41 Things You Forgot About ‘The Contender’: Looking Back at NBC’s Boxing Reality Show 10 Years After Its DebutGiulio Marcocchi/Getty Images
According to NBC promotional materials, this Saturday night’s doubleheader headlined by Keith Thurman vs. Robert Guerrero brings live boxing back to the Peacock in prime time for the first time in more than 30 years. What this number says to me is that NBC should hire a new research team.
It was less than 10 years ago that Sergio Mora took on Peter Manfredo Jr. on the live finale of The Contender, the boxing-based reality series that debuted March 7, 2005, 10 years ago this Saturday. You would think someone working for NBC — perhaps, say, the color commentator for Thurman-Guerrero, who was also one of the color commentators for Mora-Manfredo, a fellow by the name of Sugar Ray Leonard — would remember this.
It’s quite possible that NBC is intentionally pretending The Contender didn’t exist. Ratings-wise, the show was a disappointment. Its numbers would be phenomenal by today’s standards — 8.1 million households for its debut, 7.97 million for its finale, and 6.2 million on average — but in the less fractured TV environment of 2005 and with backers like Mark Burnett, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Sylvester Stallone, more was expected. Maybe the blame lies with NBC for airing the first three episodes on three different days and times inside a single week. (Imagine that — questionable programming decisions at NBC.) Regardless, the end result was cancellation. ESPN picked up the second and third seasons, and then Versus kept The Contender alive for an entirely forgettable cruiserweight fourth season hosted by Tony Danza.
So The Contender was a commercial failure. I still say it was an artistic success, especially in the first season. I rewatched it over the past month, and it held up damned well. Sure, there are slow moments, but on the whole, this was solid entertainment from a time before “reality TV” automatically meant lowbrow programming designed to be hate-watched.
It’s unfortunate that NBC has chosen to pretend The Contender never existed. In celebration of its 10th anniversary, here are 41 things worth remembering:
1. When edited down to just the highlights, accented by sound effects and occasional slo-mos, almost any boxing match can be made to look thrilling. Just watch the end of the third round of Manfredo vs. Joey Gilbert. (The unedited fights were never made available online. It felt then, and feels now, like a major missed opportunity to service the audience across platforms.)
2. The cast wasn’t shy about critiquing Stallone movies, telling Sly on day one that “Oscar was awful.” Stallone had the perfect response: “It’s bad enough you have to watch it. I have to be in it.” Later in the series, Peter Manfredo Sr. asked Stallone, “Is there going to be a Rocky VI?” Again, Sly delivered the goods: “You know, I might be getting too old for it. What am I gonna fight, arthritis?” Creed, effectively Rocky VII, comes out this November.
3. There were some legitimately good fighters on the show, but there was also a concerted effort made to oversell all of the competitors — such as when trainer Tommy Gallagher told Sly that Ahmed Kaddour could compete with “the De La Hoyas of the world.”
4. Ishe Smith was described upon entering the house as “an undefeated world-ranked fighter from Las Vegas disillusioned by the lack of integrity in boxing today.” Today? Someone failed to enlighten Ishe about the previous 120 years of the gloved era.
5. The best line delivered by a cast member comes down to a three-way race between: (a) Jonathan Reid, of his potential opponents in the house: “They got some real mamma-jammas in here, baby!”; (b) eventual Contender champion Mora on Smith’s power: “If he hits me, he’s gonna hurt me. It’s just I’m gonna hide it really, really well”; and (c) Mora, before fighting Jesse Brinkley, illustrating the bonds these guys developed: “I’m gonna punch him with love.”
6. How effectively Mora shattered dumb-boxer stereotypes for those watching. Sergio said he read Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War twice, quoted Oscar Wilde and Napoleon, referenced Emerson and Thoreau, and said, “Nietzsche is another crazy bastard.” At one point Gilbert tried to use mind games on Mora that he’d learned from a book, but Sergio turned the tables on him because he’d read the same book.
7. Not only was “The Latin Snake” clever and articulate, but the strategy on the show was also more Survivor-esque than most boxing fans expected. Anthony Bonsante pulled off a piece of particularly impressive Richard Hatch–ian duplicity, agreeing informally to fight one guy, and then instead selecting the easiest possible opponent — the rarely seen Contender blindside. He even trotted out the reality-TV staple “I didn’t come here to make friends.”
8. Sly taking the “that one crazy old guy at the gym who lifts weights in jeans” routine to the next level by sparring in jeans:
9. The world’s worst ring announcer:
Want a full video/audio taste of Jeff Connor’s unrelenting awfulness? Try this. Or perhaps this. Or worst of all, this, featuring his eardrum-perforating insistence on turning “boxing” into a 17-letter word.
10. Manfredo’s exceptionally emotional (temporary) good-bye at the end of the premiere episode that set the tone — not only for the dramatic power of a show with real make-or-break career stakes, but also for a show that would shatter all previous records for tears shed by boxers. That Ishe Smith was the best bawler among the 16 brawlers is a given to anyone who has followed his career, but surprisingly strong runner-up efforts were put forth by Miguel Espino, Joey Gilbert, Anthony Bonsante, and Brent Cooper.
11. Jonathan Reid elevating the art of referring to oneself in the third person by referring to himself with his nickname. What a shame this guy was gone after two episodes.
12. The cringe-worthy fake prefight press conferences. Of all the questions asked by supposed media members, none ever came from anyone I recognized from the actual boxing media. Among the handful of questionable creative decisions made by The Contender brass, the employment of Hollywood extras to play boxing writers left me the most personally wounded.
13. Speaking of questionable creative decisions, how about those misplaced Survivor-style challenges, which were used to determine which team/fighter got to choose the next matchup? Said co-executive producer Jeff Wald heading into the second season: “We won’t do the challenges anymore. They suck.” Some of the worst examples: Contender dodgeball (although, to be fair, is dodgeball ever not entertaining?); dragging trucks en route to solving puzzles, which almost resulted in Espino getting run over; trying to shoot medicine balls into baskets while wearing boxing gloves; pulling family members around Santa Anita racetrack in rickshaws; a baseball-related challenge that was so inane, it isn’t worth describing; and forcing fighters to run up a steep and slippery wall, a fine way to get professional athletes seriously injured — though at least it provided us with this moment:
14. A perhaps even better scene from the challenges, Kaddour’s dodgeball defensive moves — best described as “Naseem Hamed meets Michael Jackson”:
15. Kaddour’s “oh no, we have to do a puzzle” face:
This was followed by Gallagher describing the puzzle with the words “This is like a puzzle, guys.”
16. Mora having no idea how a tire maze works. Leonard’s deadpan delivery of “Sergio, you’re off the course, you have to go back” is perfect. I find myself regretting my celebration of Mora’s brilliance a few paragraphs ago.
17. The revelation that James Caan had nothing better to do in late 2004 than attend almost every boxing match for a reality show. The final celebrity-at-ringside tally had the erstwhile Sonny Corleone leading the way with seven appearances, followed by Burt Young (natch) and Freddie Prinze Jr. with three apiece; Melanie Griffith, Chuck Norris, Mel Gibson, William Shatner, Burt Reynolds, and LeRoy Neiman with two; and Tony Danza, Mr. T, James Brolin, Sharon Stone, Vin Diesel, Paul Stanley, Carl Weathers, and either Kenny G or a guy who looked a lot like Kenny G with one each. (No Dolph Lundgren, tragically.) The A-list/non-washed-up crowd was better represented for the live finale: In addition to Caan’s inevitable appearance, we got Justin Timberlake, Eddie Murphy, Brooke Burke, Cuba Gooding Jr., Tommy Hearns, Cameron Diaz, and Hulk Hogan.
18. If spotting 15-years-past-their-prime celebrities at ringside was fun, spotting 15-years-away-from-voting-age kids at ringside conjured up precisely the opposite feelings. This was the worst thing about The Contender — the way the show forced children to watch their dads take punches. The distastefulness of it peaked in the live finale, when Jesse Brinkley’s 2-year-old daughter was crying on her mom’s lap throughout the entire third-place fight, right up until the disturbing moment when Mom tossed her screaming baby girl to the floor to stand up and applaud. Other lows: Bonsante’s daughter crying when her dad got knocked out with 40 seconds left in a fight he was leading; and Najai Turpin’s toddler trying to look away rather than go through the full Clockwork Orange treatment:
19. The tender moments between boxers and their wives/girlfriends. We all know reality TV is full of phony or over-the-top relationships, but these were real people experiencing real emotions (under somewhat phony reality show circumstances, of course).
20. On a related note, the editors’ tendency to provide spoilers 10 minutes into most episodes by showing two fighters hanging out with their families at “Contender Family Housing.” By some amazing coincidence, those were almost always the two fighters selected to compete later in the episode.
21. The most underrated battle of the series: Jeff Fraza vs. Peter Manfredo Jr. for worst New England accent. Fraza struck first with a “smaht” in the opening episode, but Manfredo fired back later in the premiere with an “oppahtunity” and a “haht.” (“Haht” is the thing beating inside your chest, not how it feels outside on a summer day or something you wear on your head.) Fraza came back strong a few episodes later, when he got removed from the competition due to chicken “pawks.” But Peter got in last licks when his Providence accent earned him the “subtitles for English” treatment that would later become a staple of Roger Mayweather and Floyd Mayweather Sr. dialogue on HBO’s 24/7 series.
22. Jesse Brinkley having no idea what air quotes are for.
23. The way Ishe Smith played the hypocritical heel role to perfection. He spent the first two episodes trash-talking Kaddour, then came up with excuses in the second episode not to fight him as planned, only to later bash Bonsante for looking out for himself with his matchmaking rather than accepting the fight he had promised he would take. How angry was Ishe about what Bonsante did? This angry:
25. Holy product placement! It was everywhere (in one challenge, Sugar Ray somehow kept a straight face as he referred to one obstacle the competitors had to negotiate as “the Toyota traffic jam”), but never was the product placement more blatant than when it shared the screen with the defeated fighter’s head:
26. The most poorly disguised voice-overs in reality-TV history. Yes, even worse than the Donald Trump voice-overs inserted into The Apprentice, in which the background noise suddenly drops out because they were clearly recorded months later in a studio. When you pan from fighter to fighter, never showing Stallone, as you hear his voice for 20 seconds straight, it’s about as convincing as the edited-for-TV version of Arthur, when John Gielgud asks, “Perhaps you’d like me to come in there and wash your neck for you, you little twit?”
27. The rewards for the winning teams, too many of which involved shopping, so that we could watch talking-head clips juxtaposing the fighters’ fancy new suits/watches/etc. against memories of sharing a single bedroom with eight siblings. Other rewards included going out for burgers with George Foreman, playing poker with Antonio Tarver, meeting Jay Leno and attending a taping of The Tonight Show (yes, Leno made a joke about having a sturdy chin), going clubbing with Ja Rule, and going golfing with Stallone and Leonard (enabling us to watch Sly give golf lessons with a lot of emphasis on opening and shutting doors). Mora really cleaned up on the rewards over the course of the season. He didn’t just win a million dollars; he also won two tickets to Hawaii, a new truck, and his first suit. Also, there was that time Mora compared himself to an iconic fictional prostitute.
28. Leonard proving he’s no Angelo Dundee when it comes to motivational speaking, with his timeless quote: “If you guys lose this one … if you guys lose this one … you cannot lose this one.”
29. Not to be outdone, Sly’s weight-lifting-as-a-metaphor-for-life speech feels like something we might hear in Rocky XIII.
30. Who wins the award for the most hilarious hat? Is it Bonsante, who went full Michael Scott over a baseball cap his kids gave him, declaring with a lump in his throat, “I take much pride in being the no. 1 dad, and I won’t relinquish that title, ever”?
Or is it Gallagher? I’m pretty sure this chapeau originally belonged to Primo Carnera, although Da Preem got rid of it because it was a little too big for him:
31. The difficult-to-rewatch fourth episode, in which both Najai Turpin and Jeff Fraza got sent home. Fraza, whose chicken pox prevented him from fighting on The Contender, died in a train accident in 2012. Turpin committed suicide before The Contender even started airing, making his role in this episode eerie in the moment. If you can stomach it, watch “den mother” Jackie Kallen playing psychologist to Turpin, ending with his words: “My family, if I died today or tomorrow, they have nothing. But now, this gives me the opportunity to give them something to look forward to in life.” Or if you really want to be haunted, listen to him depart by saying, “I feel greatness ahead of me.”
32. Switching over to manufactured drama, we had the “fallen comrades” march/montage. Mark Burnett is apparently a stubborn guy, and he made sure everybody’s least favorite five minutes of every Survivor season made its way into The Contender.
33. The most uncomfortable, officiously handled prefight stare-down in boxing history. Or at least reality-TV-boxing history.
34. The role of Juan De La Rosa’s father being played by Guillermo from Jimmy Kimmel Live!
35. The downward spiral of Kaddour. He entered The Contender with a record of 18-0, exited with a record of 18-2 (he lost to Smith, got a second chance after De La Rosa quit, and lost to Alfonso Gomez), and never saw another significant moment in a boxing ring.
36. If Kaddour’s Contender run was hugely disappointing, Gomez’s and Gilbert’s were both inspiring. Alfonso was the unknown who upset Manfredo to give the first episode a better-than-you-could-have-scripted-it ending and made it to the semifinals before going on to major post-Contender opportunities against Arturo Gatti, Miguel Cotto, and Canelo Alvarez. Gilbert defeated Jimmy Lange on one leg in the opening round of the tournament, despite being pegged a 20-to-1 underdog by Gallagher, and though he didn’t have much of a boxing career after the show ended, he showed huge balls during his 15 minutes on The Contender.
37. Manfredo’s daughter trash-talking him! She was like a miniature Clubber Lang, insisting “You’re scared, Daddy, you’re scared” — pointing her finger at him and everything. If there’s a Contender: The Next Generation in another 10 years, she’s my pick to win it all.
38. That magical moment on the live finale when Al Trautwig called Sylvester Stallone “Clyde.” Was Trautwig having trouble reading cue cards? I’d like to hear him try to pronounce “smell manly.” If he wanted to know the man’s name, all he had to do was look at the door to Stallone’s office in the Contender gym:
39. Also from the finale, Sugar Ray with possibly the worst use of the “if you look up [fill in the blank] in the dictionary” cliché ever. If you’re looking “Jesse Brinkley” up in a dictionary, you probably don’t fully grasp how dictionaries are used.
40. For a guy who wrote the iconic line “Ain’t gonna be no rematch,” Stallone sure was obsessed with rematches. Serving as a color analyst on the live finale, Sly said during Round 3 of Mora-Manfredo, “Ray, I know this fight’s not over yet, but I gotta start thinking about [a] rematch.” Maybe think about the nearly five rounds remaining to determine who wins this fight and then assess whether it’s worthy of a rematch? But Stallone wasn’t done. He called for a rematch again in Round 4 … and again in Round 5 … and again in Round 6 … and twice in Round 7, when finally Leonard got in on the act with him. By the way, the judges’ final scores of the seven-round Mora-Manfredo fight: 70-63, 69-64, and 68-65. That result doesn’t scream for further clarification.
41. If that wasn’t enough to convince you that Sly isn’t cut out for live boxing commentary, he got a little carried away during Mora-Manfredo and claimed, “This is a candidate for fight of the year. I’ve never seen anything like it.” Oh, by the way, this fight took place 19 days after Diego Corrales vs. Jose Luis Castillo. I miss The Contender, even if, like all reality TV, it wasn’t too concerned with aligning with reality.