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Wednesday, May 25, 2005
Updated: May 26, 12:39 PM ET
Knocking out 'The Contender'

By Bill Simmons
Page 2

Whenever fans of about-to-be-canceled shows deluge networks with protest letters, I always think to myself, "Those people need to get a life." If there aren't enough people watching, wasn't that the show's fault? Why keep airing something that can't build an audience? Would you protest a restaurant for dumping buffalo wings from the menu because nobody ordered them?

The Contender
On the line some cash, a truck and a belt coming soon to an eBay site near you.
Well, I'm not sure how this happened ... but I could end up being one of those protestors. For the past few months, my favorite show has been "The Contender," which has been on the ropes (I know, bad boxing pun) with NBC for weeks. In fact, the show could disappear for good unless another network saves the day. Which raises a simple question: How could an entertaining TV show possibly fail? Was it the time slot? Do not enough people like boxing? Are people turned off by reality TV? Usually, I have a pretty good feel for stuff, but this one has me dumbfounded. I know 15 or 20 people who love this show, and they're telling me nobody watches it?

Anyway, there's a good chance that Tuesday night's live finale at Caesar's Palace could be the last "Contender" ever. Which left me no choice – for posterity's sake, I had to keep a running diary. Here's what transpired:

8:00 p.m. – The show starts with a heartwarming montage of various boxers training, then getting choked up as they talk about their families. All right, maybe that's one reason the show is getting canned – even "Jeopardy" isn't this formulaic. If a boxer were single and didn't keep in touch with his family, did that make him ineligible for the show?

8:02 – Few things in life can top Sly Stallone's mumbling through the opening narration as inspiring "Contender" music plays in the background. "Who will have the heart? Who will have the courage? Who will dare to be great?" Great stuff – even better if you're sitting in your living room yelling out Sly-like grunts as he's talking. Errrrrrrrrrrr-ahhhhhhhhhhhh!!! He's right up there with Morgan Freeman and Jim McKay in my Narrator Pantheon.

8:05 – Our play-by-play guy for tonight: Mr. Al Trautwig, who's clearly auditioning for an announcer role in "Rocky 6." Trautwig quickly introduces co-hosts Sly and Sugar Ray Leonard as the crowd explodes. Come on, Sugar, get through this awkwardly rehearsed speech ... come on ... almost there ... yes! Home free.

8:10 – Cliché update through 10 minutes: "I'm a fighter, that's what I do" ... "This is make or break, do or die" ... "It's just a matter of who wants it the most" ... "When he gets in that ring, he's not fighting for him, he's fighting for our family" ... "It doesn't get any bigger than this" ... "No more excuses, time to get it on!"

8:15 – Trautwig seems stunned that so many fans waited outside Caesar's to get into the fight, gushing, "This sold out in five minutes!" Hey Al, have you ever been to Vegas before? It's White Trash Central! You could sell out the Connect Four Championship in five minutes, much less a free boxing match.

The Contender
BREAKING NEWS: Sergio Mora wants to win for his family.
8:17 – Montage time: They're recapping Alfonso Gomez's journey throughout the show. My favorite contestant – he was 15 pounds lighter than anyone else and his dad looked exactly like Gomez's abusive dad in "The White Shadow." They even called him "Mr. Gomez." It was uncanny.

(Speaking of overbearing dads, I'm not sure what Peter Manfredo Sr. is capable of when his son is fighting Sergio Mora in the main event tonight. Is it a bad sign when the fighter's dad is scarier than the actual fighter? He's like a cross between the Great Santini and someone from Johnny Sack's crew.)

8:19 – I don't know about you, but I would be enjoying this show 10 times more if they came back from every commercial with Sly dressed like a different character from one of his old movies. Imagine if he were wearing a black leather jacket and chewing on a toothpick like the guy from "Cobra" right now? All right, maybe not.

8:20 – Now they're recapping the journey of Jesse Brinkley, Alfonso's opponent in the consolation match. Strange performance all season by him – of everybody, he seemed like the one guy who didn't care whether he won or lost, like he was more interested in being funny behind the scenes so NBC would give him his own crappy Thursday-night sitcom called "Jesse." And I think that sitcom already happened, so he's out of luck.

8:21 – Sugar Ray successfully uses the word "tenacious."

8:23 – More from Sugar Ray: "If you looked up Jesse Brinkley in the dictionary, it would say 'Tough as hell.'"

(Ummmm ... what? They have three-word phrases in the dictionary? And you wonder why I'm going to miss this show.)

8:25 – Time for our first fight: Gomez vs. Brinkley, neither of whom looks 1/10th as nervous as Bucks GM Larry Harris after winning the NBA draft lottery tonight. For some reason, Jesse's little daughter is sitting ringside and crying hysterically – not since Dusty Baker's kid was nearly trampled by J.T. Snow in the 2002 World Series has a little kid looked more out of place at a major sporting event.

8:27 – Round 1 begins ... and yes, Sly and Sugar are providing the color commentary. Between this and Tom Cruise's surreal appearance on "Oprah" shattering the Unintentional Comedy Scale as we know it, I feel like Terence Mann walking on Ray Kinsella's baseball field for the first time. Is this heaven? I'm telling you, if Gus Johnson were doing the play-by-play, I'd be done. You could put a fork in me.

The Contender
BREAKING NEWS: No, no ... Peter Manfredo wants to win for HIS family.
8:30 – Round 1 ends with Gomez (a huge underdog) and the much bigger Brinkley exchanging punches after the bell, followed by Mrs. Brinkley practically hurling her sobbing daughter on the ground so she can give her husband a standing O. Maybe it's a good thing Gus Johnson isn't here – he would have already gone into cardiac arrest.

8:35 – If you looked up Sugar Ray Leonard in the dictionary, it would say "Tough time speaking."

8:37 – Furious action in Round 3 as we're treated to this exchange:

– Sugar Ray: "Look at Alfonso."

– Sly: "Alfonso is taking no back step!"

– Sugar Ray: "No back step whatsoever!"

8:40 – I just rewound the TiVo three times to decipher something Sly just said – this TiVo is taking no back step whatsoever. For the life of me, I couldn't figure it out. Is it possible that Sly is punch-drunk just from playing a boxer? Has that ever happened before?

8:41 – Heading into the fifth and final round, I have the same scorecard as Sly and Sugar: three for Gomez, one for Brinkley (who's fading fast and looks like he spent last night sucking down Marlboro Reds at a $25 blackjack table at Caesar's). Honestly, I don't care who wins as long as we don't have to see another shot of Mrs. Brinkley shrieking "Come onnnnnnnnnnnn!!!!!" like some sort of crazed wildebeest. Is there a way to block that on my TiVo?

8:43 – With Gomez prematurely celebrating at the final bell, Brinkley landed his best punch – an absolute haymaker that buckled Gomez's knees. Too little, too late. Gomez wins a unanimous decision as well as $200,000 and a brand new Toyota Tacoma (which should come in handy in East L.A., the perfect place for an off-road vehicle). Meanwhile, Sugar Ray just used the word "incredible" for the fourth time in 20 minutes.

8:50 – Now they're recapping the journey of Manfredo Jr., whose nickname is "The Pride of Providence." Ever notice that the "Pride of ... " gimmick only applies to places that you would never want to visit? You never hear someone called "The Pride of Nantucket" or "The Pride of Rome," do you?

8:53 – After we see Sergio Mora (Manfredo's opponent), we get this exchange:

– Trautwig: "Sergio getting ready live in the locker room, how important are those moments, Sugar?"

– Sugar Ray: "Very much so ... stay focused, have tunnel vision and do your job."

– Sly: (Stunned silence, afraid to add anything.)

The Contender
Where was the Sly-Sugar Ray fight at the end a la Rocky III?
8:54 – Cliché update through the first hour: "He may be a little man, but he's got the biggest heart" ... "He's willing to fight anyone at any time" ... "That liver shot will knock you into the next 15 minutes" ... "He's still throwing caution to the wind!" ... "You can have big muscles, but a bigger heart is more important."

8:57 – Sly asks Gomez if he would consider a rematch with Jesse. "Absolutely," Gomez says. Excellent – should they charge $39.95 or $49.95 for the Brinkley-Gomez II pay-per-view? Screw it, let's go for $59.95.

8:59 – As we edge closer to the main event, here's the burning question: Should I root for the guy who's doing it for his family, or should I root for the guy who's doing it for his family? I can't decide.

9:04 – More family/behind-the-scenes filler, highlighted by Mora (an avid reader) comparing his situation to Santiago in "The Alchemist," adding, "He went through all of the bad, then he found out that his treasure was inside him." That could have been the deepest moment in the history of reality TV. Yes, I'm rooting for him.

9:06 – A list of celebs seen in the audience so far: Eddie Murphy, Brooke Burke, James Caan, Cuba Gooding, Marvin Hagler, Cameron Diaz, Justin Timberlake, James Brolin and the immortal Hulk Hogan. What, is Dennis Haysbert running late? And where are Burt Young and Mr. T? Are they caught in traffic?

9:09 – One more question: Why couldn't Frank Stallone have sung the national anthem tonight? Who would have been against this? I can't think of a single person I know. Not one.

9:13 – Seriously, it's almost like the producers are screaming in Trautwig's ear, "Talk more about the families, you're slacking again! Bring up that their mothers might never have to work another day! Come on! We will absolutely dump you for Barry Tompkins if you don't pick it up! He's right backstage! We're not kidding!"

9:15 – As we prepare for Round 1, something just dawned on me: What happens if there's an early knockout? How will NBC kill time for the last half-hour? I vote for Tommy Morrison showing up out of nowhere and challenging Sly to a street fight.

9:17 – One minute into the first round, Sly decides, "This really defines mano mano." Needless to say, I'm having a fantastic time.

9:19 – I'm giving Round 1 to "The Latin Snake" (Mora), if only because it's 9:19 and I still haven't mentioned that his nickname is "The Latin Snake." By the way, this has to be the best and most honest way to end a reality-TV show, right? Just two guys fighting for all the marbles? How can you top this? Tell me again, why is this show getting knocked off the air?

The Contender
Forget the other announcers, where was Stu Nahan?
9:22 – Solid Round 2 action capped off by Manfredo nailing Mora after the bell (just as NBC headed to commercial so we couldn't see what happened). Regardless, I'm giving that round to the Pride of Providence. Which reminds me, I googled it during a commercial – Manfredo's competition for the "Pride of Providence" title includes George Cowan (Providence native who wrote "Yankee Doodle Dandy"), Janeane Garofalo (grew up in New Jersey but attended Providence College), Richard Hatch from "Survivor" and the Sports Gal's friend Veronica. In other words, Peter Manfredo Jr. really could be the "Pride of Providence." They weren't kidding.

9:27 – We're not even halfway through Round 3 and Sly is already talking about Gomez fighting the winner, followed by the winner of that fight getting the loser of this fight ... I can't even follow this. I mean, why would we want to see a rematch of a fight that hasn't even gotten going yet? We might have to shut Sly's mike off.

9:31 – Mora ends the fourth with a tremendous flurry (shades of Sugar Ray against Hagler). Tough fight to call, but I would say Mora is up three rounds to one (and only because Manfredo has been forcing the action but never lands anything substantial). Where's Harold Lederman when you need him?

9:35 – Best moment of the fight: Sergio giving a "watch this" wave to Manfredo's corner, then pummeling Manfredo with a flurry as Sly screams "Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh!" We were one more second of taunting away from Manfredo's dad pulling a William Ligue Jr. and rushing the ring. Not only has Mora taken control of the fight, but this is one of the more entertaining in-ring performances I've seen in awhile.

(Meanwhile, NBC execs breathe a sigh of relief – no worries about having to fill this final half-hour with outtakes and bloopers from "Las Vegas.")

9:37 – Heading into Round 6, we get this exchange:

– Trautwig: "How do you have it, Sly?"

– Stallone: "I'll tell ya, I really can't ... uh ... it's almost to me ... impossible to judge."

(Summed up my sentiments exactly.)

9:39 – Sly, unedited: "AWWWWWW, that blood is pouring down the face now ... aw, that cut is wide ... AWWWWWWWW, beautiful uppercut! ... AWWWWWW ... I'll tell you what, I could watch this fight over and over again, there's gotta be a rematch ... AWWWWWWWWW!"

The Contender
Sergio takes the title in the end and tomorrow returns to the anonymity that is boxing.
9:41 – Heading into the seventh and final round (did I mention this was a fantastic fight?), Trautwig brings up the possibility of a draw for the first time – which would be right up there with Jen Scheft deciding against picking either bachelor as the weirdest ending to a reality-TV season ever. In fact, I am now rooting for this.

9:41 – Whoops, Trautwig just said that there would be a bonus eighth round in case of a draw. Good news for my buddy Sal's big reality-TV gambling parlay: Manfredo with Bo Bice (even money). Seriously, when you're wagering on Bo Bice, it's time to re-evaluate things.

9:42 – As Mora keeps landing shots, here's an unedited dose of Sly and Sugar:

– Sly: "Ohhhhhhhhhhhh!"

– Sugar: "Look at those shots!"

– Sly & Sugar: "Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!"

– Sly: "Ohhhhhhhh!"

– Sugar: "Look at th- ... unbelievable!"

9:44 – Very good ending: Manfredo inexplicably raising his arms in the last 10 seconds, followed by an enraged Mora peppering him with shots, then the bell sounding and Mora staring at him defiantly as the referee helps the Pride of Providence back to his corner. The lesson, as always: Don't raise your arms in the ring against someone who's kicking your rear end.

(Note: My unofficial scorecard has Mora winning five rounds to two. But since I was polishing off four Rice Krispie treats over the last three rounds, I'm probably the wrong guy to ask.)

9:46 – You're not gonna believe this, but Trautwig just brought up the fact that Sergio Mora's mother might never work another day in her life. I think they're officially electro-shocking him every time five minutes passes and he forgets to mention this.

9:49 – The judges' scorecards: 68-65, 69-64 and 70-63, all for the man they call "The Latin Snake" ... Sergio Mora! Could have sworn the fight was closer, but whatever. The right guy won. Sad moment as we see Manfredo slump in his corner in despair. I can't remember being more attached to two fighters in the same fight. Yes, you could say that this show did its job – it made me care about people who were hitting each other in the face. Not even the "Real World/Road Rules Challenge" could accomplish that.

9:50 – Sergio got his very own "Contender" championship belt – hopefully, we won't be seeing that thing on eBay in about five months. He also received a brand new Toyota Tacoma (now he can drag race Gomez on the off-roads of East L.A.) as well as the cover photo of Ring Magazine and an awkward embrace from Sly Stallone. Sadly, Manfredo's father probably still looks like he wants to strike a deal with Paulie Walnuts to have that Toyota Tacoma blown up within the next two weeks.

(Speaking of Manfredo, explain to me why we spent the entire season investing ourselves in these guys ... and then Manfredo loses and they never interview him or really even show him. Apparently, NBC quit on this show 10 minutes early.)

9:54 – Trautwig wraps things up by saying, "For the die-hard 'Contender' fans out there, know this – these extraordinary fighters are not done. You'll have the chance to see them in action again. Log into contender.yahoo.com to get a Yahoo alert for more details."

(Just when I thought I was out, they PULLLLLLLLL me back in! I'm holding off on that protest letter until further notice.)

Final Grade for "The Contender" Final: B-plus
Final Grade for the season: A-minus.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.