IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

‘The Contender’ takes a swing at reality success

Series hopes to find strong audience, help restore boxing's tarnished image
/ Source: The Associated Press

“The Contender” is offering $1 million and a four-year contract to the winner of the new NBC reality series. The show’s high-powered producers hope they can offer more to boxing itself — a return trip from its one-way ticket to Palookaville.

Jeffrey Katzenberg of DreamWorks SKG and reality mogul Mark Burnett say they want to restore glory to a sport they contend has fallen into disrepute.

“There’s something very noble and heroic about the sport. We both remember back to the Muhammad Ali era, when I grew up,” Katzenberg said, nodding to partner Burnett.

“To be able to reclaim boxing, both for boxers and for fans, was the thing that inspired us to do this,” Katzenberg told The Associated Press.

The series previews 9:30 p.m. EST Monday and 10 p.m. EST Thursday. It moves into its regular 8 p.m. Sunday slot March 13. Sylvester (“Rocky”) Stallone and real-life champ Sugar Ray Leonard act as hosts and advisers for the contestants, and Stallone is an executive producer with Burnett and Katzenberg.

More than boxing is at stake, of course. NBC needs help stopping a ratings tumble, and Katzenberg would like to erase the memory of the animated series “Father of the Pride,” which bombed for the network. Burnett, king of the reality genre, can enhance a record with few dings in it (“The Restaurant” being one).

TKO for ‘The Next Great Champ’The producers say they are untroubled by the failure of another ring reality series, Fox’s “The Next Great Champ,” which beat them to air last year but hit the canvas.

“Memories are short in television,” Burnett said, adding that his series “can’t not do well, just because the work is good.”

He frequently applies the phrase “movie-driven” to the series and with reason: As with his reality hits including “Survivor” and “The Apprentice,” it builds drama with sharp production values, including the cinematography and music (by prominent film composer Hans Zimmer).

Unlike most unscripted shows in which emotions may end up bruised, the pain is physical as well: The boxers are all professionals and the punches are real.

“I’ve been in this business a long time and I thought the fights were as compelling and captivating as any event I’ve ever seen in boxing,” said Dean Lohuis, executive officer of the California Athletic Commission, which supervises full-contact sports.

Only about six minutes from the five-round bout that concludes each episode will be shown. The goal is to get viewers — including non-fans — to watch and care about the boxers, the producers said.

Stallone kept emphasizing to them that “Rocky,” the 1976 film he wrote and starred in, was a story told through the eyes of girlfriend Adrian.

“I would say that single idea is more at the essence of what Mark has done than anything else,” said Katzenberg. “You want to see the boxer’s story through another’s eyes.”

Families add drama to stories
The athletes’ families are a key and sometimes unlikely part of the storytelling. One fighter brings his young daughter to watch his bout; tucked in her mother’s arms, the child cheers him on as blows are exchanged.

The stakes are high for the men, some of whom come from hardscrabble backgrounds and represent their family’s hope of success. Unlike the pinstriped crowd on “The Apprentice,” there’s no MBA safety net if they fail.

(One contestant, Najai Turpin, committed suicide last month after filming was over. The producers and a family member said the tragedy was unrelated to the series or its outcome.)

Burnett said he and a DreamWorks executive were licensed as boxing promoters in California and Nevada and are acting in that capacity for the fighters in the show.

“We’re going to build a legitimate boxing community,” said Katzenberg, with limits on how much fighters pay managers and freedom for the men to pick their own bouts.

Now, boxers can end up surrendering a majority of their money to managers and promoters, he said, and they can be shut out of fights if a manager is trying to protect a boxer’s record from losses.

“It’s why John McCain is fighting for legislation, to protect these kids in it,” said Katzenberg, referring to the U.S. senator’s effort to create a U.S. Boxing Commission.

Boxers on “The Contender” have contracts protecting their share of purses and providing insurance, medical coverage and pensions, the producers said. They get paid an undisclosed amount for each bout in the series.

Trying to protect the fighters
Lohuis, who was on hand to make sure the “Contender” fights were conducted in accordance with state regulations, lauded Burnett and Katzenberg’s quest.

The sport is not corrupt, he said, but there are overly powerful promoters and an a confusing array of titles.

In the past, “you could go the man on the street and say, ‘Who’s the middleweight champion?’ and he could tell you. That’s what made it an important sport,” Lohuis said.

One boxing veteran was not impressed when he was told of the producers’ aims.

“They’re going to correct all that with their show?” said a skeptical Don Chargin, a Hall of Fame promoter who’s been part of boxing since 1945 and is still active. “When you’re on the outside looking in, it’s easy to criticize.”

He said there may be “isolated” cases in which boxers are exploited. But Chargin, 76, argues that the increased number of titles means more opportunity for more boxers.

“These kind of people talk about the good old days. The good old days were terrible,” he said. “It was great that there were only world champions, but if you didn’t know the right people you didn’t get a chance to fight for a world title.”

Sitting in a handsome office on the NBC Universal lot, it seems somewhat incongruous to hear the impeccably dressed Burnett and Katzenberg talk of redeeming a tough sport.

What would they say to those who question their ability to make a difference?

“Watch,” replied Katzenberg. “Watch.”