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Burnett scores a knockout

The reality show champ comes through again with The Contender, which shows the real deal in the ring, pro boxers say.

Published March 7, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - The champ had just finished six hard rounds of sparring. It was time to cool down. Sweat dripping from his body, he began jumping rope.

"Turn that back on," he said, nodding to a television on top of a refrigerator in the corner of the boxing gym.

The concrete walls around him were festooned with old fight posters. The whap-whap-whap of the rope on the mat was interrupted only by the ring of a bell at three-minute intervals.

His nod to the television was a surprise.

Jeff "Left Hook" Lacy, IBF super-middleweight champion, had only agreed to join trainer Dan Birmingham in watching a little of the new reality show The Contender, which pits 16 unheralded middleweight fighters in a quest for $1-million.

Birmingham hadn't promised they would watch the entire episode. Time was tight. Lacy had Saturday night's title defense looming (which he would win by TKO in the seventh round), and Birmingham juggles two champions, Lacy and Ronald "Winky" Wright, in addition to running a gym, minding his house-painting business and family responsibilities.

Halfway through a tape of the first show, it was time to work, and Birmingham turned off the set.

Lacy put on gloves, and for six three-minute rounds he circled the ring, trading hard blows with his sparring partner, professional boxer Carlos DeLeon.

Afterward, Lacy didn't have to watch the rest of the The Contender. It was never suggested that he would. But he wanted to see more.

"Turn that back on."

Pro boxers like this reality show, the latest by Mark Burnett.

As the episode reached its climax and two of the contestants fought, Birmingham, Lacy, DeLeon and his trainer, Victor Montenec, were hooked.

"Any channel would buy that fight," Lacy said. "That is a good fight."

"Good body work," Birmingham commented as fighter Alfonso Gomez raked his opponent. "He's got his distance and timing down. These are good fighters."

The group groaned when a heavy shot landed. They started to take sides, favoring Gomez. And without warning, the outcome of a five-round bout on a reality TV show started to matter.

That's not to say it's all real. Burnett's stamp is all over The Contender, and the show feels a lot like his other hits, The Apprentice and Survivor.

Hosted by retired boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard and actor Sylvester Stallone of Rocky fame, the show pits two teams of eight fighters against each other. At the end of each episode, a fighter from each team competes in a five-round elimination bout. When it's down to two, a live finale in May at Caesars Palace will determine the winner.

There's clever editing and plenty of storytelling throughout to hook viewers emotionally, although it remains to be seen if a reality show can draw a large enough audience with women serving only minor roles as girlfriends and wives.

Lacy could tell by the thud of the punches in the fight scene that the sound of the blows had been amplified for effect. The crowd noise, too. And he noticed the music pumped into the background.

Stallone is an actor, noted Birmingham, who fought 42 times as a professional and has been training fighters for 27 years. One Stallone line about "an old fighter's tradition" of toeing a line on the floor to challenge an opponent drew a smile from the trainer. Birmingham has been around a while, but this was new to him.

Then there's the set-up news conference before the fight, the luxury apartment the fighters share, and Burnett's addiction to product placement.

Still, there's something about this show.

Glancing at a list of the fighters, Birmingham - the 2004 Boxing Writers Association of America trainer of the year - raised his eyebrows. There are some good names in the mix. Not quite a list of the division's elite, but close, he said.

Ahmed "Babyface" Kaddour came in undefeated with 18 wins. Ishe Smith, another undefeated fighter, has a solid reputation. None came in with a losing record, and all are veterans.

Throw in a million bucks, and there will be fireworks, Lacy said. That's a lot of money, even for Lacy.

Birmingham and Lacy both saw - and lost interest in - Fox's bid last year to beat Burnett to the punch with a boxing reality show. The Next Great Champ was exiled to the network's regional sports channels after four episodes.

Birmingham said the fighters in that batch weren't top-notch. Lacy added there wasn't much of a prize - a contract with a promoter and a shot at a lightly regarded sanctioning body's title.

"What makes this a real fight is that prize money," Lacy said, referring to Contender. "To a lot of these guys, that's what they need, that's what they want, to take care of their families. That money's more important than a title."

Lacy, who fought his way to stardom after more than 200 amateur bouts and a spot on the 2000 U.S. Olympic Boxing Team, said The Contender also could do wonders for the selected fighters, even if they don't win. The sport is full of good fighters mismanaged into anonymity or denied good fights by promoters.

But there are no guarantees. After the series was taped, but before the premiere, one of the fighters, 23-year-old Najai Turpin, committed suicide in February in Philadelphia. Producers said the show will go on. Turpin appears briefly in the first episode, described by Stallone as "a tough-punching street kid from Philadelphia, fighting for a better life for his family."

"It's hard for fighters," Lacy said. "It's like a needle in a haystack. You don't get seen, you end up fighting local fights, never on TV, and that's it."

And most never make the millions a world champion makes.

The Contender could be a ticket for someone, Lacy said.

Birmingham said anything is possible. The fighters on the show have promise. One will have $1-million when it's over, and maybe someone will notice.

"They did a good job on this one," Birmingham said.

"This could be another American Idol," Lacy said.

Even better: The losers get punched in the head.

-- Chase Squires can be reached at 727 893-8739 or


The Contender, a reality show produced by Mark Burnett and hosted by Sylvester Stallone and Sugar Ray Leonard, premieres tonight from 9:30 to 11 on WFLA-Ch. 8.

[Last modified March 7, 2005, 06:54:02]

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