By Miki Turner
Special to Page 3

LOS ANGELES -- Last fall, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Mark Burnett and Sylvester Stallone, creators of NBC's "The Contender," were pretty upset with the folks from Fox for launching "The Next Great Champ," another boxing reality show that was set to hit the air a full two months before the peacock version.

Sly Stallone and Sugar Ray Leonard,
What better trainers than Sugar Ray Leonard and Sly Stallone for a reality boxing show?
As it turned out, "Champ," which was fronted by the affable Oscar De La Hoya, was KOed after only two rounds.

So now, the NBC trio isn't as angry. The original November 2004 start date was postponed, giving the producers more time to fine tune the show. "The Contender," despite the tragic suicide of one of the contestants last month, premiered Monday at 9:30 p.m. ET.

Additionally, NBC will air another special episode on March 10 at 10 p.m. ET. Hosted by six-time world champion Sugar Ray Leonard, the show moves into its regular time slot on Sundays at 8 p.m. ET, starting on March 13. The show's finale will air live at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas on May 24.

The show features 16 aspiring middleweight boxers from various walks of life, who responded to casting calls that NBC held throughout the country. It chronicles their trials and tribulations, and examines the relationships they have with their families, as they strive to realize their championship dreams. They include:

  • Jonathan "Reid Dawg" Reid, 32, husband, father of five, accomplished singer and ex-con from Nashville, Tenn. Record: 34-1, 20 KO.

  • Peter "The Pride of Providence" Manfredo Jr., 24, second-generation fighter with a wife and baby daughter, from Providence, R.I. Record: 21-0, 10 KO.

  • Brent Cooper, 31, personal trainer, singer-songwriter and devout Christian from Hermitage, Tenn. Record: 20-2-2, 15 KO.

  • Ahmed Kaddour, 23, a pretty boy from Houston who is supported by his girlfriend and plans to pursue a career in acting or modeling. Record: 18-0, 9 KO.

  • Anthony Bonsante, 34, single dad who works as a night supervisor at K-Mart in Shakopee, Minn. Record: 24-4, 13 KO.

    QUICK HITS
    Jonathan Reid
    What he's doing during his hiatus: "Just maintaining, trying to stay in top form. I'm always in the gym."

    His "Contender" experience: "The experience has been good simply because people will see Jonathan Reid. We're going to be on TV you don't have to pay for. If you've got a TV you can see NBC."

    What happens if he wins or loses: "Losing really won't mean anything to me. Life will go on. Life right now is good. Winning, of course, would mean a lot to my bank account!"

  • Ishe Smith, 26, devout Christian, husband and father of two from Las Vegas who recently declared bankruptcy. Record: 14-0, 7 KO.

  • Jesse Brinkley, 28, unmarried father of two from Yerington, Nev., who learned to fight by watching "Rocky" movies. Record: 23-1, 16 KO.

  • Joey Gilbert, 28, lawyer, a former NCAA boxing champ from an accomplished family in Reno, Nev. Record: 8-0, 7 KO.

  • Juan De La Rosa, 18, lives with his father, grandmother and three siblings in Harlingen, Texas. Record: 12-0-1, 11 KO.

  • Sergio "The Latin Snake" Mora, 25, works with kids in his East Los Angeles neighborhood when he's not training. Record: 12-0, 3 KO.

  • Alfonso Gomez Jr., 24, Mexican-born fighter who now lives in Tustin, Calif., and only takes orders from his father. Record: 10-2-1, 4 KO.

  • Jeff Fraza, 27, lives with his entire family including parents, siblings, wife and son in Haverhill, Mass. Record: 16-2, 10 KO.

  • Jimmy Lange, 29, managed by his father, trained by Leonard's former trainer in Florida and prays with a priest before every fight. Lives in Great Falls, Va. Record: 24-1-1, 17 KO.

  • Miguel Espino, 24, quiet, intense, culinary expert from a low-income section of North Hollywood, Calif. Record: 9-1-1, 3 KO.

  • Tarick Salmaci, 32, a third-generation fighter, influenced by an early encounter with Muhammad Ali, real estate agent in Detroit. Record: 20-1, 5 KO.

  • Najai Turpin, 23, Philly-born fighter who committed suicide on Feb. 14. Record: 13-1, 9 KO.

    Although the show finished taping late last September, the contestants are still getting paid generous stipends by the network to continue training on their own time. That's a dream situation since they aren't allowed to compete during the long hiatus between final taping and the live finale.

    Contestants on
    Sixteen boxers share their life stories to compete in the final round of "The Contender."
    "It's the American dream without question," says Leonard, who also serves as a mentor to the contestants. "These 16 boxers are placed in the most positive environment. These kids become productive and they have a goal in mind. I think it's a wonderful tribute to boxing because boxing is always portrayed as a negative sport. You will see that the boxers portrayed in a much more positive light."

    But will "The Contender" with all its warmth, fuzziness and positivity KO its Sunday night competition and be a ratings winner for NBC? That's hard to say, but Burnett, who also created "Survivor" and "The Apprentice," is pretty much the undisputed champ when it comes to reality TV.

    "When I began down this road -- and clearly I think I'm capable of making unscripted dramas -- with six-time world champion Ray Leonard and the man who created 'Rocky' and Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of the most important movie executives of all time -- I want to step up and make the most meaningful series for these brave young men," Burnett said.

    "Sly told me to go back and watch 'Rocky' again and this time watch it through the eyes of the writer, which I did and I understood immediately how 'The Contender' should be made. And that is why through the eyes of the [contestants] families, I give you a much bigger perspective of why these young men fight."

    "They aren't thugs, they don't fight in bar rooms, they're professional, experienced boxers."

    Who are, as Gilbert noted, helping NBC create "the biggest living drama you've ever seen."

    QUICK HITS
    Peter Manfredo Jr.
    Why he started boxing: "I really looked up to my father and wanted to be just like him and make him proud of me."

    What he hopes the show will do for his career: "I hope it gets me recognized. Fighters have to sell ourselves. We don't have a union. Plus, it's an opportunity to make some big money, but it's mostly about the exposure."

    What happens if he wins or loses: "If I don't win the money obviously I'd have a loss on my record. But there's no quitting for me. Another opportunity will have to open up."

    That element, accompanied by Burnett's expertise and lessons learned from the demise of "The Next Great Champ," has Stallone optimistic about the show's success.

    "What I learned is that it takes a great deal of work to mount one of these shows and a great deal of money, time, dedication and expertise," Stallone said. "I think that Oscar, being a great fighter, did himself a great disservice by not taking the amount of time necessary to prepare his show."

    "And to get the best people -- we went through a screening process that was pretty extraordinary. [And] we have to say that we think we got the best of the best. Mark Burnett went out there and found [of our 16 fighters] more than half are ranked worldwide. They go from 40th in the world right up to third."

    Among the boxers selected, the unranked Gomez is one of the least experienced. Yet, he still feels like a contender.

    "Being chosen as one of the 16 fighters proves to me that, in fact, I am a contender," Gomez said during a recent press conference for the nation's television critics. "Fighting with [experienced boxers] will measure my ability and you will see the fights."

    And hopefully viewers also will heed what Stallone perceives as the show's mantra.

    "The message would be that opportunity doesn't always quite come along," Stallone said. "But you never know when it's going to happen so you have to try to be prepared, be optimistic ... This is a door that is opening to give a second chapter to many of these young men's lives that maybe wouldn't have happened otherwise."

    Miki Turner covers the fusion of sports and entertainment for Page 3 in L.A. She can be reached at dmiki@aol.com.