PHILADELPHIA -- In the reality TV world that Najai Turpin entered when he was picked for "The Contender," a show that debuts tonight on NBC, he lived in an eight-bedroom Southern California loft -- "extraordinary living quarters," as the show's executive producer and co-host, Sylvester Stallone, describes it in the first episode.
In the real world, Turpin lived with his younger sister in a North Philadelphia housing project where "if you spit, you spittin' in someone else's yard," as a neighbor, Anthony Williams, put it.
"Ain't no doubt in my mind that he was going to be a champion," trainer Melvin "Mr. Mel" Carter said of Najai Turpin, picking him out from a group photo at James Shuler Memorial Gym.
(Charles Fox -- Philadelphia Inquirer)
In the reality TV world, Turpin spent several weeks training in a state-of-the-art gym with 15 other boxers who were promised "an opportunity of a lifetime": a chance to win $1 million during the show's live finale, a fight at Caesars Palace. In the real world, he trained with his friends in a one-ring gym where a painting of a fighter who was murdered last year hangs on the back wall.
Turpin's Hollywood life will unfold over 15 episodes as "The Contender" chronicles the "hopes, triumphs and defeats" of the boxers featured in the latest version of one of NBC's -- and television's -- most lucrative and successful forms of programming. But in the real world, Turpin will not be watching. On Valentine's Day, three weeks before the show's debut, in which he vows to "fight my way out of the ghetto," Turpin shot himself in the left temple with a small caliber semiautomatic weapon after a conversation with the mother of his 2-year-old daughter. He was 23.
After Turpin's death, representatives of the show -- a collaborative production of reality TV mogul Mark Burnett, entertainment heavyweight Jeffrey Katzenberg, former boxer Sugar Ray Leonard and Stallone, star of the "Rocky" movies, the quintessential boxing fairy tales set in Philadelphia -- said a tribute to Turpin will be added in a future episode, but that nothing else would be changed because, as Burnett explained, "it would be totally spin TV to reedit because of a situation that had nothing to do with the show months and months later. . . . We are showing the reality of this guy's life."
Burnett's belief that Turpin's involvement with the show was not connected to his suicide is shared by police and Turpin's family and friends; one of Turpin's older brothers went on "Access Hollywood" last week to reiterate the point.
Family members also say Turpin was happy in California and ecstatic about the show when he returned to Philadelphia. But not all his friends agree. They say Turpin felt lonely and isolated and violated the show's rules by secretly calling them.
"It broke him down when they took him away from his family and all his friends," said Frank Walker, an older fighter from Turpin's Philadelphia gym. "They took him out of reality and put him in a reality show. They took a real person and made him into a character."
Given boxing's tradition of hardscrabble underdogs and overflowing emotions, it was perhaps a natural subject for reality television, a genre that has thrived on elimination contests in which viewers come to identify with charismatic contestants. Both NBC and Fox announced plans for boxing elimination shows last year, leading to a prolonged squabble between the networks.
While the Fox show, "The Next Great Champ," was a failure last fall, "The Contender" boasted a bevy of heavy hitters, led by Burnett -- who produced "Survivor" and, more recently, Donald Trump's reality show, "The Apprentice." And as the show's debut approached, boxing seemed once again in the cultural consciousness, with Ken Burns's two-part documentary on Jack Johnson airing on PBS in January and Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby," about a scrappy female fighter, winning multiple Academy Awards.
In a teleconference shortly after Turpin's death, Burnett said the show was more like a documentary than a reality show "because they're not fish out of water, people placed in an unusually stressful situation. This is a bunch of professional boxers, highly trained young men doing exactly what they normally do, which is fight each other [with] the goal to feed their families and try to achieve greatness."
Burnett said producers were drawn to Turpin for three main reasons: the "Rocky" connotations of a working-class Philadelphia fighter; the charisma and smile that dazzled female employees in Burnett's production company; and the drama of Turpin's background, because "with boxing, if you don't know their story, you don't care about them," he said.
And Turpin had quite a story. He had grown up in a housing project with minimal contact with his father and had lost his diabetic mother to a heart attack when he was 18; he subsequently helped support two younger siblings by working as a prep cook.
Even before his mother's death, Turpin got into fights in high school, beating up bullies, according to his trainer, Percy "Buster" Custus. When he was about 15 an older friend, Yusef Mack, encouraged him to go to the James Shuler Memorial Gym, located in "the Bottom," a West Philadelphia neighborhood a little more than a mile from the chic shops and restaurants of the city's university district.