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‘The Fighters’ reality show hits emotional mark

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UFC President Dana White has produced a new boxing reality show (Getty)

UFC President Dana White wants everyone to know that his new fighting reality show, The Fighters, is nothing like his other, older one, The Ultimate Fighter. White teamed up with co-executive producer Craig Piligian, with whom he worked on the original TUF seasons, and his old boxing Boston boxing coach Peter Welch, to create this new show for the Discovery Channel.

The Fighters follows several Boston boxing coaches, their gyms and their boxers through their lives and fights each week. “First off, let me say, this isn’t The Ultimate Fighter,” he told assembled media Wednesday night in Chicago before a screening of The Fighters’ first episode, which debuts Thursday night on Discovery.

He’s right. The Fighters is much better than The Ultimate Fighter.

At the very least, it’s satisfying at this point in time. Fight fans have endured over-produced and over-edited boxing shows like The Contender in recent years. The Ultimate Fighter has and continues to discover new top MMA talent and provide great, un-edited fights, but the artificial scheme of fighters plucked from their lives and placed in a mind-numbing house together for weeks on end hardly ever reveals enough about who the competitors are as people.

Piligian agrees with White that they set out to make a completely different show than The Ultimate Fighter.

“I was talking to Peter and was asking him what he was doing and he said, ‘Well, every week we’re trying to put these smokers together – South Boston gym versus Dorchester gym…’ I thought ‘that’s a pretty good idea for a show,’” he said.

“We’d never make it like Ultimate Fighter. We’d take a deeper look into the fighters, a deeper look into the trainers, trying to get a real essence of the city and kind of make South Boston a real character…we decided to take the real heart of what makes South Boston, and that’s boxing. Instead of make them look like idiots, try to show what boxing means to South Boston.

That character-driven approach of The Fighters pays dividends in the first episode.

White said that his goal was to make The Fighters more documentary serial than reality show. They seemed to have largely succeeded.

The trainers and fighters are not taken out of their lives and placed in an artificial setting to force drama. Instead, the cameras go with the show’s characters into their lives – their homes, their gyms, their streets, and find the real, organic stories that invariably make up real people’s lives.

In episode one, It’s revealed that one fighter, Matt Phinney, has been sleeping in his car, parked in the lot of Welch’s gym, because he can no longer afford rent. His opponent, Anthony McKenna, is a once-promising amateur who, four months prior, was homeless and strung out before being plucked up by a coach and encouraged into this fight.

Suffice to say, you don’t have to dress up homelessness, literal hunger and battles for sobriety to convey a sense of gravity. The Fighters producers didn’t and yet, by the time those two guys lock up at the close of the episode in Welch’s gym during their fight, the viewer really cares about the both of them.

Fans of good, -new-fashioned reality show melodrama won’t likely be disappointed by The Fighters, either. In one of the episode’s first scenes, all the area boxing coaches meet up to discuss matching up their fighters in the coming week’s bout.

It doesn’t take long for two of the coaches to come to blows and have to be separated. It is not clear at all what caused the fight, but it is clear that a fight is happening.

Real World and Jersey Shore fans will be happy with such offerings. But real fight fans will appreciate the full-fights between skilled amateurs coached by veteran trainers at the end of each episode.

There’s no grand prize, no contract with a boxing promotion used as a stick to entice participants. This isn’t a reality show tournament competition.

Dana White will not appear on camera giving profanity-laden motivational speeches, either. In fact, White said that the only time viewers will see him on The Fighters is when his name appears in text during credits.

These fighters, like all fighters, have deeply personal reasons for fighting. Those reasons – professional aspiration, neighborhood pride, the need to beat back demons, etc. – and those reasons alone are why these guys step into the ring.

The Fighters proves that not all reality stars are simply searching for fame and money. Some just want to prove something to themselves.

The metaphorical battles of life are embodied and encapsulated well by sport fighting. At the end of the first episode, both fighters have reasons to be proud, regardless of who won or lost.

By capturing this moment in time in these people’s lives, The Fighters show there is accomplishment in any fight, honestly fought, no matter the result.

When’s the last time you felt real emotion and learned something moving about the human condition from watching a reality show? If you’re game, The Fighters just might be your next show.

Follow Elias on Twitter @EliasCepeda & @YahooCagewriter

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