Gradybrewer_contender2_240 Tuesday (Sept. 26) night marks the finale of one of TV’s more underappreciated reality shows, the contemporary gladiator saga known as The Contender.

Transplanted to ESPN after one low-rated season on NBC, the show enjoyed an entertaining second season full of sympathetic and charismatic characters beating each other senseless.

Rock Star: Supernova favorite Storm Large kicks things off by fulfilling some sort of lifelong personality by taking her sweet time to bellow the national anthem.

The evening’s first live fight from the Staples Center is the third place brawl, an eight-rounder between Norberto Bravo ("Fighting for his family and Mexican pride") and Cornelius "K-9" Bundrage (fighting in the name of his sister, murdered in Detroit in August). Throughout the season, Bravo was the more winning fighter, a sage veteran fighting for his last chance. Bundrage, conversely, was the yappy youngster who took down better boxers in his early fights, undoing their skill with a mixture of pure power and a rough grabbing style.

It’s Bundrage’s strength that dominates, bringing Bravo to his knees in the second round. Through five rounds, Bundrage is up 5-0 on marble-mouthed announcer Teddy Atlas’ scorecard. After Bundrage throws Bravo to the canvas twice in the sixth, K-9 is docked a point, but it hardly matters. Bravo keeps walking into K-9’s right hand until he’s staggered by an upper-cut in the seventh and the ref stops the fight. I think Bravo could have gone on and were this a real fight, it probably would have been allowed to continue, but you don’t want anybody getting seriously injured for an ESPN reality show.

The $500,000 final features a similar contrast, with Steve Forbes entering as the obvious favorite, carrying a 32-3 lifetime record as well as a fleeting world title, which the announcers keep mentioning over and over as a mantra. But Forbes is smaller than Brewer, whose career record is 21-11, but includes three straight upset wins on The Contender.

Brewer’s superior reach is a major factor, preventing Forbes from getting any traction inside. Several rounds are dominated by hugging, but when the punches begin to fly, Brewer holds the advantage. After last year’s bloody war between Manfredo and Mora, this year’s title fight is harder to call and harder to get excited by. It’s also underwhelming after the decisive bronze medal undercard.

"Quite honestly, not a lot of action so far," Atlas comments with only four minutes to go.

Forbes closes with a flurry, landing several big uppercuts in the 10th.

One judge sees it 97-93 Brewer, another 96-94 Forbes. Yes, there were a lot of really tough-to-score rounds, but its disparities like this that cause viewers to distrust boxing judges. The final judge also sides with Brewer, giving The Contender a champ with 11 losses.

It wasn’t the best of conclusions — the most entertaining part of the two-hour finale was the trailer for Rocky Balboa — but Brewer’s underdog streak was good TV.

I hope ESPN can find a reason to bring The Contender back for another season.

Any thoughts on this season of The Contender or on the finale?

Posted by:Daniel Fienberg