NBC's The Contender - Or How I Learned to Love Ramen Noodles and Stop Thinking...

05.04.05 - By Tony Fondacaro: It’s been almost a month since “The Contender” first aired, and so far the boxing community seems to be divided amongst themselves between those who like it and think it’s good for boxing, and those who dislike it but still think it’s good for boxing. At least they can agree on something.

I would have to agree with the agree-ers; it is good for boxing. Anything that gets the sport into the mainstream audience and gives it exposure is good in my book, except if some fighter chomps another fighter’s ear off. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened on the show yet, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed. I don’t hold out much hope however. I’m tempted to write a letter: “There’s no eye of the tiger here Sly, just a lot of school-yard weeping.”

It’s so tempting to call the show out, especially when it falls in the genre of “reality television,” which you either worship or despise. “The Contender” seems on one hand to duck this label, and at the same time exemplify it. Both elements exist for the argument either way. It’s a non-reality reality show. In the first place; those fights aren’t staged, but they’re edited, so we see only what a director wants us to see. Instead of the natural sounds of glove-hitting-face, you have a slow-motion capture of the punch landing, with synthesized drums in place of that sweet “whump” when something lands flush. They show the audience about as much as the fighters, as if we as boxing fans care what the audience is doing. They could be doing the wave in the nude for all I care, just don’t show Burt Young full frontal.

Then there are the team challenges, which is so much like every other reality show it makes me want to puke. Could they have been any less original with this idea? What, did they sit around and go, “You know why boxing isn’t exciting? No team challenges”? My question to the producers is this: What do any of these so-called “challenges” have to do with boxing, or training? What do they have to do with going after people in the ring? What do teams have to do with boxing? Isn’t boxing about individuals? Isn’t that what makes it better than other sports out there? I usually take my ramen-noodle break right when these challenges are going on. Right about when they’re lugging the tree trunk up to the Hollywood sign, or playing cage-match dodge ball, or loading medicine balls up a dam to truck beds, I’m getting out the creamy chicken flavored ramen and boiling water. If I had curry the night before, I usually throw out the flavor pack, strain the water, and mix in the leftover curry sauce. Sometimes I add scallions for a little bite, or pineapple, depending on how old I feel. By the time the noodles are ready, Sylvester Stallone is doing all that he is really required to do on the show, and that is say to someone, “Get up there, tow the line.” Paycheck please!

And I don’t think I’m alone in my last gripe; but I can’t stand the crying. I hate seeing fighters weep, because they’re not supposed to. These “contenders” cry like they’re getting flu shots in the nurse’s office. Here’s where the show transgresses again, because boxers are not the kind of people you want to humanize. What’s so great about boxing is that the activities taking place in the ring allow one to shed their sense of decorum, and bay for blood. We get excited at the thought that someone is going to get blasted to smithereens. This is why Tyson was so popular in his prime, because you knew it was going to be brutal. You knew someone was going to get bashed, so you made sure you watched. It’s only human to experience this, and to deny it would be moronic, but the producers of a television show feel differently. They want drama, they want a plot, as if these people knew the first thing about drama, or a good plot. So far they’ve given us: A young father with two kids, a wife, and no way of earning money other than pounding on someone. He’s getting his shot. This other guy is a devout Christian who believes that God put him where he is for a reason. He’s testing his faith and his destiny. This guy here, he wears a #1 Daddy hat to the ring and bursts into tears whenever he mentions his kids. They’re his inspiration for fighting.

Who the hell cares? One of the guys who fought this week was Brent Cooper, who was so pious you just wanted to choke him. You can tell the producers are trying hard to get something out of his mouth other than, “God has a plan for me. I’m doing his will here.” It’s every other word out of his mouth, and you have to question if his head in really in the right place for boxing if all he can concentrate on is the Lord and his divine mercy. Unless you’re a 32 year-old Evander Holyfield, perhaps you should think of something else, like how to be a good boxer. Cooper was finished in three rounds.

To be fair, it’s a good show, I just turn my head off. The footage of the fights, even though it’s cut, is fairly well done. They are probably editing out a lot of nothing, and are trying to keep the high points, as anyone would expect. Having the two guys line up and face each other is a good idea too, as it adds some tension (sometimes). Aside from the team challenges and the footage of them partying at some nightclub, I can usually watch the whole thing without having an original thought. It just tastes synthetic, like what the Olive Garden is to Italian cuisine. The fighters, for whatever Stallone says, are not that great. Some of them are ranked (the highest is Ishe Smith at number ten, according to BoxRec), some have unbeaten records, but none of them are so dominant as to be outstanding. I can tell why they are not in the upper-echelon of the middleweight division, because they are all fairly one-dimensional, one-speed fighters. They would get killed, especially the way the division is stacked, with such a large gap between the top five guys and everyone else. Are any of these guys really going to take out Bernard Hopkins? That’s like asking a “Survivor” contestant to live for a week on a deserted island. The only fighter who looks like he could cause some damage is Anthony Bonsante, who fought, and won, on this week’s show. The only problem Bonsante has is that once he fights someone who can move and counterpunch, it’s over for him. He looks like he hits nice and hard, and is fairly consistent in keeping the pace of the fight in his favor, but I question his conditioning, and I’d like to see what happens to that veneer of “I’m a psycho for my kids” when he’s bleeding from the mouth.

Boxing is about real-time demolition. It’s about the thrill of watching two maniacs with padded fists have at it, with no veil over the action. It’s a realist’s sport as much as a romantic’s sport, and it deserves to be presented in its purest form. “The Contender” doesn’t provide that. It provides a concept for boxing that is wrapped up in scenarios and false pretexts. That doesn’t mean it’s bad for boxing, it’s just not going to have me thinking about boxing the way a real match does. I’ll admit, you’re probably meant to watch the show to enjoy the inspiration, the heart and the courage, but I’m pretty sure I couldn’t care less about any of these. Off goes the brain, in goes the ramen noodles. At least it’s boxing.

Article posted on 05.04.2005

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