NBC, Mark Burnett Prods. and DreamWorks said Tuesday that the show will go on as planned for “The Contender,” despite the suicide of one of the show’s contestants.
Najai Turpin, 23, killed himself early Monday following an argument with his girlfriend, according to the network (which relayed information from the police reports). Turpin was reportedly sitting in a car outside the gym he regularly trained at in Philadelphia when he took his life.
The Associated Press reported that Turpin’s trainer, Percy “Buster” Custus, had noticed that the boxer had “seemed troubled” in recent weeks. He noted that Turpin had abruptly left a training camp to return to his home in Philadelphia.
Burnett said the episode featuring Turpin would not be altered. NBC said the seg would be dedicated to the fighter via an onscreen tribute; producers have also set up a fund to support Turpin’s child.
“We were deeply saddened to learn of the death of Najai Turpin,” the network said in a brief statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends as we extend our most sincere condolences during this tragic time.”
Rival reality execs surmised that Turpin didn’t play a large role in the series’ narrative, allowing the network and producers to move on as planned. Net insiders confirmed that Turpin was not one of the final contestants.
Custus later told the Philadelphia Daily News that he believed Turpin may have been partly upset because he hadn’t been able to fight in some time. The “Contender” contestants have been barred from fighting until the show’s finale, per their contracts, and in the meantime have been paid a weekly $1,500 stipend by the show.
“He was frustrated, because he was, like, training for nothing,” Custus told the newspaper. “He had no motivation. I don’t know if that had anything to do with what happened (Monday) or not.”
“The Contender” will launch March 7 as planned, the net said. Show was originally slated to launch last fall, before being pushed to January and then spring.
According to Turpin’s NBC bio, the boxer — who had a 13-1 record as a professional fighter before joining “The Contender” — came from a rough background. Turpin was forced to help raise his younger brother, sister, niece and nephew after his mother died; other family members eventually stepped in to help.
In a statement, famed boxer Sugar Ray Leonard — who co-hosts the show with Sylvester Stallone — called Turpin “a wonderful kid with a lot of heart.”
“He was a soft-spoken young man who was both a talented boxer and was also respected by his peers on the show. Everyone is highly distraught over this loss — he will be missed.”