Allow me briefly to step out of my role as writer and talk about this episode of The Contender.
It's hard, if not impossible, to approach this episode without thinking about Najai Turpin's suicide in February.
For the most part, I enjoyed this episode. I don't know if this is the episode that would have been broadcast if Turpin hadn't died, but I think it's an honest, no-holds-barred look at Turpin.
At times, it's hard to watch because of Turpin's behavior, but it's hard to watch mostly because of statements made by Turpin--you almost, but not quite, begin to sense the depths of his feelings of hopelessness.
The morbidly curious will, unfortunately, be satisfied because of how Turpin appears (strange and pessimistic).
Morbid curiosity aside, the story of Sergio Mora and Najai Turpin is an interesting one because of the fighters' eagerness, almost desperation, to offer their families a better way of life through their boxing in the ring.
This is how Turpin came to fight in that episode and why he left.
Don't Let the Kaddour Hit You on the Way Out
Following his comparison last week of Ahmed Kaddour to a "cancer in his side," Ishe Smith celebrates his win over "Babyface" Kaddour by grinning and remarking, "My cancer is gone."
"I'm celebrating he's out of this house," Smith says.
The boxer from the West returns to his locker room and prays.
When Smith arrives at Contender Gym the next day, the other boxers applaud his entrance.
"You showed heart," Sergio Mora tells his teammate.
Jeff Fraza, a boxer on Team East, has often been mentioned as being "the smallest" fighter.
Fraza and his girlfriend, Sylvia, have a 7-year-old son.
At the Fraza Contender house, Sylvia asks Jeff when he's going to fight.
He replies that he doesn't know.
Fraza confesses that he's been sick, but he's tried to hide his illness from the other boxers. He's already looked down upon as one of the smallest. If he were to reveal an illness, Fraza feels that would make him easy pickin's.
Jackie and Najai
Boxing manager Jackie warmly greets Najai Turpin back at Contender Gym and welcomes him into her office.
It's not altogether clear why Jackie has chosen to speak with Najai, but she appears to be taking a "just-getting-to-know-you" approach. Based on what I see here, I like Jackie because of her concern for the boxers, even if she does compare Najai to a "mistreated animal." Her words make me wince, but I understand what she's trying to convey.
Jackie says there's "something about him (Najai) that's endearing" to her.
"[Najai] confuses me the most. He's a sweet guy, but so distrustful."
Najai tells Jackie that he doesn't have many (any?) friends because he feels people inevitably betray him once he lets them grow close.
Jackie asks, "So basically you don't trust anybody?"
He trusts his daughter (who is only a toddler).
Najai says of his girlfriend and daughter: "If I die today or tomorrow, they would have nothing."
Jackie asks Najai if he feels anyone is looking out for him.
"My mother," he replies.
"Still living?" Jackie asks.
"No," he says.
Alfonso Gomez is the first of the "Eight," who do not have to fight again until eight boxers lose and leave Contender Gym, enjoys the luxury of studying the other fighters. He has a quick and easy wit and often makes astute (and accurate) observations about his fellow fighters.
Gomez pegs Najai as having a "difficult style" because he throws so many punches. Gomez thinks that this would be difficult for a five-round bout. But Gomez doesn't specify whether he thinks this would be difficult for Turpin's opponents or for Turpin, who could exhaust himself with this furious punching style.
Sugar Peppers Team West with His Wisdom
Stallone gathers the other boxers and awards Ishe Smith his glove, signifier for Smith's place among the Eight. Smith joins Gomez, who defeated Manfredo, and Jesse Brinkley, who fought and beat Jonathan Reid. All are members of Team West.
Sugar Ray Leonard invites Team West to dine with him as part of their reward. Dinner consists of a rooftop dining experience complete with waitstaff. While they eat, Sugar Ray talks to Team West and imparts the benefit of his experiences.
Sugar Ray warns them about questioning their own abilities, for one thing.
"If you question it, you already lost."
That's just another moment that goes toward proving my pet theory that reality television is chock-a-block full of cliches and the painfully-obvious packaged as the profound. (But I still think he's a pretty damn good fighter.)
Jeff Fraza asks to meet with Jackie and confesses he's had a fever and now has a rash on his legs. Fraza yanks up his shorts to show Jackie his upper thighs, and trust me when I say you're better off reading about this than seeing it. The horror of Fraza's pasty white legs cannot be expressed in mere words, but allow me to try: "Bw-ylah!"
I hope elderly viewers and people who had just finished dinner had time to turn from the television.
Jackie somehow manages to refrain from screaming and running from her office and tells Fraza that she's going to call a doctor.
A Boxer and a Scholar
Meanwhile, Sergio "The Latin Snake" Mora is sparring in the gym. He looks fast and powerful, like a machine.
Mora is impressive in the ring and shouldn't feel the need to impress about anything else, but he makes the mistake and tries.
Mora considers himself the scholar, you see, and feels he's quite a voracious reader.
Mora's view on boxing:
"This is war between two guys, and Sun-Tzu 2000 years ago wrote The Art of War."
I think we've discovered a whole new way of looking at the sweet science. Boxers, make an observation about your sport, and then follow that up with a non-sequitur about the arts. For example:
"I'm going to have that bum flat on his back, seeing stars, and over 100 years ago, van Gogh painted Starry Night."
It's not over yet, because Mora is on a roll, and the cameras follow him as he continues to talk about his scholarly pursuits.
Back in his room, Mora gives a disjointed talk about Oscar Wilde.
"I could give you a book..." he trails off. Well, that's good, because Wilde wrote a bunch of them.
Then he talks about Emerson, Thoreau and Nietzsche, calling the latter "another crazy bastard."
Well, thank you, Professor Mora.
Join us again next week on The Contender when Anthony Bonsante discusses Thomas Hobbes and T. S. Eliot then beats the hell out of some guy on Team East.
Haven't We Seen You Somewhere Before?
A doctor comes to visit Jeff Fraza and after taking one look at his legs (the horror, the horror), declares that Jeff has--are you ready for this?--chicken pox.
Fraza tells the doctor that it can't possibly be chicken pox because he's never had chicken pox before.
The doctor patiently explains that it's because he's never had chicken pox that he's susceptible to it and has it now.
More bad news: The doctor disqualifies Fraza from the competition because of the chicken pox.
Fraza takes it hard. He paces the locker room, slapping his fist in his palm.
"I'm devastated right now," he admits.
Stallone announces to the other fighters that Fraza was disqualified because of the chicken pox. After they get over their disbelief, Stallone tells the boxers they will all vote to bring back one of the three fighters who has left the competition to take Jeff's place. Team West will vote, as well.
After the ballots are counted, the vote comes out:
Jonathan Reid - 4 votes
Peter Manfredo, Jr. - 8 votes
Ahmed Kaddour - 0 votes
Manfredo is shown walking back into the gym. A few of the boxers greet him happily, but Alfonso Gomez seems bemused that the opponent he beat is back. (And, frankly, who can blame him?)
"Did you think in a million years you'd be back?" someone asks Manfredo.
Gomez merely sighs and glances at Ishe Smith over their card game.
Oh, What a Feeling
Following the numbskull dodgeball challenge from last week, this week, Teams East and West are tasked with the challenge of pulling a 5000 lb. Toyota truck the length of a Los Angeles riverbed. Oh, you didn't know Los Angeles had a river? Don't worry. It looks more like an empty freeway, if that gives you any idea what they're doing.
As they pull the truck, they will run across punching bags in their path. They must throw the punching bags in the back of the truck and continue to the finish line. At the finish line, they must find the nine punching bags with embossed letters. Using these punching bags, they must spell a word to win the challenge.
Pretty good, no? The challenge seems to represent so well the challenges that boxers face in real life and in the ring.
Let's cut to the chase because you're probably as bored as I am about the challenge. Team East takes a lead that increases even more when whoever pulling the truck for Team West loses the rope under the vehicle.
Team East arrives at the finish line with Team West hot on their tail (surprising), grab their punching bags and spell the word C-O-N-T-E-N-D-E-R.
For the first time, Team East wins choice.
Unlike previous episodes of The Contender, we skip the locker room discussion and, later, the press conference.
I, for one, am curious about what took place in the locker room and would have liked to know how they arrived at Najai Turpin as their champion, who elects to fight Sergio Mora, bookworm and boxer extraordinaire.
When Mora comes to the line and stares at Turpin, Turpin averts his gaze. Turpin says he doesn't want Mora to look into his eyes. He believes that if Mora were to look into his eyes, Mora would be able to tell what's on his mind.
It's a somewhat strange and disturbing statement to make, but then Turpin manages to say something even more disturbing:
"I've got a lot of pain, and I'm going to bring it to whoever I fight."
It's hard to separate those statements from what we know of Turpin's tragic end.
Sergio Mora, for his part, says that nobody wanted to fight Najai Turpin because Turpin was considered "a nut."
Sergio Mora (12-0) Vs. Najai Turpin (13-1)
In the locker room leading up to the fight, Sergio Mora confesses he's afraid of losing and going home.
Mora's family and friends arrive to cheer him on.
Sergio tells his mother that he has a bond with the other fighters and while he wants to win, he's cheering for Najai, too. He realizes the irony.
It's a nice moment that represents the relationship between the fighters in The Contender.
He tells his mother not to be afraid because he's ready for this fight.
After kneeling before his mother and asking her to pray for him, Mora confesses to the audience that he's never told his mother he loves her because he doesn't know how to express his feelings. He blames this shortcoming on the fact he grew up only with brothers.
Najai's girlfriend and their daughter visit him in the locker room.
"Anyae [his daughter] is my joy," Turpin says. "It was like I had my mother all over again, someone I could trust."
(Turpin lost his mother at a relatively young age.)
"I can't let my daughter see me lose," Turpin vows.
Sugar Ray Leonard visits both Mora and Turpin to wish them luck in the fight.
Sergio Mora is introduced first. He comes to the ring quoting--ready for this?--Napoleon. I had to rewind the tape a few times to make sure I was getting this right because it doesn't make sense, but it sounds like: "He who fears me conquers serves defeat."
(The quote is, "He who fears being conquered is sure of defeat." And, yes, I had to Google it.)
Why couldn't Mora choose a more appropriate quote, such as "Rowdy" Roddy Piper: "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum."
Sergio enters the ring, looking sharp, wide awake...and vicious.
Finally, Najai Turpin comes to the ring, proclaiming, "God blessed me to be a fighter."
Mora comes out and lands a combination: left, body blow and right.
They're hard shots, and Turpin doesn't appear to respond or even try to defend himself.
Turpin tries a few jabs at Mora and lands a big left. Turpin tries those jabs again, but Mora rocks him with a huge right. It's the first of many in this bout that will prove to be punishing to Turpin.
After the right, Mora comes up with a convincing left.
Turpin finally seems to wake up and gets in a few head shots, but Mora responds once again and hits Turpin with a right that nearly spins Turpin around.
Again, Turpin tries to land a few blows, but again, Mora gives his opponent pause with one hell of a right.
At the bell, Mora glares at Turpin as he walks to his corner.
At the start of the second round, Mora starts by taking a few jabs at Turpin. When Turpin comes awake, though, he does it with a vengeance. He forces Mora up against the ropes and keeps him there as he throws blow after blow. Mora can't dodge the punches, but they don't appear to be particularly strong or effective. Shame, because otherwise, Turpin may have taken down Mora.
The unrelenting assault, though, seems to exhaust Mora who tries to fight back. He's so tired that his blows are weak, slow and telegraphed so far in advance that Turpin easily (and skillfully) avoids them.
Picking up where he left off, Turpin gets Mora back on the ropes and goes at Mora in workmanlike fashion. But just when it appears that Mora is done, he manages to come back with a flurry of blows.
At the bell, Mora seems to fly straight for Turpin, like a hawk zeroing on its prey. They exchange blows.
Turpin attempts the tried-and-true tactic of getting Mora back on the ropes or into a corner, but Mora learns from his mistakes and manages to fight his way back out.
Mora hits Turpin with a few blows that sound like thunderclaps when they connect.
Mora manhandles Turpin, hitting him with blows that prevent him from fighting back or defending himself.
Mora pounces on Turpin again, clinches him, then goes to work. He's fast, hard and relentless. The rest of the round is all Mora, as he has so many punches in him that he can't help but throw a few more after the final bell.
Mora stands and stares down Turpin after the fight. The fight is called, and it's an unanimous decision for Mora (and Team West).
Mora hugs and kisses Turpin on the cheek, giving him back some respect.
As Stallone bids Turpin goodbye, he tells the boxer that he "won everyone's heart."
Turpin is despondent. "I left everything in the ring and came up short," he weeps.
Najai's girlfriend and daughter visit him in the locker room to console him. She tells Najai that their daughter doesn't care that he lost. It's utterly heartbreaking.
"I fought with my heart and gave it my all. There's no reason for me to feel this agony," Najai says.
And he's right. He shouldn't, but the fact that he does is a problem, a big problem.
The episode ends with Najai predicting: "I'm going to take this loss and hopefully become stronger.
"I feel greatness ahead of me."
To bookend Najai's final appearance on The Contender, Sugar Ray Leonard expresses shock and sadness at the death of Najai Turpin and discusses Najai's wish to provide for his family by boxing.
A trust fund has been set up for his daughter, Anyae, and viewers can learn how to donate by visiting the Web site: