Introduction: My Love-Hate Relationship with Televised Sports
I like sports, in general. Liking sports is necessary, I think, in a world that's obsessed with sports. At any one time on television, you can catch football, baseball, basketball, skeet shooting, billiards, lawn darts, croquet, ice fishing, NASCAR, competitive quilting, rugby, Scottish log throwing, bowling and--possibly the most bizarre sport of all--curling.
My reservation about sports is due to a few factors. One is how many damn games my teams seem to play. Let's take baseball. Now, nothing says summer to me like having a beer, grilling in my backyard while a baseball game is on television.
By my rough count, my team played 3,067 games last year. That's a whole hell of a lot of baseball, more than any sane person can follow and still eat, sleep and keep a full-time job.
Also, I am not a fan of the pre-game and post-game. Just give me the damn game. I don't need or particularly want a lot of yakkity-yak before and after the contest--the commentary, the predictions, the injury reports, etc. Why do I need to listen to an hour of that to enjoy a game? Frankly, they make it too complicated.
The beauty of sports is that it's simple. To wit:
Baseball: Hit the ball. Run.
Football: Take this ball to the other end of the field. Don't let the other people take the ball to your end of the field.
Then there's boxing. I love boxing. But I think boxing has the greatest ratio imbalance between complicated yakkity-yak and basic premise. Boxing is easy to explain. What part of "Hit other guy a lot; make him fall down" don't you understand?
Burnett, Film It, Put It on TV
As is the case with many Mark Burnett reality-based programs, The Contender is a series of documentary-style footage interspersed with on-camera statements made by the participants.
The viewers are introduced first to Jesse, silhouetted against the sun, who tells the viewers that he wants to prove his value as a fighter.
Another boxer, while jogging, says he wants to fight his way out of "the ghetto."
Peter Manfredo, Jr., is shown with his family. He's fighting to make money for them, he says.
The cliche-o'-rama continues as Sylvester Stallone is shown crossing a bridge and thinking, "Life is a fight. Everyone gets knocked down. What matters is how fast you get up."
Hey, remember how Rocky went to the Soviet Union to fight Ivan Drago? And remember how by the end of the fight, the Soviet audience was on its feet, chanting, "Rocky! Rocky! Rocky!"? That was cool. I'm glad we settled the Cold War in that film and didn't escalate to a nuclear doomsday scenario in the real world.
Stallone's introduction continues. He calls the 16 boxers involved in the show "heroes."
Joey tells how his father is serving in Afghanistan.
Anthony thinks that seeing his children's faces at the end of the day is extraordinary.
Sergio wants to win enough money in the ring so that his 60-year-old mother won't have to work in a warehouse anymore.
Tarick's (hot) wife says that this is Tarick's last chance to prove himself as a boxer.
Peter's wife claims her husband will fight harder because he's fighting for his family.
Joey's mother worries about having a son who's a boxer but is adamant about staying by his side.
Ishe's wife says that her husband fights because he believes in something, because he believes in his family.
Stallone is shown in Vegas. He introduces the goal at the end of The Contender: a $1 million prizefight at Caesars Palace.
Now, while you think about those million clams you'll never get your grubby little hands on, enjoy the stirring, orchestral theme song.
Pour Some Sugar Ray Leonard on Me
As the 16 boxers make their way to Los Angeles, Stallone declares in Trumpian fashion that they'll have the "best of everything" while they're involved in the show, including a state-of-the-art gym built especially for The Contender and access to boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard.
One by one, the boxers file into Contender Gymnasium and are introduced by Sly. They are:
1. Brent Cooper, a born-again Christian from Nashville, Tennessee
2. Tarick Salmaci, once ranked fourth in the world, coming out of retirement for a shot at a title
3. Najai Turpin, a tough street kid from Philadelphia, fighting for a better life for his family
4. Jeff Fraza, a Boston pro trying to prove himself against bigger fighters
5. Sergio Mora, with a 14-0 record, Sergio is known in his East L.A. neighborhood as "the Latin Snake"
6. Joey Gilbert, an undefeated fighter who learned how to box in college and turned pro while attending law school
7. Alfonso Gomez, an unknown, Mexican-born fighter
In his own words, Gomez considers himself to be a "new breed of boxer" because he's not a "gang banger" and knows two languages.
(Personally, I don't see how bilingualism helps you in the ring. "Ouch" sounds the same in any language.)
8. Jimmy Lange, a devout Catholic from Virginia
9. Miguel Espino, once a top amateur, now a professional fighter
10. Anthony Bonsante, a single father fighting to provide for his children
11. Ishe Smith, undefeated but disillusioned about the state of boxing
12. Peter Manfredo, Jr., undefeated and ranked third in the world
13. Juan De La Rosa, the youngest boxer at 18
14. Jesse Brinkley, a rural farmboy from Nevada
As Jesse enters the gym, one of the other fighters greets him: "What's up, bad boy biker?"
15. Ahmed "Babyface" Kaddour, a European champion now living and fighting out of Texas
As Ahmed enters in sunglasses and floral sport coat, the others wolf whistle at him.
"Here comes pretty boy," one of the boxers taunts him.
"You just get done with a movie, or what?" another asks.
16. Jonathan Reid, a seasoned pro with a checkered past
Talik takes the opportunity to size up his opponents and gauge the looks in their eyes.
Anthony recognizes a lot of faces in the room but didn't know their names until now. He feels there's a lot of good competition.
Stallone and Sugar Ray appear on the second floor and, like Scarlet O'Hara, tells the assembled boxers they'll be right down.
The fighters are all smiles when they recognize Sly and Sugar Ray.
Jimmy says, "These two icons come in the room. This is Rocky and Sugar Ray Leonard. I was inspired by both these guys."
Stallone welcomes the group and calls them the best middleweights in the world. Stallone tells them how the competition will work: Each week, two boxers will fight--winner stays, loser goes home.
Sugar Ray says that this is real, professional competition with five rounds. Wins and losses will appear on their records.
"It's not about the East Side, it's not about the West Side...no, wait, it is..."
What would a Burnett show be without dividing a group of people into two teams based on arbitrary characteristics?
Stallone puts the boxers into two teams: one for all the boxers originating from the West, and one for all the boxers originating from the East.
The East: Jeff, Brent, Jonathan, Najai, Jimmy, Ahmed, Juan and Peter Manfredo, Jr.
The West: Sergio, Miguel, Joey, Jesse, Ishe, Anthony, Tarik and Alfonso
As Ahmed walks to his group, Stallone tells Ahmed that he wants to borrow the floral jacket. "I thought I was Hollywood," Sly says. "You've got us beat." (What "us"? Sylvester and Frank Stallone?)
The boxers' families will be relocated to Los Angeles for the duration of their appearances to live with them while they train.
"Family is foundation, but what determines who wins?" Sugar Ray asks. "It's this." He points at his chest.
While Sugar Ray's maroon pullover is very nice, I don't think it's qualified to judge boxing.
"And this," Sugar Ray adds, pointing to his head.
(Oh. He meant "heart and mind.")
Before they see their quarters, the fighters meet Jackie, a boxing manager, and Tommy, a trainer who will oversee both squads. Remember this well later during the first fight, because it doesn't seem like Tommy did a lot for "both" teams, only one.
Real World: The Contender
The fighters' quarters are very well-appointed--nice pale wood all over with colorful, modern furniture. It looks like something that could serve equally well for The Real World.
Tommy assigns the East team to one end of the loft and the West to the other. Each boxer will room with another boxer, and it's their choice who they want to bunk with.
Ishe and Alfonso decide to share a room.
Surprisingly, Ishe and Alfonso have tangled in the ring before, in the third fight of Ishe's career.
Ishe remembers it was the "toughest fight of [his] career" and changed his outlook on boxing. "I never took nobody lightly again," he says.
Ishe and Alfonso make the arrangement work and are strangely friendly and respectful toward one another. I would imagine that sharing a room with the person who beat you up would be awkward, but I guess I'm wrong. I wouldn't want to be roomies with the kid who beat me up in fourth grade for my glue stick. (Damn her.)
Ishe and Alfonso talk about their families. Alfonso shows Ishe a picture of his brothers and father. Alfonso's father was also a boxer.
For the 20th time in as many minutes, Anthony talks about his children and shows his roommate a picture of his daughter.
"I can be friends, but time to kick butt, I can do that," Anthony grins.
Again, Manfredo tells the camera that he's fighting for his family. Oh, did he mention he's fighting for his family? By the way, he's fighting for--guess who? His family.
Practice Makes Perfect
All this talk of family puts a guy in a mood to kick a little ass. Tommy senses the bloodlust circling the room and rounds up the boxers to go downstairs for their first workout together.
Jonathan recognizes Peter Manfredo, Jesse, Ishe and says that the group includes some "real mama-jamas."
Jeff Fraza thinks that the others laugh at him because he's the smallest.
"My life has been an uphill battle, and I'm used to it," he says.
In the ring, Anthony is sparring. I think he shows some power and good footwork.
He takes the opportunity to pay attention to the others as they train to look for their strengths and weaknesses.
Manfredo boasts about his ability in the ring and credits that ability with the reason he's 21-0.
Juan and Sugar Ray chat while watching Manfredo spar (with Najai Turpin, I think).
"Peter [Manfredo] hits hard as hell," Juan tells Sugar Ray with admiration.
Manfredo knocks the wind out of his sparring partner, who goes to the ropes and gasps, "That mother did damage."
Good-naturedly, Manfredo calls a stop to the sparring and puts an arm around his partner, telling him he didn't mean to hurt him.
Sly watches Manfredo and mumbles, "This guy's good."
Sugar Ray laughs and tells Manfredo, "You can't crush sparring partners. They'll quit!"
Battle of the Network Loudmouths
Next, Ishe spars with a partner that looks like Juan.
Ishe comes at him with hard, vicious body blows and puts him on the mat.
"Did Ishe just knock him out?" Anthony asks with incredulity.
As Ahmed and Alfonso spar, Sly asks trainer Tommy if he's impressed with anyone. Tommy indicates Ahmed.
"He's not the greatest, but he can be the greatest," Tommy declares. "He's arrogant. He doesn't give a [expletive]."
"The good-looking guy? Hollywood? He the one?" Stallone asks Tommy with disbelief.
Now, at this point, Tommy either compared Ahmed to Oscar De La Hoya or said that Ahmed could take on the De La Hoyas of the world, but who the hell knows. If you think there's one hell of a difference between those two statements, and it would be hard to confuse them, trust me, you haven't been listening to Tommy's accent.
Ahmed takes Alfonso's punches but keeps coming with fast body shots followed by a good blow to the head.
Ahmed appears fast, almost inhumanly fast. He forces Gomez to put his guard up.
Tommy thinks Ahmed needs to "sharpen a few things" but is otherwise very good.
Meanwhile, Ishe is watching Ahmed spar from the second floor and rains down a series of insults and trash talk on Ahmed.
Ishe wants to "kill [Ahmed] psychologically."
Ahmed has enough and calls up to Ishe, "I'll beat your ass!"
Ishe smirks at Ahmed. "Don't worry about me."
Ahmed and Ishe continue to exchange words as Ahmed moves on to another sparring partner.
"I got [manhood]. I take you anytime!" Ahmed shouts at Ishe.
"Oh, okay," Ishe laughs.
As Tommy and Sugar Ray help Ahmed cool down and take off his gloves after his sparring session, Ahmed claims not to be worried about Ishe.
"You're worried," Tommy says. "You keep talking about him." So, so true.
Sugar Ray agrees with Tommy. "I was the best at the head game. You keep talking about Ishe. You know what you can do. So just do it."
Happy Family Time with the Bloodthirsty Widowmakers
At the home provided for the Manfredos during The Contender, Peter is spending time with his toddler daughter and his wife, Yamilka.
Yamilka commends Peter for his skills as a father and for how much time they spend together.
Peter thinks that boxing is tough because of the demands on the boxers. Every morning, he runs four or five miles, works an eight-hour day, goes to the gym and gets home around 9 or 9:30 from school.
He asks his daughter if she would like to see him fight.
"I can't lose in front of you," Peter tells her.
As some of the boxers are having dinner, Sugar Ray and Sly arrive to ask how they are. The following exchange was somewhat interesting, and I transcribed a majority of it:
Jesse tells Stallone, "I watched a great movie yesterday."
Stallone: "Couldn't have been one of mine."
Someone quips, "Rocky IV?"
Jesse: "Rambo III. First Blood is my favorite of all of them you made."
Stallone: "Appreciate it."
Someone else quips, "What are your feelings on Oscar?"
Stallone: "It's bad enough you had to watch it. I had to be in it."
Sugar Ray laughs and prods Stallone into telling them about his experiences on Daylight.
What were you thinking with Rhinestone, Sly? That's what I'd like to know.
Stallone: "Everyone's a film critic. I didn't realize you guys were so talented."
Someone brings up Over the Top. Jesse boasts about the opponents he himself has arm wrestled. If not a kiss-ass he's a braggart, that one. Charming.
Stallone claims that he once arm wrestled a guy who drank motor oil and swallowed a lit cigar. Another time, he claims, he arm wrestled an opponent who smiled and out flew a canary.
Jesse laughs but says he doesn't know how much of that to believe.
Sly and Sugar Ray laugh and leave together.
"Gullible?" Sugar Ray asks Stallone.
"Gullible," Stallone agrees.
Arbitrary teams? Check. Celebrity using the word "best" to describe production values? Check. Now, since Burnett is involved, comes time for a physical challenge.
The winning team gets to choose who among them will box in the weekly match-up. They also determine who from the losing team will meet their champion.
In the hills below the Hollywood sign, each team will run a course and carry three logs. They need to pick up the first log, untie the second and use a combination to unlock the third. The logs must be tethered together and brought to the finish line.
The numbers to the combination can be found on road signs along the course. The boxers will have to memorize the combination. Supposedly, this tests their ability to concentrate when exhausted, a valuble skill in the ring. Like, totally, what-ever.
At the start, the West team are first to reach their first log. They pick it up and continue, with Ishe running ahead to scout. A member of East team catches Ishe as West team reach the second log, untie and continue.
Trainer Tommy is ahead of the runners, in the back of a pickup truck, yelling at them through a bullhorn and reminding them to memorize the combination numbers.
Keep this in mind, because Ahmed from East team reaches the combination lock ahead of Ishe but does not know the combination. It appears he simply didn't even try to memorize it during the jog uphill.
Ishe unlocks the third log, West team tethers it to the other two, and they run ahead.
Team East finally arrive to lend Ahmed much-needed assistance. Even though Ahmed didn't memorize the combination, luckily, someone from the East did.
But it's not even close. West reaches the finish line and are declared the winners.
Stallone sends Team West to the locker room to decide who will fight in their first matchup.
Alfonso - More Guts than Brains?
At first, all the West can do is laugh at Ahmed for not knowing the combination.
On the East side, Manfredo blames their loss on a loss of focus.
Jimmy blames their loss on Ahmed.
On the West, Ishe says that his team agreed everyone should have a chance to fight and commends his team for acting like a team and discussing the situation calmly.
Team West begins to think it would be best to put their least experienced against the least experienced Easterner.
That means pitting Joey (West) against Jeff Fraza (East).
Alfonso is worried because Joey seems frightened and intimidated.
"I was thinking if he doesn't want to fight, I'll fight Peter [Manfredo] tomorrow," Alfonso announces.
This seems to stop all conversation in the locker room. I rewind my tape to make sure I heard that right. Manfredo? Fighting for his family Manfredo? Kills his sparring partners Manfredo? And the guy who took a whupping at Ahmed's hands wants to take him?
Tarik wants to stick with the Joey versus Jeff scenario.
Sergio thinks Manfredo is the strongest member of the East, while Alfonso is the weakest from the West.
Alfonso is adamant. You have to admire that. "I can beat him."
Ishe backs Alfonso. "This guy can fight. Believe me." (Remember that Ishe and Alfonso once tangled in the ring.)
"Peter will underestimate him," Ishe predicts.
Smile While You Can
The West and East teams congregate in the gym. Stallone asks the champion of the West to come toe the line, respecting an old fighters' tradition, and call out his opponent.
The West put Alfonso Gomez forward.
Gomez faces the boxers from the East and says, "Um, Peter."
Ahmed and Jimmy (from the East) are smiling and laughing. They don't even try to hide it.
Manfredo comes to the line, stares at Gomez and winks at him. Gomez can hardly meet Manfredo's eyes.
Stallone remarks, "Interesting, caught me off guard."
Sugar Ray just chuckles.
Manfredo says, "I feel strong. I feel good." About his opponent: "I have respect for him. He has heart."
Gomez says, "I have no doubt I can beat him."
Stallone tells the boxers to get "back to the Fort." I think about stopping the tape, booting up my computer, and checking Fansofrealitytv.com, but then I realize Sly wasn't talking to me.
Alfonso predicts that as soon as he takes out their best fighter, the East team will "crumble." He has a lot of confidence and courage, I'll give him that.
At the Manfredo residence, Yamilka greets Peter when he comes in. The Manfredos met in high school and dated for seven years before marrying. They've been married for a year.
Peter breaks the news to Yamilka that he's scheduled to fight. He wants their daughter at the match. He wants to sleep in a spare bedroom to get some rest ahead of the boxing match.
Yamilka wants to know who decided on Peter.
Peter tells her it was a group decision by the West. "They thought I was the best, so they want me out."
Meanwhile, Gomez goes to the ring and envisions himself winning the fight. "If you imagine it, it can happen. If I imagine I can fly, maybe in the future, I will."
Well, That Went Well
Before the fight, Sugar Ray, Sly and Tommy host a press conference. An Access Hollywood camera is at the proceedings. Must have been a slow news day for Britney Spears slipping outside Spago or celebrities getting sloshed in biker bars and wrapping their sports cars around trees.
Gomez weighs in at 156 1/2 lbs. while Manfredo comes in at 158 lbs.
A reporter stands up and wants to know what Gomez thinks about Manfredo since Manfredo appears to be the better fighter on paper.
"I've been the underdog...I can beat him on his best day," Gomez replies confidently but not maliciously.
The same reporter wants to know what Manfredo thinks about the bout.
Manfredo replies, "I feel like a killer...I'll do my talking when I get in the ring."
Teams East and West sit in the back during the press conference, but God forbid there be an opportunity for Ishe to open his mouth that he doesn't take.
"21-0 is a great record, but who has he [Manfredo] fought? The West Coast has harder fighters."
Ahmed can't resist jumping into the fray, but Ishe interrupts him.
"I'm talking," Ahmed barks.
"I'm talking, too," Ishe replies.
"Let's move on," Tommy warns. Of course, they don't.
Ahmed taunts Ishe, "Why didn't you pick me?"
Ishe responds it was the will of the team to put Gomez against Manfredo. "But when it's your turn, you pick me. You'll see how we do it in the USA."
Ahmed quips, "I know you suck."
This produces oohs from the crowd, and all Ishe can say is, "Oh, okay." Never has a comeback when he actually needs it, that one.
Stallone brings the focus back to the show. "You can see we have a lot of competitive blood in this room."
Peter Manfredo, Jr. (21-0) Vs. Alfonso Gomez (11-2-1)
Gomez is lying down in the locker room, resting up for his fight. "People will respect me when I beat him," Gomez thinks.
Manfredo is resting in his locker room and thinks, "I don't know how to lose. I'm undefeated."
Gomez's family comes to see him. Alfonso tells his family that he's "ready to go to war" in response to a question about how he feels.
"They wanted me to pick the easiest. I picked the hardest."
His mother asks, "You picked him??"
"I'm either going to be a hero or an idiot," Alfonso tells them.
Yamilka and Peter's daughter come to see him. Peter hugs his daughter, who starts crying. Before they leave, she turns around and tells Peter, "I love you. Give me a kiss and a hug."
Both fighters get their hands taped and shadow box to warm up.
It's a good sized audience for the fight, and
Sonny CorleoneJames Caan and Walker Texas RangerChuck Norris are in attendance. Stallone and Sugar Ray are in the front row.
Manfredo is announced first, followed by Gomez. They touch gloves and go to their corners.
Gomez and Manfredo come to the center of the ring and throw a few blows, neither really landing.
Manfredo lands a solid body blow followed by a head shot to Gomez. Gomez responds with two good shots of his own.
Manfredo tries to land a big shot to Gomez's head but completely misses.
Gomez comes back with a series of good head shots and reels off four more before Manfredo fires back, but Manfredo doesn't connect with two hooks.
Then, Gomez comes up with one hell of an uppercut.
Manfredo tries some jabs to the face, but Gomez hits him in the head again and again.
At the bell, each fighter gets one shot in before being separated. It's doesn't appear malicious, more like high-spiritedness in the heat of the moment.
The crowd is on its feet.
Trainer Tommy is in Manfredo's corner, urging him to punch more. Gee, ya think?
Someone we've never seen before barks in Gomez's face to "Move forward! Beat this man!"
Gomez's father comes to the ring and gestures at Gomez to protect his head more.
A different Manfredo emerges at the start of round two. Manfredo comes in with a body blow followed by a few punches up top.
Gomez misses an uppercut, and Manfredo hits him with a shot to the head, reeling Gomez.
Team East smells blood and are on their feet.
Manfredo seems to smell blood, too, and has Gomez on the ropes. The boxer from the East rains blow after blow down on the boxer from the West.
Team West are on their feet as well, desperate for Gomez to put his hands up to guard himself.
Manfredo lands another series of blows to Gomez's head.
It's a wonder at this point that Gomez hasn't gone down.
Gomez throws a right and Manfredo hits Gomez with a left that has a thunderbolt behind it.
The blow is so hard that Stallone winces from the front row.
Manfredo pummels Gomez with so many head shots that I start to lose count.
Stallone is heard shouting, "He's hurt, he's hurt" as the bell signals the end of the second round. Manfredo hits Gomez a few more times before he's stopped.
Gomez is bleeding from a cut above his right eye, and maybe one or two more places on his face.
Jimmy yells at Manfredo to "stay on the cut."
Gomez's father tells his son to "get him down low with straight punches."
Gomez comes out with a fake easily avoided by Manfredo, who responds with some body blows.
Gomez clinches Manfredo and seems to frustrate him.
Then, out of nowhere like a little brother on prom night, Gomez hits Manfredo with a right that knocks the silly right out of the boxer from the East.
And from there, it's all Gomez.
It's one series after another of body blows and head shots delivered POD from Gomez to Manfredo.
Manfredo doesn't even seem to put up much of a defense or mount an offense.
And Gomez's father is right: the body blows are most effective against Manfredo. Gomez puts Manfredo in a corner, but Manfredo slips free, like an eel.
In one of the most electrifying moments of the match, Gomez puts his left glove on Manfredo's head, measuring him up for a knockout blow. It's a thunderous punch, but it lands on top of Manfredo's head. A more experienced fighter would have been able to knock out Manfredo. A fighter less hardy than Manfredo would have been dreaming on the canvass.
Manfredo is saved by the bell.
Gomez's father is electric. He tells Gomez to get some air. His son breathes hard, in and out.
Jimmy looks at Peter's daughter and checks on her. It's a nice moment.
Gomez punches, then dances off.
Manfredo comes in with a combination. Either Manfredo shot blanks, or Gomez is one damn tough guy. Maybe it's both.
A couple of good shots, and Gomez is on the ropes.
Either not much happened in the fourth round because the fighters are injured and getting increasingly tired, or that seemed like a fast round.
At the bell, Gomez's father tells him to go all out. The man in Gomez's corner tells him to "leave it here. Die in the ring."
The final round starts with and has more clinching than dancers in a junior-high gym.
They're exhausted, but Gomez gets in some good blows high on Manfredo.
Manfredo responds, but Gomez is inhuman. He doesn't seem to feel it.
They're on each other, exchanging blow after blow, when the final bell rings.
By unanimous decision, it's Alfonso Gomez for the West.
"I beat a gorilla," Gomez says. With the two of them in the ring, Gomez holds up Manfredo's glove and tells the crowd, "Hell of a fighter, hell of a fighter!" referring to Manfredo.
Back in the locker room, Manfredo showers off while Yamilka looks on. "It didn't happen. I feel like I let everybody down."
"I've been fighting since I was five. Where do I go from here?"
As the credits roll, Stallone, Sugar Ray and Trainer Tommy are discussing the events leading up to and after the first match.
Stallone predicts that an "underdog" will emerge as the victor in The Contender.
The viewers will have to wait until Thursday to see if Sly's prediction will continue to ring true.