The death of Najai Turpin should have warned us as to the destructiveness of “The Contender” reality series. A gritty and talented fighter out of Philadelphia, Turpin joined the show in hopes of winning the one million dollar prize for being THE Contender. That didn’t happen, and Turpin then fell into a deep depression that led to him taking his own life.
What this exciting, new show forgot to tell you was that it forbids its fighters who were eliminated from competition from fighting in any sanctioned bout until the Contender was crowned. For Turpin, who relied on boxing to support his family, the wait was just too long as he was unable to deal with the reality of sitting on the bench with nothing to show for his efforts. “The Contender,” offering that once-in-a-lifetime chance to gain fame and fortune for relatively unknown fighters, ruined the life of Najai Turpin. And for what, to help boost NBC’s ratings and to serve the needs of reality show fanatics?
I don’t know what’s worse for boxing’s image, another year of suffering through “The Contender” reality show or knowing that Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky 6” will soon be gracing our presence in movie theaters. I do know though that boxing fans deserve better than what they experienced at the Staples Center when “The Contender” reality show rolled into Los Angeles. Billed as “The Contender rematch,” ESPN (the network that will broadcast season two) aired the show on October 15th that featured Anthony Bonsante vs. Jesse Brinkley, and in the main event, Sergio Mora vs. Peter Manfredo, Jr. Mora, known as “The Latin Snake,” became “The Contender” champion (whatever that means), and thus the million-dollar man and proud owner of a brand new truck, after defeating Manfredo, Jr. in a close final bout. Defending his imaginary belt for the first time, Mora entered the ring as if he was a legitimate champion. When he left the ring, everyone watching got to see that he was just another pretender, signifying the phony world that Stallone’s reality series had created.
Those who tuned in to watch this over-hyped “Contender rematch” were rewarded with two of the worst decisions that I’ve ever seen. Anthony Bonsante won every round on my scorecard in his six-round welterweight bout with Jesse Brinkley, landing 141 punches compared to 58 respectively. I guess the judges decided either to not watch the fight at all or were somehow influenced to score the bout with an extremely subjective bias. The unanimous decision for Brinkley was disgraceful and further darkened the gloomy cloud over this stage show that pretends to portray the sport of boxing. After Manfredo Jr. dominated Mora in the main event, clearly winning the fight with his superior hand speed and movement, the judges had a chance to save “The Contender” from complete embarrassment. They did not, scoring a split-decision victory for Mora when in reality he deserved to win only a single round.
Sylvester Stallone, Mr. Rocky himself, the executive producer of “The Contender,” spoke at the beginning of ESPN’s telecast about how proud he is of his fighters and how great an experience he had working with them. He couldn’t wait to advertise season two of the reality show, promising another talented group of fighters. What he forgot to mention though was that his show helped to destroy a fighter’s life and continues to make the sport of boxing look like a circus. Was Stallone proud of his glorious program after two deserving fighters were robbed of their victories because of incompetent judging or, even more troubling, because ESPN and the producers of “The Contender” wanted a dramatic controversy to help boost rating for next year’s show?
Bonsante was so enraged with the decision that he skirted down the aisle from his dressing room to incite the fans and talk to the television audience about the injustice that had happened. The crowd cheered him as he stood at ringside shaking his head in disbelief. It was just the sort of Hollywood moment that Stallone and the creators of “The Contender” were hoping for, a theatrical story that would help the show become more than just a boxing match. Stallone was at ringside to give Bonsante a big hug, expressing his sympathy for what he was going through. This scene played out like another chapter in a scripted drama.
The sport of boxing is not a scripted Hollywood story or a staged performance. The way “The Contender” is headed, outsiders will equate boxing more with the WWF and its rehearsed dramatization than actual competitive sports. Just because Stallone thinks he’s a boxing expert because of his “Rocky” persona doesn’t give him the right to invade our sport with another Hollywood production. Our sport is troubled enough without the addition of this make-believe reality show that makes Stallone seem like a genuine member of the boxing fraternity. In actuality, he’s a privileged actor who’s made his fame and fortune off a fictional boxing character, and now a fictional boxing reality show. “The Contender” is an embarrassment to the spirit of competitive sports and hopefully, for the sake of our beloved sport, this “Pretender” will retire into oblivion after one more year of torturing us boxing fans.