Friday, March 11, 2005

They Call It The Sweet Science

Boxing, together with Wrestling and Running is one of the most ancient of Man's sports. The ancient Olympics featured a form of Boxing, although instead of gloves the fighters wrapped their hands in leather thongs called himantes, and unlike today there were no rounds and few rules. The fight continued until one man was knocked out or signaled his submission. It was nothing compared to the Pankration though, which only barred biting and gouging of the eyes nose and mouth. Despite the addition of gloves and rules intended to civilize the sport, Boxing remains one of the most primal and visceral of contests, which is why it attracts us and repels us at the same time.

Within the context of the history of Television, Boxing is equally ancient. Although the first scheduled weekly boxing matches on TV appear in the schedules for NBC, CBS and the Dumont Network in 1948 (there were a total of four boxing shows on the three networks in 1948), NBC began airing the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports in 1946, and while the name implies a variety of events, in practice the show was boxing twice a week. Weekly matches continued to be a staple of network prime-time schedules throughout the 1950s with the last weekly show disappearing from ABC in 1964. Boxing continued to be a staple of Saturday afternoons on shows like Wide World of Sports much longer. Championship fights, particularly heavyweight championships were amongst the first "pay-per-view" offerings, although in the very early days this consisted of going to a theatre and watching the television signal projected on a movie screen, and hoping that the feed didn't go out during the fight. The last heavyweight championship fight (or championship in any weight class for that matter) that I can remember on network TV was the second Ali-Spinks fight where Muhammed Ali won the heavyweight championship for an unprecedented third time by defeating Leon Spinks, the man who had take the title from him a few months before. Boxing hasn't abandoned television but has simply moved to cable and pay-per-view, a product of the greed and corruption of promoters, from Don King on down.

Into this situation comes The Contender, a new Mark Burnett show featuring Sylvester Stallone and Sugar Ray Leonard. The show brings together a group of 16 middleweight fighters in a tournament format with a prize of $1,000,000 at the end of the line. These fighters are all solid pros with good records, but guys who aren't ranked in the top 15 in the Middleweight or Super-Middleweight classes. Also seen - featured is too strong a word for it - is trainer Tommy Gallagher who interacts a lot with the fighters on a day to day basis, and boxing manager Jackie Kallen, who was played by Meg Ryan in the movie Against The Ropes. The show, which was intended to regain some respect for boxing - a sport mired in greed and corruption and a general sense that maybe its time has passed - suffered a blow when one of the prospects committed suicide. Najai Turpin killed himself. According to his manager, Turpin was despondent because he could not take any more bouts until the finale of the series aired.

Being a Mark Burnett show, the focus isn't as much on boxing as it is on interpersonal relationships. We see the boxers training. We see the boxers with their families, who have been brought out to California to be near the fighters, and of course to allow us to sympathize with them. We see the boxers trash talking each other, sometimes within their own "teams". That of course is another "Burnett Touch". The fighters are split into two teams based on their birth place/residence - East and West. The teams live in separate compounds and compete in various competitions loosely based on various types of boxing training. In the episode I saw the boxers had to run from the field of the Rose Bowl to a group of flags at the top of the stands and then carry a flag of their "colour" (East is Blue, West is Yellow) back down to the field, then go back for another flag. When they had brought down all the flags of their colour they would take a puzzle piece that was wrapped around the staff of each flag and attempt to put them in the proper order. The team that won the competition was able to decide which of their team members would box in the next fight and he would be able to choose who his opponent would be. The loser of the fight would be sent home, the winner would go through to the next round and wouldn't have to fight until all of the other members of his team had been in the ring. In addition his team would get a "reward" in the next episode. In the episode I saw the reward was a chance to spend some time with George Foreman.

This show isn't very good for a lot of reasons. Jackie Kallen says so little that not only didn't I know who she was, when I found out I started to wonder if Meg Ryan had appeared in a silent movie when she made Against The Ropes. The format didn't work for me either. Putting the boxers in teams doesn't really work because boxers are on the whole loners who are mostly focused on themselves; why should they since boxing isn't a teams sport. While there isn't an "I" in Team, there are the components to make "me". In the episode I saw, George Foreman gave the West Team a pep talk which included the advice "plan your work and work your plan". One of the fighters, Ishe, took this to mean "plan his work and work his plan" not his teams plan. He alienated the rest of the group when, despite all of the trash talk he had directed against a fighter on the East team he didn't volunteer to go into the ring. He also got into a confrontation with the West team member who was fighting that night and openly wished the Eastern opponent that the man from his team picked the best of luck. The family component really didn't work for me either. Having them present was designed to build sympathy for the boxers but it also tended to telegraph which fighters would be fighting at the end of the episode even before the competition to decide which team would choose and who would be chosen. Viewers knew it already. The families can also be a distraction, both for the fighters and the audience. One fighter had his pregnant wife (who I swear looked as if she was about ready to either give birth or pop like an over-inflated balloon) and four kids, who irritated the boxer on the night before the big match. The other fighter, who didn't get nearly as much screen time (was that a clue as to who would be around longer? mmmm could be) had his girlfriend and two small children.

About the best thing about The Contender was the boxing. At this point the fights are five rounds, not particularly gruelling for guys used to going 12 or 15. We see the fighters in their dressing rooms preparing as the crowd - supposedly full of celebrities like Tony Danza, James Caan and the guy who played Pauly in the Rocky movies took their seats. We see the families - the wife with four and 9/9ths kids (I swear I thought she was going to drop that baby during the match), and the girlfriend with son in (I swear) a white tuxedo and daughter in a fairy princess costume accessorized with sippy cup who didn't understand why that man was hitting her daddy - and the "team" members. And of course there's Sly, Sugar Ray, Tommy and Silent Jackie. What there isn't, is an announcer. We see the fighters fight, but all of the commentary was supplied by the faces of Leonard and Stallone and the words of the "team" and corner people. Although they often had to be subtitled to be heard over the swelling strains of the overly dramatic music and undoubtedly enhanced "cheering throng", this seemed to be an effective way to present a boxing match, about as up close and personal as you can possibly get. It's a pity it's not a way that a live boxing match could be presented since as often as not commentators get in the way of the action.

The Contender is an interesting failure but a failure nonetheless. For a reality show it comes across as forced and almost too unreal, not natural enough. Me? I'll stick with The Amazing Race or even Survivor, and give this a pass when it comes on this Sunday. This one example of mid-season spackle that I don't think will stick around after it finishes its run.

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