Maybe it’s the power of nostalgia, but for a while now the idea of boxing has been way more interesting than the fights themselves.
When Mark Wahlberg was nominated for all kinds of awards for his star turn as Micky Ward in 2010’s “The Fighter,” the movie’s appeal wasn’t Ward’s fights, it was watching just how much of a trainwreck everything was around Ward — especially his drugged-out, washed-out, ex-boxer half-brother Dicky Eklund, bottled up beautifully by Christian Bale.
Whenever Floyd Mayweather fights, it’s a multimillion-dollar jackpot not because of how artful he is at never getting hit. But between HBO’s “24/7” specials and Showtime’s “All Access,” Mayweather has mastered being his own hype machine, using prefight documentaries to create an oversized smack-talking, cash-throwing persona that polarizes people to the point that they’re vested, even if its only in hopes that someone eventually shuts his mouth with their fist.
The Discovery Channel’s new South Boston-based reality show, “The Fighters,” isn’t at all subtle about trying to combine the best elements of those two ideas, peeling back the layers on the fighters, trainers, and promoters to turn the fight into a story.
The problem is there may not be that many layers.
The brainchild of UFC frontman Dana White, the show tries to squish a documentary and a drama into a single hour with the payoff being a three-round bout at the end.
The show premieres on Thursday, and in the first episode you meet gym owner Peter Welch, who coincidentally looks like HBO’s ringside announcer Jim Lampley, from the silver hair to the boxy face. He grew up in Southie, so of course he tells you how hard it is to grow up in Southie. Without boxing, Southie would’ve swallowed him whole.
Welch sits down at a roundtable (actually a card table) with a handful of other trainers from Stoughton to Saugus, brainstorming about the best possible amateur fighters. They make the meeting between the five trainers look like the co-op in “The Wire.” A shoving match inexplicably breaks out, and you can tell how pointless the whole thing is when it ends with, “What are you looking at?”
They settle down and eventually agree on two fighters to feather. There’s the earnest but distracted upstart fighter Matt Phinney, who we discover is parking behind Welch’s gym and sleeping in his car at night. Then there’s Anthony McKenna, a recovering addict who lives with the kind of slacker friends that drink beer at 3 in the afternoon and watch a flatscreen TV with a Frankenstein bobble-head on top. He desperately wants to get his life together, but doesn’t seem to know how.
Between one fighter who’s essentially homeless and another who’s battling drug issues, there’s obviously drama, but it’s never enough to get you to fully buy into either of them. You watch them train, you meet some of the people in their lives, you hear their confessionals, but you don’t necessarily feel committed to either of them.
Boxing as reality TV isn’t necessarily uncharted territory. There was NBC’s “The Contender” and Fox’s knockoff “The Next Great Champ.” But Boston as a hub of reality TV is seemingly at its height with “The Fighters” joining police drama “Boston’s Finest” and the short-lived “Southie Rules.”
Boxing itself remains a tough sell, especially when the fighters are unknown.
At the same time, knowing that he turned Ultimate Fighting into a machine that’s seemingly always on TV, it’s hard to see something that White touches not turning to gold. You get the sense that he’s banking on Boston’s broken-glass-and-gravel personality to make the show worth watching.
If it can prove it’s more than just a good idea, “The Fighters” could stand a fighting chance.
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.