Fighting for Stardom

Local boxer hopes a spot on the reality series `The Contender' can punch his ticket to a better life.

May 18, 2004|By Lem Satterfield | Lem Satterfield,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Does Mike Paschall have personality to go with his punch? Could the boxer's profile make for must-see TV?

Michelle McNulty wanted to know.

So the casting director for NBC's upcoming reality boxing series, The Contender, grilled Paschall: Are you a racist? Have you beaten women? Would you call yourself white trash? "No," the fighter answered to all of the above, but the questions nevertheless stung like jabs from Muhammad Ali.

"It was about as rough as any fight I've been in," said Paschall, 24, shaking his head as he left the interrogation during a recent casting call for the show in Washington. "All those personal questions. It was like being in front of the feds."

But the intrusiveness of McNulty, who has cast the unscripted series Big Brother and Survivor, is nothing compared with the cameras that will scrutinize Paschall's daily life if he's one of the 16 fighters picked for the show.

Scheduled to air in January, the show is boxing's version of Survivor and The Apprentice - which is no coincidence because all three are produced by Mark Burnett. Scheduled to air in January, The Contender is co-produced by Jeffrey Katzenberg of DreamWorks SKG films and Sylvester Stallone of Rocky fame.

Producers promise to leave virtually nothing in the contenders' lives off-limits.

"This is a show about stories of regular guys who have problems with relationships - girlfriends, wives, mothers, brothers, sisters, uncles - the whole fabric of their lives," said co-producer Bruce Beresford-Redman, Burnett's assistant.

"Some guys will try to keep things secret from us, but most won't be successful doing that," said Beresford-Redman, who attended the D.C. tryout. "By virtue of coming on the show, you're going to be filmed most of the time as you live in our world - even in the most intimate situations."

For Paschall, that would mean the nation would know, for example, that he grew up fatherless and that he has a 4-year-old son by one woman and a child by a different woman on the way.

America would know that the Pasadena resident caused his mother "a lot of pain" thanks to several arrests as a youth on charges that include handgun possession, armed robbery and assaulting a police officer.

It would know that Paschall, a pipe fitter, was thrown out of four Baltimore City schools and finally banned from attending any of them. And it would know about his tattoos, particularly the one of his son, Mikey, on his left bicep, and the other of his girlfriend, Amy Hill, on a very private body part.

"I know somebody with my background will sell on television," said Paschall, an accomplished amateur fighter who won his professional debut Friday night at Du Burns Arena. "I'd get butt naked on television for a million dollars."

The contenders will live and train together under a microscope. Each of the 14 to 16 planned episodes will end with a sanctioned professional fight, with each victor staying on the show while the loser leaves. The fights will count on the boxers' official records, and the tournament's winner will earn $1 million.

Last month, Burnett, Stallone and Katzenberg visited Sugar Ray Leonard at his home in Los Angeles. They recruited the six-time world champion as a kinder, gentler version of Donald Trump on The Apprentice. Leonard will be co-host of the program and mentor the fighters with Stallone, and former heavyweight champ and HBO commentator George Foreman.

"It's not in my nature to be as vicious as Donald Trump, tell somebody, `You're gone,' or, `You're fired,'" Leonard said.

He sees The Contender as a way to humanize fighters, "putting them back into the hearts and living rooms" of traditional and nontraditional fight fans.

Network television once broadcast Leonard's 1976 Olympic gold-medal triumph, along with 7UP commercials that regularly showed him jumping rope alongside his son during workouts, but the scandal-laden sport nowadays is confined to cable and pay-per-view telecasts.

"You could fight all your life and never have 200,000 people see you on cable," Beresford-Redman said. "We're hoping for a viewership in the range of 20 million per week. That's an opportunity to create a fan base larger than anything a fighter can imagine."

Nearly 150 fighters converged on Teamsters' Union Hall 639 in Washington this month for a casting call that was the fifth stop in a nationwide, 13-city tour that began April 9 in Tulsa, Okla., and will end June 12 in Las Vegas, Nev.

At the hall, boxers ranging widely in age and experience traded punches during open tryouts before Leonard; Frank Stallone, the actor Sylvester's brother; and Prentiss Byrd, former trainer of Thomas Hearns.

Contestants included Mark Tucker, 18, of Glenelg, a 140-pound amateur with a win-loss record of 125-22 and an appetite for roast grizzly bear. Former cruiserweight champion Boone Pultz, 44, of Odenton showed up, hoping to rejuvenate the 24-1 career he aborted in 1995 after the death of his wife.

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