By Miki Turner
Special to Page 3
LOS ANGELES NBC touted "The Contender" as the "next great human drama," but it got a little more drama than it bargained for when one of the contestants took his own life Feb. 14.Najai Turpin, a troubled 23-year-old fighter out of Philadelphia, committed suicide, reportedly after a conversation in his car with his longtime girlfriend, Angela Chapple. The tragedy occurred nearly three months after Turpin (13-1) fell to unbeaten Sergio Mora of East Los Angeles in the episode that aired Sunday evening.
Although several of the fighters on this boxing reality show produced by Mark Burnett, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Sylvester Stallone told Page 3 last month that Turpin was a loner struggling with a plethora of personal issues, all were stunned by his suicide.
"I don't know what to think of that because he kept to himself," said Mora, 25, whose victory improved his personal record to 13-0 and helped the West squad go up 4-0 over the East team.
"He slept in a closet and always had this mystique about him. One, no one wanted to fight him because we didn't know nothing about him. Two, he was a slippery fighter when he trained. You know how everyone kind of looks at everyone -- sizing each other up -- he was a real slickster, and he was real short. He was hard to hit and threw a lot of punches -- hundreds of punches, Philadelphia-style.
"Then when I found out he took his life, it was a real shock because he probably had a lot of problems that we didn't know about."
"I'm still not able to really deal with it," added Jonathan Reid, who lost to Jesse Brinkley last week. "We all knew he had had some rough times, but I never thought it would come to this -- not ever."
After he inked his deal with "The Contender," Turpin, who fathered a daughter (now 2 years old) with Chapple, looked as though he was finally going to be in a position to realize his dreams and overcome his past. The oldest of seven kids, Turpin was reared in one of Philly's toughest neighborhoods by a financially strapped single mother. She died when Turpin was 18, forcing him to care and provide for his younger siblings. To make ends meet, he juggled several low-end jobs while continuing to pursue his road out -- boxing.
"He was very devoted to his family," said Peter Manfredo Jr., the first contender to go down in a match against Alfonso Gomez. "That's all he really talked about was his daughter and his family. He loved them."
Yet on the day he should have been celebrating that love, Turpin pumped a bullet into his head. According to published reports in the New York Daily News, Turpin and Chapple had been having a heated discussion over custody of their daughter about 4 a.m. on Valentine's Day. Not long after Chapple left Turpin sitting in his car, Turpin pulled the trigger.
Chapple, however, has disputed the newspaper's claim and the subsequent accusations by Turpin's siblings. Collectively, they have implied that Chapple might have done or said something to push their brother over the edge. Chapple countered the allegations with a written statement conceding that she and Turpin had their problems but saying that, "in our bond we had more love than issues."
The real reason Turpin took his own life might never be known, but it appears it had nothing to do with his loss to Mora or being knocked out of contention for the grand prize of $1 million. Like all of the contenders, Turpin was being paid the $1,500 weekly stipend, and it is quite possible he would have reaped the benefits of having appeared on a network reality show had he not fallen victim to his inner demons.
Fraza TKO'd by sudden illness
Jeff Fraza, 27, of Haverhill, Mass., was forced to withdraw from the competition after he contracted chicken pox.
Fraza, who was a member of the East team, told Page 3 in an exclusive interview that initially he thought he was suffering from the common cold and was treated accordingly by the show's doctors. When he failed to respond to the medications, producers urged him to keep his condition on the down-low, fearing the other contenders would take advantage of Fraza's weakened state.
"It's like sharks coming after blood, they'll come right after you," Fraza said.
But on the night of the Ishe Smith-Ahmed Kaddour fight, Fraza's health worsened. His temperature had soared to 103 degrees, and that pesky rash on his legs began to spread. The next day, he found out he had chicken pox.
"It was tough to deal with," Fraza said. "I came here expecting to win a million dollars and be 'The Contender' champion, and it was taken away from me for reasons out of my hand. I couldn't do anything to stop it."
At least Fraza, unlike his friend Turpin, eventually will fight again.
"He was one of my better friends on the show," Fraza said. "I don't want to sound corny or nothing like that, but he was one of my top five guys on the show. He was on my team, and we got along well. Once you got past his quietness and all that, he opened up and was fun to hang around. He was a real good kid. He loved his daughter and talked about her all the time. I don't know what happened."
Fraza is currently in training at home in Haverhill and is hoping to score some points in the fan favorite poll, which would give him an opportunity to fight in the undercard bout during the show's live finale in Las Vegas on May 24.
"I'm hoping that America just wants to see me fight because I just want to go out there and prove that I am a contender and that I deserved to be there and have a chance at the $1 million. I want to beat one of these guys. I want to show the world that I did deserve a shot at this."
Miki Turner covers the fusion of sports and entertainment for Page 3 in Los Angeles. She can be reached at email@example.com.