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Fighting the Good Fight
"Game Show Man" Joe Van Ginkel

My friends:

I'll be honest with you. I've been HORRENDOUSLY lazy in recapping The Ultimate Fighter, the mixed-martial-arts-themed contest show, produced by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and currently airing on SpikeTV. That doesn't mean I haven't been watching it, though. As a matter of fact, I have been enjoying it thoroughly. I am very much looking forward to seeing whether Kenny Florian can weather the storm of Diego Sanchez, who has been a dominating force of this competition. The light heavyweight division is also looking exciting; I am personally rooting for Team Couture's Mike Swick (who gets coolness points for being a poker player) and Team Liddell's Forrest Griffin.

I should note to you that I'm a fight fan. As a little boy, I was enchanted by the Rocky films, and even met Sylvester Stallone at an autistic children's telethon… as one of the autistic children. The telethon took place during the holiday season of 1983, at the Chris Craft Television facilities in Los Angeles. Game show fans know the studios as the early 1980's home of Barry and Enright Production's two most famous shows, The Joker's Wild (my all time favorite) and Tic Tac Dough. As a matter of fact, the TTD set was still standing behind the telethon set that evening when I was there.

At the time, I was part of an autism study being done at UCLA, by Drs. Edward Ritvo and Billie Jo "B.J." Freeman, two psychologists who are now acknowledged as amongst the preeminent experts in autism. I was there that night to be on camera with Dr. Ritvo to present him with a bag of my grandma's secret recipe peanut brittle (my family's secret weapon against evil, as I now call it). The person conducting the interview was then KTLA staff announcer Larry Van Nuys (who ironically would be the announcer on the infamous 1990 revival of Tic Tac Dough), and he introduced me as a "real hambone." Van Nuys asked me what I wanted to be what I grew up, and even then I knew: "a game show host." Even during the interview, I was particularly fidgety that night; I had spotted the backdrop of the TTD set, and I was looking for an opportunity to sneak off and have a look see. When I finally got the chance, I managed to get behind the telethon set, and was able to behold, in all its cheesy 1980's glory, the legendary Tic Tac Dough board. Not a bad sight for a five-year game show junkie; heck, if I'd have known what one was in 1983, I'd have broken into a Gregorian chant or something.

The other highlight of the particular night was "meeting" Sly. He had been at the telethon for the better part of the evening (along with Burt Bacharach(!), John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John (there to promote their film Two of a Kind which would turn out to be a huge bomb), Dennis Weaver and Ann Jillian, amongst others), and I suspect he was very VERY tired at the time I "met" him. You see, sometime after I had sneaked my peek at the TTD set, I had been looking for my family, who'd come with me of course, and after looking for them I suddenly felt myself being picked up from behind. I thought it was my dad, and I looked over, and lo and behold…it was Sly. I still have the picture that was then taken of us, and my expression was that of deer-in-the-headlights, while Sly's was one of absolute apathy, again likely due to fatigue.

As a result of this event, I find myself amused that Sly should turn to be basically what I had envisioned myself as: the host of a contest show.

A quick aside: I refuse to call these things game shows, and they're definitely NOT reality, so I call 'em contest shows. So there.

That said, I have been, to my own surprise, enjoying The Contender every bit as much as I enjoy The Ultimate Fighter. Each show has its own magic to it: Fighter is exciting because the fights are authentic, shot in real-time (as opposed to Contender's condensed, heavily edited movie-style presentations) and are a good introduction to those who may never have seen a mixed martial arts bout. The show is also in what I would consider to be a perfect time slot, immediately following WWE Raw. WWE is pro wrestling as entertainment, whereas the Ultimate Fighting Championship is, to me, pro wrestling as sport, making for a good balance. I do not care for the general format of the show, however: right now, it is merely Survivor meets the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and as a result, the portrayal of the show's contestants is not as powerful or interesting as it could be.

The reverse is true, however, about The Contender. The fights do not quite feel authentic (although I'm sure they would feel that way if they were presented less like a Rocky film, and more like what you might see on HBO), but even though it shares the "Survivor meets" stigma with Fighter, the portrayal of the contestants is far more engaging, to my own shock (especially considering Mark Burnett's past record with contest shows) far more positive. And that's what gives The Contender its magic: the "Adrian factor," as Stallone calls it. We are seeing the fighters' families, hearing their deepest motivations, helping us to understand what fuels them to be champions.

While many have cried foul at the show going ahead after the death of competitor Najai "Nitro" Turpin, I on the other hand, found their portrayal of Turpin to be overwhelmingly positive. Frankly, I think that if Turpin were still alive, he would be greatly honored that the producers portrayed him the way they did.

That's what sets The Contender apart from other contest shows: its heart. Instead of a disgraceful, disgusting display of backstabbing, hatred and greed, we instead see humanity's most noble and redeeming qualities brought into the spotlight. Granted, there have been moments of darkness so far: Ishe Smith's feud with Ahmed Kaddour chief among them, but otherwise, the show's portrayal of these men has been unquestionably favorable.

And as a result, I find myself cheering for its success... and for Sly's too.

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