This review was updated on March 6, 2005.
Mark Burnett has fashioned a winner out of “The Contender,” bringing a humanity to the sweet science that has been long lost. More than “The Apprentice” with boxing gloves, “The Contender” is warm and enveloping, a collection of stories about struggle, community, family and human spirit.
It takes skill competitions from “Survivor” and production cues from “The Apprentice,” and without making boxing appear glamorous, it explores the sport’s physical and psychological demands. Production values alone — especially the editing of the five rounds that conclude the opening 90-minute seg — are worth the price of admission.
Stories about children and parents and dreams of a better life proliferate in “The Contender.” More than any reality show this side of “The Bachelor,” auds will know these men when they step into the ring, giving it far more emotional appeal than blue trunks vs. yellow.
The 16 assembled middleweights (158 pounds) are divided into two teams, East and West, with the winner of a task being allowed to pick the two combatants for the next fight. After the West wins the first challenge, one of their boxers employs an age-old gang strategy: Go after the best.
Cast of boxers is impressive, with several ranked contenders, a top amateur and a former No. 4 fighter making a comeback duking it out with pure human interest stories like the guy who turned pro while he was in law school. It gives the illusion that boxing is populated with kind, thoughtful people. First episode explores the despair a loser can feel after a defeat, and some may certainly draw from that the factors that went into the suicide of one of the contestants. No mention is made in the first seg of the boxer who took his life.
Ultimately, “The Contender” will succeed as “American Idol” has, bringing a new force to the fore with a fresh rooting audience. It’s highly likely the winner of the competish will be an underdog, and with his life story fleshed out, give new fans a reason to cheer him on, even if boxing isn’t their cup of tea. Boxers are vying for a $1 million bout at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
Sylvester Stallone is a bit wooden in the opening, and Sugar Ray Leonard doesn’t have a lot to say just yet, but scenes from the second episode suggest both men open up considerably.
NBC previews the show March 7 and 10, premieres it on March 13 and then will air regularly on Sundays at 8 p.m.