The Contender – Recap – Episode 1

A hearty hello to you all,

Name’s Mike Sage, and you’ll soon come to know me as a Survivor guru that aspires to one day challenge Murtz Jaffer for his castaway throne. I’m partial to screenwriting, hosting murder mysteries, playing RPG videogaming, breaking into abandoned buildings and shitdisturbing on Ryerson University campus. And oh, to any American willing to marry me so that I can apply to Survivor with a US citizenship, I’m currently accepting applications.

So I’m serving up the recap for the first episode of Mark Burnett’s next big reality gamble, the Contender. Hosted by pretty-much EX-actor Sylvester Stallone and with an all-male cast free of gender-bending sexual tension, will this really be a hit? The Survivor casting great claims it is so I guess you can be the judge. Here’s my first, very objective, play-by-play of the Contender:

Live update: The Contender

16 Families, $1million dollar prize. Who will you root for?

We open with clips and montages more saptacular than the walks of memory we all know and love from Survivor. Beautiful cinematography highlights some shadowboxing, slow-mo running through the ghettos (to raise money for the fams)

This is intercut with classy quotes by Sylvester Stallone like what matters is “how fast you get up” and “who will dare to be great?” and “their abilities are unique but their stories universal.”

Contestants include a navy lieutenant’s boy, the cocky European, some down-to-earth farme’s boys and about fourteen family men.

The sap train continues with some boxers claiming they’re fighting to stop their moms from having to work and bring wealth and glory to the family bloodlines. Yes you can roll your eyes. I was quite a bit.

As gourmet cheese Goo Goo Dolls plays overtop the family men pledge again and again to fight for who else, but “the family”, all eventually questing for a fight—live at Caesars’ Palace for a million dollars—which in the end, will support, the family. If cutthroat selfish assholes were the contestants you were hoping for, this is not your reality tv show.

There is a montage that includes a priceless shot of a family man doing pushups with the kids on the back, and the usual whipper-snapper punching bag routines. Now you can cue the quality Theme Song (and this I mean with sincere praise: this one’s upbeat, rousing and as symbolically fitting as the Apprentice’s). The hosts are named first: SLY & Sugar Ray (which I have no idea why) followed in order by Jimmy, Jeff, Juan, Peter, Najai, Brent, Ahmed, Jonathan, Jesse, Sergio, Anthony, Ishe, Alfonso, Miguel, Tarick, Joey, and trainer Tommy.

Six-time champ Sugar Ray Leonard is introduced as the other host as Sylvester promises all the men comfortable living but grueling challenge over the next few months of competition. Sylvester narrates an introduction of our hopefully colorful stereotypes: including Brent Cooper, a hot farme’s boy (with “male model good looks” and “5,000-watt smile” according to NBC; I wholeheartedly disagree), family man number ONE Najai, Jeff Fraser, Boston professional who wants to demonstrate that “he can”, Sergio, the east LA “Latin snake,” Joey, the undefeated college law school boy, Alfonso, Mexican dude with a whopping skill in TWO languages under his belt, Jimmy Lang the pretty Catholic (but not to be mistaken with born-again Christian), Miguel, family man TWO and specifically a single dad who’s all about “providing better life for the kids”, Ishe from Las Vegas who is disillusioned by the lack of integrity in boxing today, and Peter, ranked 3rd in the world, but who will risk his title for the glory (of reality television), Juan, the youngest at 18, the cutest being Jesse, a hardhitting farmboy & tattooed hottie biker. Finally there are Ahmed (and learn his name well, he’s going to be a a reality all-star) from “Europe.” (Oh America) and family man number THREE (!!) Jonathan, another wanting to raise the funds for the ol’ kids.

All contestants stand in dramatic suspense as they size each other up, intimidated and anxious, waiting for “icon” (washup) Sylvester, and “legend” (looking-for-work) Sugar Ray to say something big and meaningful.

Sylvester starts off with Joe Rogan appeal (at least in the short and stocky, wearing over-sized sweaters department), but he loses it by not shutting up about a shot at the glory.

Here’s the game-show rundown: each week, two fighters will duke it out. The winner will stay on the island and the loser goes home (in shame) to his conveniently located family. There will be 5 rounds for each fight (so don’t be expecting HBO bloody KOs). AND fights go ON THE RECORD, so as the wise Sugar Ray makes it clear, “If you blow it, you blew it”.

Taking inspiration from the rap wars (and cue the hip hop soundtrack), fighters are split into the EAST (AKA the Blue, or for all intents and purposes, Biggy) and the WEST (AKA the Yellow, basically Tupac)
So after Sylvester mentions the relevant point that he wants to borrow Ahmed’s jacket, he blabs on about how the journey will not to be taken alone, that the “FAMILIES” (for those that have them) will be transported to cheerlead along the way (because apparently NBC could not attain a full free audience for the fights).

What’s going to determine who’s going to win you ask? Well Sugar Ray (again with the heartfelt poetics) thrusts his bony, unpolished fingers at the Heart and Brain (which for the uneducated means “guts” and “smarts”). We also meet Tommy Gallagher, the soon-to-be Raid-class irritant known as “the trainer”, and the never-again-seen girl manager, who’s personality must not have been as colorful as her awesome frilly shirt.

Another praise-fest of the respective legends ensues before they check out the swank living quarters borrowed temporarily off the set of Big Brother.

EAST and WEST separate into opposite ends of the house with 2-per-room before the trainer takes off.

Next contestants like Ishe and Anthony show pics of families (giving you prime time to check what’s going on with Elisha Cuthbert and the bunch over on Fox).

The first big event is the “Workout” down stairs. It’s the first thing of the day and Jonathan is already intimidated (do I smell jellyfish?).

Next we have a slow-paced montage of Ring Action, which highlights the daily training regime, with such classics as jumping rope, speed-bagging, and shadowboxing, all of which you’ve seen a million times better in real boxing movies.

The first and certainly not last sign of locker-room brawls begins with “Boston punk” Jeff initiating some mild-mannered ribbing among the others.

We get a taste of cocky arrogance as Peter Manfredo lets us know that he can box and dance and that’s why he’s 21 and 0! Too bad his washable rainbow Crayola tattoo of his own name betrays his “legendary” heritage.

Wowsers! Ishe knocks out his nameless sparring partner while Alfonso makes it clear that he wants to win to pay the bills and Sylvester and Tommy gossip about the arrogance of Ahmed.

After the break, the competitiveness goes full-circle, as players boast and flex.

In come the families. Pete’s daughter apparently wants to see Micky Mouse. Yamilka is the wife (re: not bad for hotness) and tells us they play wonderfully together. He does work and school til 9:30 and doesn’t get to tuck his daughter into bed. “Daddy’s gonna knock em out” claims the wise little girl. INSIDER alert! Too much focus on Peter means he’ll soon have PLENTY of quality time to spend with his family. So, Character Interest Factor? Peter is a bland family man who’ll be ousted by the devious-minded competition (assuming they exist).

Next we focus on the lunch time lounging post-training. Sylvester comes in and they joke about Rambo and Rocky movies. Jesse watched the Rocky movies and thought about fighting Apollo 3. I realized he’s even more hot.

Miguel is shocked that there is talk as if they are all buddies already.

Sylvester tells stories of guys he used to wrestle, who swallowed cigars and other shooting of the shit. Sylvester and Sugar see the boys as gullible. Most of all, we kind of get bored and want more cat-fighting.

First CHALLENGE: We come back outside Hollywood on a sandy hillside as teams are assembled over their Yellow (West) and Blue (East) mats for a Survivor-esque challenge description.

The winning team of the event will get to choose both their own fighter and whom he will fight from the losing team, in the first episode bout. Meaning, the winners could oust an inexperienced loser quick and easy-style.

Three logs must be tethered together for a race up a hill. The first log is simply picked up and carried, the second untied, and also carried, with the third one involving a tricky combination lock with combination readily available (oh the brainteasers).

It’s a 1 mile climb to the top up the exhausting Hollywood hills, while trying to remember that tricky combination. A Toyoto catches the action ahead with The Trainer calling out annoying commentary.

East pulls out ahead, with Ishe for the West trailing behind. Lots of sweating after the first segment and Ahmed claims he “owns Hollywood.”

So East sends Ahmed ahead to figure out the combination while the Trainer barks out even more annoying Drill Sergeant commands. He’s a-straining as West begins to take the lead (but lets give him the benefit of the doubt; have YOU ever had to remember a 3-number combo while jogging up a hill?)

When Ahmed screws up with the combination, West completely takes over and places their logs in the log-stand. Triumphant musical score booms to signal that the WEST has won.

So to recap, the West has won the privilege of choosing who will fight, but only after proceeding to the locker-room for a brainstorming session, of course.

So is it TRUE Ahmed forgot the combination?, the West laughs as they gossip in the locker-room. East tries to rouse morale, as they boast “whoever is chosen” will fight their darndest. That kind of schtick. Miguel decides to pick the least experienced from their own team to face against the East’s least experienced. (HUH, nobility? Are they competitively retarded? Survivor challenged??)

They argue about the game plan for a while but cockiness (and courage?) wins out over strategy. Alfonso wants to fight the experienced dude.

They are assembled in front of Sylvester. WEST picks Alfonso Gomez (cue cheer and applause) and Alfonso chooses to fight Peter “tattoo of my own name” Manfredo.

Manfredo has respect, nobody understands why Alfonso would choose someone more experienced and 3rd-world-ranked stronger. Hopefully his reckless courage and potential stupidity are rewarded with humiliating defeat. The good news? Prettyboy Jesse is still around, and we’re poised to lose one of the homelier idiots back to his ghetto homestead.

So we’re taken back to Pete’s house with the wife. Yamilka is distraught that her hubby is chosen but tries to hide it. The tension is thick. Have they chosen the BEST from the East coast, to be ousted as he’s a threat? Is there a strategy to this?

Yamilka talks of being a boxe’s wife and the courage demanded, and of his noble boxing bloodline. Rocky-esque ballads play as the moon ascends for an empty ring and Alfonso telling himself he’s ready for it. He practices in the ring and tells himself he’s the winner. I guess his courage is endearing. And apparently, if he imagines, he can fly. “Maybe in the future, I will.” RIGHT.

We regroup after a break with a distinguished panel [Sylvester, Sugar Ray, Tommy and the contestants] sitting in front for a NBC Contender press junket.

The teams are back and forth Bring-it-On style talking respect and toughness. Ishe is the ringleader with a rivalry against Ahmed, who THINKS he is a Prettyboy. He obviously hasn’t met Lorenzo Lamas’ flaw-finder.

Alfonso meditates shirtless an hour before the match. Peter talks abut how “the only one who can beat you is yourself”. Alfonso wants to make his parents proud.

Peter is psyched to win for his daughter, and interestingly enough, this is the first time she will watch him fight. I guess NBC convinced Yamilka that this show is PG and that not too much blood will be spilled. Alfonso of course has the support of his mom.

In the battle of the shirtless twists in front of their respective mirrors, the clear winner is Peter, with more proportionate height, six-pac and stylin’ headband, worn buff-style and he kind of looks like Justin Timberlake. That’s a good thing.

The crowd is assembled and Chuck Norris and other lowbrow C-list celebrities are to be seen. Sylvester clearly has connections, but where are David Hasselhoff, Mariel Hemingway and Tom Arnold?

Announcer first introduces Peter Manfredo for the slow-mo walk to the ring. Out next is the underdog, Alfonso Gomez, complete with blinding-lights entry

First round begins. Peter is taking some harsh hooks and uppercuts. Sylvester and Sugar are shocked. Yamilka is certainly frustrated. Trainer gives Peter the “you can do it” and wifey cheers from outside.

Round two is much more hard-hitting, and Peter lands a fury of blows on Alfonso.

In Round Three, Peter lands some nice gut punches on Alfonso, but an Alfonso cheering squad accompanies the blocking of many blows and soon hottie Peter is thrust into a corner and takes a mighty blow to the head.

Alfonso is told to look over at his family for courage while Peter is told to throw more punches.

Alfonso cheers mid-match but is unable to stop another fury of Pete’s blows during round four.


Peter is almost all over Alfonso, momentarily that is, as Gomez manages to lay some powerful blows. They trade back and forth as the Contender theme blasts away.

The crowd seems very impressed and is on the side of Alfonso. Sure enough, without even a pause of Trumpian pre-fire tension, the winner is judged unanimously to be Alfonso!!!!

Post match:

Peter is cast in blue, feeling he’s let everybody down. Looks like his experience and goodlooks did not pay off. He’s going home without the money and a loss to his record. Insert the high-contrast lighting, hanging up the gloves and leaving the gym with a big crane up and away.

In the office, Sylvester predicts “an underdog to take it all” (har, har).

Overall VERDICT:

The Contender lays on the sentimental BS thick and with extra cheese. But unlike its scripted equivalent 7th Heaven, The Contender is made passable because these people are real, and their corny codes of ethic are at least amusing. It doesn’t hurt that at least 50 % of the bunch look fabulous with their shirts off and at least 50 % of the time, they’re in this state. With plenty of memorable one-liners (of the wonderfully bad variety) to expect from Sylveste’s lame trap and Sugar Ray Leonard giving us more and more reason to believe he’s as, if not more, washed-up and feebleminded as Sly, The Contender should be an unintentional riot, if not exactly compelling television.

Rating: B-

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