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NBC, Fox trying to beat each other to punch with boxing shows

Scott Collins Los Angeles Times

And you thought boxing couldn’t get weirder after Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield’s ear.

Fox and NBC are brawling over rival unscripted series designed to find America’s next boxing champions. And even though viewers won’t see either show for months, the high stakes are already making the typical Las Vegas bout look like a schoolyard scuffle.

NBC is betting more than $35 million on “The Contender,” which is executive-produced by Mark Burnett (“The Apprentice”), DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg and Sylvester Stallone.

The producers — who have ruffled some feathers in professional boxing by vowing to clean up the scandal-tarnished sport — have booked two of its most beloved figures, Sugar Ray Leonard and George Foreman, for on-air appearances, although their specific roles are still being worked out.

Fox, meanwhile, has begun recruiting amateur and young pro boxers for “The Next Great Champ,” which comes from Endemol USA (“Fear Factor”) and will showcase multiple champion and Olympic gold medalist Oscar De La Hoya. The winner will get a contract with De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions and perhaps the chance to fight a titleholder.

Now “Champ” and “Contender” are locked in a tight race to beat one another to TV screens. Fox is reportedly eyeing the November sweeps, while “Contender” was originally targeted for January. (Network representatives say the premiere dates are still undecided.)

Even so, NBC is planning a splashy send-off for “Contender” later this month in New York, where Burnett, Stallone and Leonard are expected to meet advertisers at the network’s fall-schedule presentation.

Copycat shows are common in Hollywood — witness the plethora of makeover shows in the wake of ABC’s “Extreme Makeover” — and so are arguments about who deserves credit for a winning idea. But perhaps due to the nature of the sport, or concerns about the size of the potential audience for reality shows about boxing, the two competing projects have inspired an unusual amount of trash talking before anything even airs.

“Our show is ‘The Contender’; their show is ‘The Pretender,’ ” boasts veteran Hollywood manager Jeff Wald, who had been pitching a reality boxing show for months before finally interesting Katzenberg. Wald has particularly criticized Fox reality-show whiz Mike Darnell for allegedly filching the idea.

Burnett has gone so far as to threaten legal action, according to an interview last month with Daily Variety, although no court papers have been filed yet.

For his part, Endemol President David Goldberg rejected the idea of any theft. “I’m not quite sure that anyone has a lock on a boxing reality show,” he says. A Fox spokesman issued a similar statement on behalf of Darnell and the network.

Other sources close to “Champ” say that De La Hoya had been mulling his own boxing series long before “The Contender” was announced and that the Burnett camp is ticked off merely because De La Hoya spurned their efforts to recruit him.

While the producers are keeping mum about production details, sources say both shows will feature a competition between East and West Coast boxing teams and spotlight the fighters’ personal stories.

Some fans are skeptical, saying that while the series may stoke new interest in the sport, boxing hardly needs more “reality.”

“The ultimate reality is a boxing match,” says HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant, who’s not involved with either show. “What could be more real than that?”

Fox had a brief hit two years ago with “Celebrity Boxing,” in which faded stars such as Todd Bridges and Vanilla Ice squared off in the ring. But that was considered a tongue-in-cheek novelty rather than a serious athletic competition.

And there’s no guarantee that viewers are clamoring for even one boxing show. Although Gillette sponsored the popular “Friday Night Fights” during the 1960s, the “sport of kings” more recently has been confined to pay cable like HBO and Showtime, pay-per-view and the amateur bouts during the Olympics.

Even so, these two shows are not the only attempts to bring the brutal sport to network prime time. Former champs Tyson and Holyfield, as well as Roy Jones Jr. and Lennox Lewis, have all explored doing an unscripted TV show.

MGM, which owns the rights to the “Rocky” movie franchise, earlier this year reportedly pushed a reality series called “The Real Rocky,” but the status of that project is unclear.

Wald, a colorful figure in the music and movie industries who has lately become involved in fight promotion, says that last year he pitched a boxing-related TV show with a group that included actor Tony Danza and attorneys Howard Weitzman and Henry Holmes.

Fox was keenly interested in the project, several sources said. But NBC won the bidding with a reported $2.2-million-per-episode license fee.

Whichever show ultimately wins, fans are hopeful that the sudden interest at least bodes well for the future of the sport.

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