The Contender Is Back But Do We Care?

Contender LogoWhen the brass at NBC announced plans to air a boxing reality show back in 2005, emotions where mixed but the majority of fans and media firmly believed that the expose generated by the network giant would go a long way in restoring boxing’s position as a major sport in America once again.  Expectations where high, produced by reality television show savant Mark Burnett, and bolstered by the star power or Sugar Ray Leonard and Sylvester Stallone, the tagline sold to the public was “The Next Great Human Drama”, and it was clear the angle of the show was to cast the fighters as complex beings, fueled by a desire to support their families. 
The Contender was not without controversy, cries of fights circumventing the rules set forth by the California State Athletic Commission by forcing fighters to engage in battle without the required periods of rest along with questions surrounding the fairness of the fighters contracts flew in the face of Burnett and Jeff Wald’s assertion that they were going to change the perception of boxing.  Yet still, when the show aired I, like many I knew, watched each bout religiously.  Sure, there were some atrocities, such as the edited fights, and the “challenges” seemed downright dumb and served little purpose other than to serve as unabashed product placement for the shows sponsors.  But there were genuine moments of good television, seeing the fighters interact with their families was touching and went a long way in humanizing the fighters to those who may not have ever followed boxing before. 

But despite the glossy production and monetary backing of NBC, ratings for the show were less than stellar.  So displeased with the abysmal ratings that the network declined to pick up a second season.  All was not lost as sports network giant ESPN came to the rescue, picking up the second season of the show.  The marriage was successful enough to warrant ESPN picking up a third season of the show but after the third season, a season that I considered pretty good, the sports network declined to pick up the fourth season.
Enter the Versus network.  Still in its infancy, the Versus network has made great strides to became a showcase of boxing.  An exclusive partnership with Top Rank was the networks first step in such a direction, though as is often the case when doing exclusive business with one promoter, we were treated to a bevy of one-sided showcase bouts, with most featuring the boxing version of the Tin Man in Tye Fields.  After the deal with Top Rank expired Versus has been on a tear, showcasing a double header featuring Ricky Hatton and Paulie Malignaggi, a showcase double header that featured Paul Williams and Chris Arreola, and have agreed to air the anticipated cruiserweight title fight pitting Steve Cunningham against Tomasz Adamek.  Now Versus has agreed to air the fourth season of The Contender and while the series keeps chugging along, it is uncertain how much longer the series remains to be relevant. 
And there in lies the question.  Is the Contender relevant?  When the announcement for the fourth season was announced last week, there was barely a whisper.  Do boxing fans simply not care about the series the same way MMA heads flock to Spike TV’s The Ultimate Fighter?  Could be that the fighters themselves have a very low ceiling and as such hardcore fight fans don’t fully embrace them.  After all who wants to root for a fighter that may turn out to be little more than cannon fodder to the upper echelon fighters.  But there are a few examples of fighters participating in the show and becoming a recognizable name within the sport.  Season one has produced the most “stars”, fighters such as Peter Manfredo Jr, Alfonso Gomez, and Sergio Mora all came into our consciousness after participating in the show.  Season two arguably had the least star power, though Steve Forbes has made a nice living fighting in some pretty big fights since losing to Grady Brewer in the season finale.  Season three featured some pretty well respected names, and the season finale featuring Sakio Bika and Jaidon Codringon was a runner up for Fight of the Year last year.  But by in large these fighters have done nothing other than land an occasional big money fight against a superstar only to enter the ring as a sacrificial lamb.  The exception being season one winner Sergio Mora who snatched a junior middleweight title against Vernon Forrest who become the first participant of the Contender to win a title.  Though it should be , Mora lost the title in the immediate rematch. 
Season four is currently filming in Singapore (?) and will feature cruiserweights this time around.¬† Two of the participants have actually challenged for a title, Darnell ‚ÄúDing-A-Ling Man‚Äù Wilson and Rico Hoye, though neither one had their hand raised in their respective title fights.¬† The only other fighters of note, and that is a stretch to say the least, are Felix Cora Jr., and Alfredo Escalera Jr.¬† Other notable differences include a change in in-house trainers.¬† Gone are Buddy McGirt and Pepe Correra, in their stead will be trainers Tommy Brooks and John Bay.¬† Probably the biggest change, aside from the shift in networks, will be the departure of long time host Sugar Ray Leonard who reportedly had a scheduling conflict that prevented him from being on the show.¬† In his stead will be Tony Danza.¬† Yes, you read that correctly Tony Danza of Who‚Äôs The Boss? and Taxi fame will be hosting the new season of the Contender.¬† Danza‚Äôs selection to host the series is not as off-base as it may seem given Danza‚Äôs love of the sport and the fact that the actor fought professionally before being bit by the acting bug.¬† ‚ÄúDangerous‚Äù Tony Danza compiled a respective record of 9-3, 9 KOs before taking the role of “Tony Banta” on Taxi.¬†Tony Danza
Yet it remains to be seen if the Contender will again resonate with the fans.  Personally, I’ll be watching but then again I’m a fan of Flava of Love, so my taste in TV is suspect at best.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board ( He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.