditorium to watch daddy hit and be hit, something the child has never seen before.

Obviously, as you can tell, Burnett is far too savvy a showman to let this series be only about boxing, or even really be about boxing at all. He knows how to zing the strings of your heart. The show is about people struggling against hefty odds in the quest for self-betterment. But the boxing stuff -- training, running and sitting around moping -- keeps intruding and slowing it down.

As always with Burnett's productions, "The Contender" is a marvel of virtuoso editing, gorgeously shot and assembled, a shining example of striking craftsmanship. There's just not enough "there" there, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, and a fight is a fight is a fight.

"The Contender" is not that proverbial one-way ticket to Palookaville we've all heard so much about; it's more like a round trip, and once you get to Palookaville, if you do, you might well feel a strong urge to use the rest of that ticket and go home.

The Contender, 90 minutes, airs at 9:30 p.m. on Channel 4.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company