3. Likable hosts
You already know how I feel about Sly Stallone remember, I'm the same guy who owns "Tango and Cash" and "Daylight" on DVD. Sly could host a Grilled Cheese Sandwich Contest on the Food Network and I would watch every week. No celebrity has been as alternately cheesy, hysterical, likable, ludicrous, inspiring, laughable and endearing ... sometimes even all at once.
But even I wasn't prepared for his jaw-dropping performance on "The Contender," which ranks right up there with the most enjoyably ridiculous work of his career. (As I wrote in a mailbag two weeks ago, the scene when Sly was "randomly" sparring in his jeans could have been the funniest moment in reality TV history.) His presence never stops pushing things to another level, especially during the fight scenes, when he bobs and weaves in his seat (like a real fighter would) and screams out stuff like "He's trying to steal the round!" or "He's getting tired up there!" Look, I don't care what happens with this show, as long as Sly starts getting some pay-per-view work. Stick him at the same broadcast table as Larry Merchant and I would self-combust.
(One more thing I love about Sly: When he's waiting for the losing boxer in the darkened runway after the fight, when he shows some genuine empathy before pulling the "David Stern at the NBA draft" routine one last handshake, a turn toward the cameras and then a barely-perceptible nudge toward the exits. That kills me. Actually, everything he does kills me.)
And then there's Sugar Ray Leonard, who narrowly edges Dave Mirra as the most overmatched host in reality history. Fortunately, he knows it and doesn't give a crap even when he's reading rules off cue cards, he does it with "We'll just dub the audio in the edit bay later" intensity. But what Ray brings to the table along with Sly is the perfect mix of celebrity, comedy and concern. Both of them actually make you feel like they care about these guys, unlike every other reality host. (You think Trump gives a crap about the people on that show?) You couldn't ask for much more from either guy, with the possible exception of their reenacting Apollo and Rocky's awkward beach hug during the closing credits.
4. The celebrity cameos
Put it this way: If you're a washed-up actor from the '70s and '80s and you HAVEN'T been invited to sit ringside for a "Contender" taping, it's probably time to re-evaluate things.
5. The reinvention of boxing
In case you haven't seen the show, they edit the matches into a few action-packed minutes giving them leeway to add a pounding soundtrack, cuts to the crowd, reactions of family members and slow-motion punches so it plays like a scene from a boxing movie. Sure, it's impossible to get a feel for the ebb and flow of the fight. But I'm not sure you need it. With the way they edit these matches, they could turn the Ruiz-Holyfield trilogy into a replica of the three Gatti-Ward fights.
Which raises another question: Could this be the show that gets casual fans into boxing again? Between sleazy promoters, shaky judging decisions, pricey pay-per-views, all the different championship belts, the lack of personable fighters and everything else, Americans don't have a connection with boxing the way they once did. Most sports fans wouldn't recognize Bernard Hopkins if he were sitting on their laps, and he was probably the defining fighter of the past decade. When was the last time the sport roped in someone like the Sports Gal, who was crying by the end of the Najai Turpin episode last week? See, that's the thing about boxing since there's no structure to the sport, younger fighters don't get marketed properly, if they get marketed at all, so we never develop a connection to them. The sad reality of this show is that some of these boxers will end up being more famous (in the short-term) than Jermain Taylor, the best fighter in that division other than Hopkins.