“The Contender” was a competitive reality series about middleweight boxers that aired last summer on NBC. But the show aimed for more than ratings and entertainment for its audience. Executive producer Mark Burnett wrote in his book that his show “has the potential to revitalize a dying institution and give glory to a group of men who have labored in obscurity their whole lives.”
That was a lofty goal for a summertime reality series, but if anyone was up to the challenge, it was Burnett, the reigning king of quality reality show production. Whether or not “The Contender” accomplished his goal is up for debate, but the series certainly infused the sport with a new kind of glory, packaging boxing in such a way that it became palatable to a wider audience.
The show adopted the familiar and successful competitive reality show formula that Burnett perfected on “Survivor” and then modified for an urban environment on “The Apprentice.”
On “The Contender,” two teams battled in challenges designed to test their strengths. The winning team earned an advantage, the ability to select which of their members would fight, and which opposing boxer he’d fight against. Each losing fighter was eliminated, the final two fought live at Caesar’s Palace, and the winner received $1 million.
At the time it debuted, “The Contender” was the most expensive reality show ever produced, costing $2 million an episode, although it was charging $8 to 10 million per episode for sponsorships.
The production was equally epic, starting with the cinematic title sequence, which introduced both the contenders themselves and the show’s stirring, Hans Zimmer-composed theme song. The score for the rest of the hour repeated its triumphant riffs.
Primarily set in a lavish L.A. gym, where the cast both lived and worked out, the show treated its location with the same reverence that the islands of “Survivor” islands and the urban jungle of “The Apprentice” receive.
Focus on the fightsUltimately, though, boxing is still a sport where, eventually, two people punch each other until time runs out, one gets knocked out, or someone starts bleeding so badly the fight is stopped. But oh, how impressively heroic and grand those fights can be, particularly when they’re in the hands of reality TV show directors, producers, and editors.
The fights were filmed with sweeping crane shots and invasive close-ups. With the slower portions excised and the rest set the pumping score, the best punches were shown in such excruciating slow motion that drops of sweat and blood were visible as they soared through the air.
None of this attention to detail and craft really matters if the fighters don’t connect with the audience, but the “Contender” first-season cast was more engaging than typical reality show casts, mostly because they’d gathered to demonstrate their craft and prove something to the world.
The show opened with relatively unknown fighter Alfonso Gomez asking his winning team to let him challenge Peter Manfredo, Jr., one of the most well-known boxers on the series — and a previously undefeated fighter. Alfonso beat Peter after a unanimous decision, and his victory provided the perfect underdog story to pull viewers into the series. Manfredo’s return later in the competition only heightened the dramatic tension.
As captivating as Alfonso’s storyline was, it was assisted by the production, which carefully and subtly manipulated the audience right up until the fight that concluded every episode. The show periodically pulled away from the gym and ring to follow the contenders home, often to rental houses nearby where the show housed their families.
Watching these “warriors,” as they were often called, play with their kids or interact with their family members provided a nice backdrop to their lives. And the visits from relatives in the locker rooms before and after the fights nicely bookended the fights with their non-boxing lives.
But more importantly, these scenes brilliantly came into play when the fighters entered the ring. After particularly brutal punches or successful volleys, the camera would cut to the boxer’s family and their pained and ecstatic faces, and instantly the emotional weight from those earlier scenes would be transferred to the bout. It’s probably not a stretch to assume that many people got choked up or even cried their way through the last few minutes of each show, particularly when the cameras followed the devastated losers into the locker room, where they had to face their loved ones.
It was compelling television, but ultimately, “The Contender” failed to draw in large numbers of viewers, starting with about 8.4 million viewers, and losing more than 2 million viewers over the course of its run. NBC declined to renew the show.
For its second season, the show is moving to ESPN, where a few “Contender”-themed fights have already aired. But those bouts have been actual boxing matches, and for those who were introduced to boxing by the Hollywood-style fights shown on “The Contender,” they seemed slow and, well — a lot more real.
The first season’s look and feel, particularly during the heavily edited fight sequences, were criticized by some who wanted to see real, raw boxing, not an over-dramatized, melodramatic version of the sport. Bringing boxing into the mainstream apparently involved alienating some of its core constituency. But removing those elements could cause “The Contender 2” to lose viewers who will follow the show to ESPN.
Thus “The Contender” is stuck in an impossible world between realistically depicting a sport that is “dying,” according to Burnett, and drawing in the fans it presumably can’t afford to lose.
For its second season, the show is reportedly dropping the challenges between teams, perhaps in part because they caused the fighters to expend so much energy with so little payoff and so much of a chance for injury. With the condensed, rapid fight schedule that the show demands, any unnecessary physical activity can negatively affect the main attraction, the bouts themselves.
“The Contender 2” is also saying goodbye to host Sylvester Stallone, who’s working on his next “Rocky” film, leaving just Sugar Ray Leonard to host. The two were unlikely hosts during the first season, with their monosyllabic delivery and expressionless faces. While Sugar Ray made for an inspiring mentor, he’s going to have to work hard to be an engaging presence for viewers as our host; he is no Ryan Seacrest.
Despite these changes, “The Contender” will most likely keep its dual focus on the sport of boxing and its consequences, both emotional and physical. And with that, the series will retain its reverence toward the fighters that seek its title.
is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.