The Contender

You hate reality TV. Since Mark Burnett lit the fuse on that cherry bomb with Survivor in 2000, you’ve been disgusted by all the bottom-feeders these shows produce and the way their seemingly endless money grab has dominated the world’s attention for the last five years. You almost feel sorry for the poor schmucks who humiliate themselves for cash and prizes, but you can’t pity people who make you sick.

I hear you, dude, but none of those issues should keep you from watching and enjoying The Contender. The new unscripted drama from executive producers Burnett, Sylvester Stallone, and DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg is the only reality show I’ve watched that doesn’t degrade its contestants or insult its audience. Burnett and company are promoting The Contender as “the next great human drama,” and believe it or not, it seems the show’s only goal is to offer just that: the compelling stories of 16 middleweight boxers, their families, and the sacrifices they all make in pursuit of “the American Dream.”

The show presents the boxers as men, not mere contestants, often focusing more on their families and what brought them to the competition than on the competition itself. As a result, the tone of The Contender‘s premiere episode shares more with good sports documentaries (say, Hoop Dreams) than with lame sports reality shows (MTV’s Who Got Game?).

The boxers, who range in age from 18 to 34 and hail from all over America, are divided into East and West teams based on their hometowns. The teams train together, which complicates the competition. Normally, fighters don’t see one another spar, but here, they watch every day, giving them the chance to pick up opponents’ strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies. Throughout the training sessions that dominate the episode’s first half-hour, the fighters continually size one another up, keeping their eyes peeled for flaws they might be able to exploit in a future fight. It might not seem like a big deal, but it is, setting a more serious tone than we’re used to seeing on reality shows.

The teams compete in weekly challenges, with the winning team selecting one of their teammates and one of their opponents to square off in the week’s elimination bout. (Stallone notes that boxers have never before been given a choice of whom to fight; while that may be true, Spike’s UFC reality contest The Ultimate Fighter features the same option.) The winner stays, the loser goes home, and the final two will fight live at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas for a $1 million purse and a chance to catapult themselves into boxing stardom.

Though the reward is handsome, the risk is high. The five-round elimination bouts are “the real deal,” professional competition sanctioned by the California Athletic Commission, and as such, the fighters’ wins and losses will go on their professional records. This surprise stipulation seriously raises the stakes for all of the contestants. For undefeated fighters like Ahmed “Babyface” Kuddour (18-0) and Peter Manfredo, Jr. (21-0, #3 in the WBO Junior Middleweight rankings), a loss doesn’t just eliminate them from the competition; it could also knock them out of title contention. On the other hand, for 34-year-old journeyman Anthony Bonsante or unestablished 18-year-old Juan de la Rosa, a string of impressive victories could really separate them from the rank and file of the middleweight division.

That each bout has considerable professional consequences for the fighters helps to bring the contest into the real world. All too often, these shows operate under their own rules, in their own time and space, and their happenings have pretty much no bearing in the outside world. In The Contender, however, everything matters. Every challenge could affect the rest of your career, because if you’re picked and not ready, you could end up with an ugly loss marring your record, and with the high level of competition in the middleweight ranks, you might never get another shot at a big fight.

With big fights come big purses, and the chance to change the lives of your loved ones, which is the theme the premiere episode spends most of its time developing. Sugar Ray Leonard, Stallone’s co-host, reminds the fighters, “Your family is your foundation… [They’re] why you’re doing what you’re doing.” And so we meet the parents, wives, and children these guys struggle to support, and see these loved ones confronting the dangers facing the boxers. The producers arranged for the fighters’ families to move to Los Angeles and live near the contestants’ house. Some of them, like Manfredo’s wife Yamilka, appear in frequent interviews to shed light on the fighters as men outside the ring.

When Stallone says of the fighters, “Their abilities are unique, but their stories are universal. It’s about love, dignity, and courage,” his words sound trite. But witness Manfredo hold his wife and infant daughter in the locker room before a fight, or Sergio Mora talk about boxing as the only way he can make enough money for his 60-year-old mother to retire from her warehouse job, and those words fill out with flesh and blood. The inclusion of the fighters’ families deepens your investment in each of their causes; you’re troubled when the opening bell rings in the first episode’s elimination fight, because you don’t want to see anybody go home.

Ultimately, that’s what separates The Contender from the rest of the herd, particularly Burnett’s previous monster hits, Survivor and The Apprentice. For the first time, I stopped looking at a reality show’s contestants as greedy ciphers out for their 15 minutes and a Miata, and started looking at them as regular human beings with depth and dimension. Sure, that distinction is exactly what Burnett wants and what he hopes will drive The Contender‘s ratings, but that doesn’t make the show any less entertaining; I never felt manipulated, even after it occurred to me that I was.

You can’t deny that Burnett is really good at what he does: identifying themes and storylines viewers will want to watch. In the past, this meant trotting out a bunch of jerks on an island and rehabilitating the brand name of one of the most unlikable businessmen in U.S. history. In this case, though, try as I might, I can’t pin down some dark ulterior motive or even any summarily negative consequences in Burnett’s project. If The Contender totally bombs out (like Fox’s similarly themed Oscar de la Hoya vehicle, The Next Great Champ), nothing really changes; boxing will still be a brief afterthought in sports culture, Stallone will still be a total clown, and there’ll be one more dead reality show in an already saturated market. But if it succeeds, the fighters might experience a boost in drawing power, one of the truly great and historically rich sports in the world will have a public pulse again, and our belief that the underdog can get a fair shake might just be restored.