When I first heard Sylvester Stallone was backing and hosting The Contender, I laughed. Seriously, come on now, wouldn’t you laugh, too? Stallone played Rocky, he isn’t Rocky. He’s not even a professional boxer, his training limited to what he learned on-the-set of the film and probably the bar brawls he gets in when he goes down to the pub for a drink and the other drinkers who just want to take on “Rocky.”
So, how then, does Sly get off thinking he has the right to be leading boxers into the big show? Ask Mark Burnett, multi-talented brainchild behind The Contender, whose franchise success with Survivor has practically made him the modern creator of reality television; if he’s backing The Contender, surely, he must believe it’s a hit!
Guess what? It’s a hit. Even I’m convinced, and I’m pretty damn cynical when it comes to reality television.
“Random Acts of Courage” began with an overture by Sylvester Stallone and the contenders themselves. Stallone says, “Life is a fight. Everyone gets knocked down. What matters is how fast you get up. This is what this story’s about.” He calls the 16 contenders heroes, whose stories are universal. The contenders are there for one goal, one purpose, to fight live at Caesar’s Palace for $1 million and the chance to break into the big time.
To the song “Iris,” by the Goo Goo Dolls, the candidates are introduced, their stories are told.
Jimmy, Jeff, Juan, Peter, Najai, Brent, Ahmed, Jonathan, Jesse, Sergio, Anthony, Ishe, Alfonso, Miguel, Tarick and Joey come together from all walks of life. The youngest contender just turned 18 years old, one is a European champion who wants to make it big in America, and another is ranked third in the world in the middle-weight division. All of them have families, some have children, most married, others religious; all walks of life are represented by these 16 men who, as Stallone points out, “Welcome you all to an opportunity of a lifetime,” when he comes out to great them at their Southern Californian training ground.
The gym is state of the art, and the contenders all enter – after saying goodbye to their families who have been relocated to Downtown Los Angeles to be there for every step of the show – to wait for the beginning to finally start.
Stallone explains to them how the competition will work. They will be fighting at the middle-weight division (158 lbs.). Each week two will fight, the winner stays and the loser goes home. As Leonard said, “You win, this goes on your record, you lose this goes on your record.” They are then divided, predictably, into a West Coast team and an East Coast team.
The West Coast team consists of Alfonso, Anthony, Joey, Jesse, Ishe, Miguel, Sergio and Tarick; The East Coast team consists of Ahmed, Brent, Jeff, Jimmy, Jonathan, Juan, Najai and Peter. (I found this division to be kind of corny, but in the end, it proved to be valuable, considering both teams seem to be pretty evenly spread. Only time will tell though…)
They are then introduced to Jackie Kallen and Tommy Gallagher; the first a world champion representing manager and the latter a world class trainer who has trained the finest in boxing. Both are at the contenders disposals, where they can talk to about their problems and seek advice. Both Stallone and Leonard stressed to talk to them, learn from there and be better for it.
After the introductions were done, Gallagher gave them a tour of their new home for the duration of their stay. Now, let me tell you, if I could live where these boxers were living when they were just getting a shot, I’d go on The Contender any day. This is Hollywood chic at its finest; it’s very much a modern shindig. Paintings hang from the walls in a large spacious loft-style apartment. There will be two guys per room, East and West separated. “Just treat this as your shot,” Gallagher tells them when he leaves them to settle into their home.
We find out, next, that Alfonso and Ishe – who now share a room – have fought previously. They’d never said two words to one another until then, when they began sharing pictures of their family and talking about their experiences. Other boxers share pictures of their children and families while settling in. Anthony perhaps sums up the attitude each contender needs to have while making friends on the show, and it made me chuckle when he said it, “I can make friends with these guys, but when the time comes to go in their and kick their butts, I can do that.”
There first day of the competition starts with a workout. Each does their individual thing. Punching bags, sparring, jumping rope… its one big melee of everyone being able to see the others train. They can learn their strengths and weaknesses to better use that against them in the ring. However, it’s easy to see from the beginning who is going to be painted as “the bad guy” of the show.
Ishe begins egging on Ahmed while he’s sparring in the ring. He’s upstairs yelling at him as he fights; after the sparring match, Ahmed begins – angrily, I might add – yelling back at him. The whole time, Ishe admits he is just playing psychological games with him, because that’s how he fights. He gets into every corner and crevice of their style to tear them apart. Gallagher tries to calm Ahmed down, telling him not to let Ishe get to him, because we later finds out that Tommy thinks Ahmed could be the best fighter among them with a bit of work.
Ok, up to now, there hadn’t been a commercial break, and let me tell you something, the hype for this show annoys me to no avail. Let the show speak for itself, trust me, this one’s a winner. NBC has interplayed previews to the next segment of the show during commercial breaks. I hope this doesn’t become a weekly occurrence, or else I’m taping it every week, and skipping the segment previews.
We come back to seeing some of the boxers, like Peter, visiting their families while the others eat dinner. Stallone and Leonard come to see them all and see how they’re settling in and immediately the patronage begins! (I’m sorry, I’m no Sly Stallone fan, at all, and these guys kissing his ass just makes me sick!) “They’re film critics. I didn’t know you guys were so talented,” he jibes. Jesse brought up arm wrestling and Sly started pulling his leg by saying he once arm wrestled a guy who drank motor oil and swallowed a cigarette before each match. When Leonard and Stallone leave, they laugh at the gullibility of some of the contenders.
On to the next day, challenge day, for the teams. Under the view of the Hollywood sign, the teams will compete for the right to choose who from their team will box their choice of fighter for the other team in the weekly match. “Nobody has ever given boxers a choice of who they fight,” Stallone tells them, now this is their choice.
Basically, each team has to run on mile up to the top of the Hollywood sign. On the way to the finish line, there are three logs they have to carry with them – the first log they just pick up, the second log they have to untie, and the third log they have to unlock by remembering combinations on highway signs on the path – and the first team with all three logs that crosses the finish line wins. Leonard explains that this challenge is to test their teamwork and ability to concentrate when exhausted in the final round of a fight. “Champions never show signs of quitting,” he reminds them.
And the race begins… West Coast gets ahead early, Ishe leads way above them. Brent beats Ishe to next log, begins untying the log. Some stand around while others work. Ahmed beats everyone to the next log. Both teams begin to walk, tired. Gallagher reminds them to remember the combinations; nobody seems to be paying attention that they need to do that, especially the leaders. East Coast makes it to the last log first; West Coast switches around who’s holding their two logs. Ishe beats Ahmed to unlocking the log, because Ahmed didn’t just forget the combination, he failed to even care about it. East Coast makes it to the final log, Ahmed admits he doesn’t know the numbers, and team member unlocks the combination. West Coast begins walking up the hill, then to a steady jog while East Coast is still trying to catch up. West Coast wins by pulling up their flag first; East Coast is defeated. “You tried, you lost,” Stallone says, “You’re at West’s mercy.”
West Coast comes up with a strategy in the locker room when deciding who is going to fight; they believe by having the least experienced boxer from each time fight, they will weed out the easy targets. At first, they decide that Jeff – the smallest guy in the competition – from the East will face their very own Joey. When Alfonso noted how nervous Joey seemed, he stepped up and said he wanted to fight undefeated (21-0) Peter Manfrado, Jr. While most of the West Coast team doesn’t think this is the best strategy, because Alfonso is clearly the underdog, they let him go for it to prove himself.
Meanwhile, the East Coast is in their locker room discusses why they failed. They all agreed that Ahmed was at fault for getting so far ahead in the mile without memorizing the combination for the final log. What he was thinking, I will never know, because if it wasn’t for him, they would’ve won because of how far ahead they were overall. Peter, however, stresses, “Everything we do here is about learning about something in the ring.”
From here, they go to the gym and West Coast chooses their match. It’ll be Alfonso Gomez versus Peter Manfrado, Jr., which takes everyone – most notably Sly Stallone – by surprise. “No doubt in my mind I can beat him,” Gomez says. “I think he has a lot of heart,” Manfrado, Jr. said of his competition. The gentlemen toed the line, an old boxing tradition we’re reminded of by Stallone’s words.
Peter goes home that night to visit with his family while Alfonso goes down to the ring to visualize winning the fight. Each prepares in their own way.
Three hours prior to the fight, the boys have their weigh-in and pre-match press conference. Alfonso weighs in at 156 ½ pounds, Peter at 158 pounds even. Stallone starts off the conference by saying the choice “caught us all off guard. This is what The Contender is all about.” Peter and Alfonso exchanged mild verbal jabs at one another but things heated up when Ahmed and Ishe began trash talking each other. Ishe called Ahmed out. This is the rivalry of the season.
An hour before the right, we find each contender in their locker room getting ready for the fight in various ways. Families come out to support each boxer. Their trainers wrap their hands, give them last minute advice, and 30 minutes to the fight they zone out; Alfonso shadow sparring and Peter listening to music.
Cut to the arena, where Chuck Norris sits ringside and every seat is booked. The announcer comes on, “Five rounds of middleweight boxing,” and each contender comes out to the theme song music of the show in their respective team colors – Yellow for West Coast and Blue for East Coast – to standing ovations.
Then, the fight begins…
Judges scorecard is announced and its unanimous decision: The winner is West Coast’s Alfonso Gomez. Family, team and trainers storm the ring.
Peter is seen walking back to the locker room as everyone celebrates. “I feel like I let everybody down. Not just myself. My wife, my daughter, my father. All I can hear is my father in my head,” he says dejectedly. His wife and daughter join him and he talks to his wife while in the shower. “This sport is like a fiery burning inside of me and it just feels like it exploded.”
Manfrado, Jr., the first contender to be sent home, then goes back to the gym, hangs up his gloves and leaves with one question on his mind, “Where do I go from here?”
Carpesomediem is an aspiring freelance writer from Lancaster, Pa. who enjoys music, movies and writing about the way the world works; you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org to talk about this week’s episode or anything at all.