By Bill Simmons
Page 2

Ever enjoy a TV show so much, you start glancing at your VCR clock and thinking, "Oh, no, 8:46, only 14 more minutes to go!"

I call that the Sopranos Test. Over the past few years, only five shows passed that test for me – "The Sopranos," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Entourage", the first season of "Survivor" and "Oz" during the season when Adebici was wreaking havoc. Pretty short list. So you can imagine my surprise when I found myself glancing at the VCR clock during "The Contender" last week – Oh, no! It's almost over! – the ultimate seal of approval, at least from me. It's the perfect blend of over-the-top drama, heart-pounding competition and laugh-out-loud unintentional comedy, which is why "The Contender" has a chance to become the most entertaining reality show of all-time.

• Preview NBC's "The Contender"

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Tragedy hits "The Contender"

Naturally, nobody is watching it.

And I'm not going to be the guy who puts a gun to your head and screams, "You're not watching 'The Contender'? Whaaaaaaaat? What's the matter with you????" I hate that guy. You hate that guy. Everyone hates that guy. I just don't want NBC to overreact to disappointing ratings and cancel the show, if only because they're dumb enough to do it. Remember, this is the same network that once gave us "Inside Schwartz." You never know with them. Just hope they realize that viewers are burned out on reality shows, so there's a good chunk of people who probably haven't even given "The Contender" a chance yet.

Again, I'm not telling you what to do. But here are five reasons why I enjoy "The Contender" so much:

1. Real people, real goals
Here's the premise: They picked 16 world-class middleweights, with two of them battling in a five-round match every episode until one remains. These guys aren't trying to parlay the show into 15 minutes of fame, or a few Playboy Mansion appearances, or even an amateur porn video that gets "accidentally" leaked on the Internet. They're all trying to become the middleweight champ some day. So there's an aura of credibility here – unlike on "The Starlet," "The Bachelorette," "Survivor" or any other reality show, the motives of these contestants are relatively pure. They remind me of Brendan Fraser's character in "School Ties," when he tells the headmaster at the end of the movie, "You used me for football, I used you to get into Harvard." That's everyone on this show. They know it's a reality show, they're not crazy about it, but they're using it to advance their careers.

And that's an important point. My biggest problem with reality shows has been the people who appear on them – wanna-be celebs, wanna-be actors, wanna-be TV hosts, wanna-be models and just plain wanna-bes – who end up being about as unrealistic as you can get. Since they're shameless and conniving, it's impossible to trust any of them – like Jerry, the L.A. art dealer who proposed to Jen on "The Bachelorette" and got shot down on live television. You would think this was the most humiliating experience possible, but not for Jerry, who had the Jeff George Face going for about 10 seconds, followed by the "Wait a second, I'm a celebrity now, I can get anyone!" face. You can almost imagine him sipping a martini at the rooftop bar of the Hotel Mondrian and waiting for some bimbo to recognize him. These are the people who end up on reality shows. So it's becoming harder and harder to like them, unless they're making asses out of themselves.

This isn't a problem with "Contender," not with 16 boxers all plugging away for the same break, sharing the same hopes and dreams. You can't pretend in a boxing ring when somebody is trying to pummel you. You just can't. And with the way it's edited – gratuitous family shots, gut-wrenching music, almost like one of those old Sally Struthers commercials with the hungry kids – you're emotionally invested in each fighter before his big showdown. Does it come off like a bad Hallmark commercial sometimes? Absolutely. But it's impossible not to feel something for the loser of the big match every week, as he walks back to the darkened locker room, faces his disappointed family, questions his career and dreams, then limps out of the building with a gonging noise in the background, like the 10-count of a bell.

(Note: Last week's show was especially poignant since it was the one when Najai Turpin, the boxer who committed suicide just five weeks ago, got knocked off. His show turned out to be hauntingly manipulative and I'm not entirely sure they should have shown it; I couldn't get him out of my mind on Sunday night. Too many questions left unanswered after the fact. Did he kill himself because of the show? What were the circumstances? Was he more troubled during the taping than they made it seem? There was something sneaky about the way they presented it, like they were holding back information from us. Still, I can't remember a show affecting me like that in a long time. It was like watching someone die right in front of you, even though he wasn't dead yet.)

2. Genuine violence
What's the hidden goal with every reality show? Conflict. There's a reason they have people turning on each other in Trump's boardroom, just like there's a reason Jeff Probst tries to stir up trouble at every tribal council, or "The Bachelor" producers stick all the female contestants in the same house, or MTV splits the teams on the "Real World/Road Rules Inferno" into the "Good Guys" and the "Bad Asses." They want people hollering and bitching at one another. Of course, for all the bluster and name-calling, there's one rule in reality TV: Don't attack another member of the show or you're kicked off ... well, unless you're on P. Diddy's "Making the Band." Then it's OK for some reason. Everywhere else? Not OK.

For instance, on "Inferno" this week, Tonya flipped out because Beth told Robyn that Tonya slept with Robyn's boyfriend, even throwing Beth's suitcase in the pool. Was it ever coming to blows? No way. On "The Contender," they would have taken it to the ring and settled things the old-fashioned way. As much as I enjoyed Beth's reaction to seeing her clothes floating in the pool, I would have much rather seen them knocking the crap out of each other in a boxing ring for five rounds.

On "The Contender", the feuds evolve more organically – like the Ishe-Ahmed feud, which started with innocent trash talking and ended up playing out like the Burr-Hamilton duel. Poor Ishe had bitten off more than he could chew, to the disgust of his teammates, who believed he was grandstanding by bypassing an opportunity to fight Ahmed in Episode 2. His manhood in question, you could see Ishe breaking down emotionally – questioning his own character, questioning what was important to him – before summoning the courage to challenge Ahmed in Episode 3. He ended up vanquishing the cocky Moroccan, who had already earned official "villain" status by roughing up a somewhat startled Sugar Ray Leonard during a sparring session earlier in the show. I'm telling you, by the time these guys actually stepped into the ring, it felt like Ali-Frazier III in Manila.

3. Likable hosts
You already know how I feel about Sly Stallone – remember, I'm the same guy who owns "Tango and Cash" and "Daylight" on DVD. Sly could host a Grilled Cheese Sandwich Contest on the Food Network and I would watch every week. No celebrity has been as alternately cheesy, hysterical, likable, ludicrous, inspiring, laughable and endearing ... sometimes even all at once.

But even I wasn't prepared for his jaw-dropping performance on "The Contender," which ranks right up there with the most enjoyably ridiculous work of his career. (As I wrote in a mailbag two weeks ago, the scene when Sly was "randomly" sparring in his jeans could have been the funniest moment in reality TV history.) His presence never stops pushing things to another level, especially during the fight scenes, when he bobs and weaves in his seat (like a real fighter would) and screams out stuff like "He's trying to steal the round!" or "He's getting tired up there!" Look, I don't care what happens with this show, as long as Sly starts getting some pay-per-view work. Stick him at the same broadcast table as Larry Merchant and I would self-combust.

Sylvester Stallone and Sugar Ray Leonard
Intentional or not, Sly and Sugar Ray don't hold anything back.

(One more thing I love about Sly: When he's waiting for the losing boxer in the darkened runway after the fight, when he shows some genuine empathy before pulling the "David Stern at the NBA draft" routine – one last handshake, a turn toward the cameras and then a barely-perceptible nudge toward the exits. That kills me. Actually, everything he does kills me.)

And then there's Sugar Ray Leonard, who narrowly edges Dave Mirra as the most overmatched host in reality history. Fortunately, he knows it and doesn't give a crap – even when he's reading rules off cue cards, he does it with "We'll just dub the audio in the edit bay later" intensity. But what Ray brings to the table – along with Sly – is the perfect mix of celebrity, comedy and concern. Both of them actually make you feel like they care about these guys, unlike every other reality host. (You think Trump gives a crap about the people on that show?) You couldn't ask for much more from either guy, with the possible exception of their reenacting Apollo and Rocky's awkward beach hug during the closing credits.

4. The celebrity cameos
Put it this way: If you're a washed-up actor from the '70s and '80s and you HAVEN'T been invited to sit ringside for a "Contender" taping, it's probably time to re-evaluate things.

5. The reinvention of boxing
In case you haven't seen the show, they edit the matches into a few action-packed minutes – giving them leeway to add a pounding soundtrack, cuts to the crowd, reactions of family members and slow-motion punches – so it plays like a scene from a boxing movie. Sure, it's impossible to get a feel for the ebb and flow of the fight. But I'm not sure you need it. With the way they edit these matches, they could turn the Ruiz-Holyfield trilogy into a replica of the three Gatti-Ward fights.

Which raises another question: Could this be the show that gets casual fans into boxing again? Between sleazy promoters, shaky judging decisions, pricey pay-per-views, all the different championship belts, the lack of personable fighters and everything else, Americans don't have a connection with boxing the way they once did. Most sports fans wouldn't recognize Bernard Hopkins if he were sitting on their laps, and he was probably the defining fighter of the past decade. When was the last time the sport roped in someone like the Sports Gal, who was crying by the end of the Najai Turpin episode last week? See, that's the thing about boxing – since there's no structure to the sport, younger fighters don't get marketed properly, if they get marketed at all, so we never develop a connection to them. The sad reality of this show is that some of these boxers will end up being more famous (in the short-term) than Jermain Taylor, the best fighter in that division other than Hopkins.

Believe me, I'm not saying that "The Contender" is a perfect show. For one thing, the "challenges" are plodding and confusing – they always revolve around Sugar Ray awkwardly careening through the rules, followed by both teams running around and lugging stuff until somebody apparently wins. I'd settle for a game of "Simon Says" or a spelling bee over any of the mindless crap from the first four shows. I would also make the show 30 minutes longer, so we could get more footage/friction from the house, plus a few extra minutes with the fight scenes. It would be nice to A) see the judges, and B) see the scorecards, just so it FEELS like a real boxing match (after all, it counts in the standings). And they should tone down the family stuff a little, if only because it's becoming a little cliched. My wife and daughter are all I have ... every time I head into the ring, I'm fighting for them. We get it.

One suggestion that probably won't happen: It seemed natural that they would run the unedited fights on CNBC, like how they run bonus boardroom footage from "The Apprentice" ... but the more I'm thinking about it, that could be a mistake. None of these fights could hold up to the finished edit; we would end up being more disappointed than anything. And if someone lost a decision that seemed fishy on the unedited re-run, that could single-handedly submarine the show. Upon further review, I like it this way – with my boxing matches manipulated and massaged. It's like having someone cut your steak for you. And since the other problems are eminently fixable, we're in pretty good shape here for Season One.

Well, except for the fact that nobody is watching and it might go off the air.

Again, I'm not going to tell you what to do. But since Sly Stallone single-handedly ended the Cold War for us, the least you could do is give his reality show a whirl. If that's not enough of an incentive, watch an episode for me. Before everything's said and done, maybe you'll even find yourself glancing at your VCR clock once or twice.

Final grade: A.

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.

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