For once, reality television imitated fiction.
Grady Brewer began his stint on "The Contender" with the least impressive pedigree of any of the 16 contestants. With an 18-11 record as a professional entering the competition, he looked more like a random fighter brought in at the last minute than a serious threat to win.
In fact, that's who Brewer has been for much of his career — that guy promoters called to fill in when a scheduled fighter bailed out of a bout against an up-and-coming prospect. His largest payday for any previous bout was reportedly $10,000, nowhere near enough to allow him to concentrate on the sport full-time.
In between those calls, he lived in Lawton, Okla., and worked 12-hour shifts at the town's Goodyear plant. Married with four children, taking care of his family meant shunting off his dream of boxing stardom. Without the means to devote more time to boxing, he never felt properly prepared to reach his potential as a fighter.
That chance may have come later than he expected, but it finally arrived in the "Contender" finale Tuesday night. A heavy underdog against Steve Forbes in the finals, the 35-year-old used his superior size and strength to eke out a victory in a split decision, earning himself half a million dollars, a Toyota Tundra truck, the show's championship belt ... and more importantly, the recognition that he's always sought in the ring.
It may not be as picturesque a scene as the sight of the fictional Rocky Balboa pounding sides of beef in a meat locker, but taking a fighter out of the factory and giving him a national stage is exactly what the script doctor ordered. Until the end, however, his fellow fighters were unconvinced he had the talent to win the competition.
From his first moment of airtime, Brewer's place on the show was questioned. Nobody else seemed to know who he was, and he wasn't able to show much in the first few weeks that would dispel the notion that his stay would be brief.
A member of the Blue Team, the veteran fighter was accused by the rival Gold Team of being afraid to fight Vinroy Barrett in his opening bout. While the taunting was at first designed to secure what Barrett thought was a favorable opening bout, his rivals had good reason to be unimpressed.
Brewer had undergone surgery on his left shoulder two months before, and couldn't even do a push-up when filming began. Also, there was the matter of his mediocre professional record. Still, he managed to beat Barrett in a unanimous decision to earn a place in the quarterfinals.
Even that wasn't enough to make him one of the favorites to make the finals. Barrett gave him a nasty cut on the eye with a head-butt, a cut that caused the rest of the quarterfinalists to salivate at the thought of fighting him next. Because the show involved numerous fights in a short timespan, the cut wouldn't heal until after the semifinals. That meant one good uppercut would likely re-open the wound, looking impressive to the judges and putting Brewer at a disadvantage.
No matter. He dispatched sluggers Michael Stewart and Norberto Bravo to reach the finals. That got him into the final against Steve Forbes.
Clash of styles
Forbes was as different from Brewer as two fighters can be. The 28-year-old from Las Vegas was a former title holder as a super featherweight at 130 pounds — or 19 pounds lighter than he fought at for this competition.
Despite his relatively small size, however, Forbes was the fighter everyone was most eager to avoid. Some, like Brewer, had seen him on TV fighting for the title. Others were simply impressed by his workouts and his sparring sessions, during which he showed a polish that nobody else could match.
When the contestants were lined up outside the gym to pick teams for the initial round, Forbes was the first boxer selected. Brewer was in the middle of the pack, just another anonymous fighter.
While Forbes was impressive in his three wins leading up to the championship bout, he didn't show anything that caused Brewer to lose his confidence. Forbes showed greater speed than Brewer, but a lot less power. That lack of power kept him from knocking out any of his opponents, and in the championship bout it meant that none of the punches he landed seemed to have much of an effect on his bigger, stronger opponent.
ESPN hasn't yet announced if it will bring back "The Contender" for another season. The show moved to cable after its debut on NBC a year ago, and while it never made a big dent in the ratings, it reportedly has done well in coveted demographics and would seem to provide the network with compelling programming at a relatively cheap cost.
Brewer's victory may be a selling point in the show's return. If the program was already a network staple, the younger Forbes would have been the preferred winner for the network brass. He hasn't yet turned 30, and has the look of a boxer who could become a staple on ESPN's "Friday Night Fights" for years.
But for short-term marketing, it's tough to beat the Grady Brewer story. When the year began, he molded tires for a living. Now, he has a (made-for-TV) championship belt, half a million dollars, a new truck and a chance to pursue his dream full-time. That's a story, and a show, that practically promotes itself. After all, the "Rocky" franchise keeps finding a home in movie theaters while its star is paying his dues to AARP. His real-life counterparts are compelling enough to stick around as well.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.