A case of not wanting to be a contender


America at Large: Look, we thought The Contender was a rotten idea even before Najai Turpin put a bullet through his brain.

The 23-year-old Philadelphia welterweight took his own life while sitting in a parked car outside his gym on Monday night. NBC executives quickly expressed remorse, but insisted that the suicide "had nothing to do with" the boxing-based reality TV series which will make its American debut on March 7th.

Turpin, ironically, figures prominently in the first episode.

No word on when The Contender will make its way across the Atlantic, but, since most of our bad television programming usually does, you'll undoubtedly get a chance to watch it for yourself one of these days.

Hosted by an odd coupling of Sylvester Stallone and Sugar Ray Leonard, The Contender is network television's second attempt at a fistic version of Big Brother. A similar concept called The Next Great Champ and hosted by Oscar De La Hoya began its run on Fox last September, and following a remarkable display of indifference by viewing audiences, was shifted to a less prominent position on FoxSportsNet two months later.

Since The Last Great Champ has not been heard from lately, we can only assume that it has quietly been allowed to expire. Which was the chicken and which the egg remains a subject of some debate.

Producers of the two programmes each accused the other of copying their idea.

What we do know is this: Well before it even went into production, The Contender has played havoc with the careers and personal lives of the 16 boxers selected to make up its dramatis personae, while its demand on the commitment of the principal backers has had a similarly deleterious effect on the sport as a whole.

The good news is that Stallone stopped making movies. The bad news is that Leonard essentially turned his back on the sport to plunge ahead with the television series.

His promotional company, Sugar Ray Leonard Promotions, collapsed amid internecine squabbles between the boxing legend and his partner and CEO Bjorn Rebney. A host of ESPN boxing dates were abandoned, and several promising fighters under contract to SNL - including Irish featherweight Bernard Dunne - were left in the lurch.

We're more familiar with the two New England boxers selected to participate in the series than with some of the others. Peter Manfredo Jr. is a promising light middleweight from Rhode Island who boasts (or boasted, before The Contender started filming) an undefeated 21-0 record. Jeff Fraza, the New England light-middleweight champion from Haverhill, Massachusetts, was 16-2.

Manfredo hasn't been seen in a ring since May of last year, Fraza since July.

Which isn't to say they haven't fought in that time. Apparently The Contender participants participated in an elimination tournament. All the bouts save the final - which, with a $1 million purse for the winner, will be televised live from Caesars Palace in May - have already taken place. Since the results are a carefully-guarded secret, we have no idea who will be fighting in the million-dollar finale, but we can hazard a guess that it won't be Najai Turpin.

Turpin's official biography as furnished by NBC says that he was robbed at gunpoint of $900 the night before he was informed that he had been selected as one of the Sweet 16 participants in the show. Turpin deemed this to have been a "sign from God." In the opening segment, Turpin is reportedly depicted performing one of Stallone's signature training techniques - running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The Contender was originally slated to get out of the gate around the same time as The Next Great Champ, but production difficulties pushed it back until next month. This was probably better from the network's standpoint, but not so great from that of the boxers. Each of the participants signed a contract agreeing not to fight until the entire series had run its course, meaning that the 14 who didn't make the final cut will have been inactive for a year.

This reality, despite the network's protests to the contrary, may have contributed to Turpin's suicide.

"Fighters want to fight," Turpin's trainer and manager Percy Custus told the boxer's hometown paper, the Philadelphia Daily News. "He was frustrated because he was training for nothing. He had no motivation. That bothered him, but I can't say it was the only thing that was bothering him."

Reports have filtered back that Turpin was also having problems with the mother of his child. Since being voted off the island he had reportedly gone back to his day job, cleaning fish in a restaurant while waiting for the series to run its course. Other sources claim that he hadn't trained in weeks.

But any way you slice it, he was The Contender's first victim.

NBC issued a statement taking note of the boxer's death: "We were deeply saddened to learn of the death. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends as we extend our most sincere condolences during this tragic time."

At the same time, the network insisted that it had no plans to alter the episode (or, not to spoil the suspense, episodes) featuring him. A producer did say that NBC planned to establish a trust fund for Turpin's child, and would make note of his demise by 'dedicating' one of the shows in his honour, rolling a script with his name at the conclusion of that episode.

We'll have to take their word for it, because we don't plan to be watching.