There was a time when reality television rated high on the list of potential fads about to break and then vanish. Nevertheless, what once appeared to be a passing trend grew to become a ratings powerhouse over the past 20 years.
The term "reality" is subjective at best, as the vast majority of shows in this genre depend on a script and a team of writers to construct the weekly drama. The "real" in reality television has become nearly nonexistent.
While this formula is unlikely to see sweeping change occur, a bolt of programming lightning from the world of combat sports is looking to shake things up.
At 9 p.m. EST on Jan. 23, Discovery Channel will unveil its latest endeavor titled The Fighters, which centers around the grassroots boxing scene in south Boston—"one of the toughest places in the country," as the following promo notes.
The gritty journeys of amateur boxers scrapping their way through the paint-chipped mires of Beantown's most notorious district are as real as it gets, and the men behind the project are determined to make sure that is what viewers will get when they tune in.
The program is being executive-produced by UFC President Dana White. The mercurial promotional frontman makes a long-awaited return to boxing, a platform upon which he originally entered the fight game. When White was a young Bostonian looking to get a foothold in the sport, he sought the tutelage of trainer/manager Peter Welch, a boxing coach whose reputation in the sweet science is legendary in New England.
The final piece of the puzzle came via highly touted American Choppers and Dirty Jobs producer Craig Piligian, with whom both White and Welch had worked on several previous projects, including the landmark UFC reality series The Ultimate Fighter. White believed Piligian's knack for perspective would be the perfect vehicle to show the blue-collar grind of the "smokers" series in which Welch's boxing gym had been participating for years.
Bleacher Report was invited to a private screening of the first episode and talked to the three collaborators about how the project came together.
"Peter Welch and I go back 25 years to when I was boxing at the Somerville Boxing Club," White told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "He's a legend not just in boxing, but fighting in general in the Boston area. I actually sought him out because I was looking for this guy everywhere. I chased him around nonstop and finally connected with him because I wanted him to train me. He was my trainer for a long time, and then we actually started a business together in boxing where we were working with inner-city kids. We also worked with businessmen and women and anyone who wanted to learn how to box, which was unheard of at the time. We were involved in every aspect of boxing except promoting, which Peter eventually did.
"I ended up moving back to Vegas to work on some things in boxing, but then ended up jumping into this UFC business. Piligian had done a reality show with Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta on the Discovery Channel called American Casino. When we were looking to get the UFC on television, we ended up hooking up with Piligian and The Ultimate Fighter was born. Through that show I brought Peter out and he was the boxing coach for the first three seasons of TUF. Those two got to know each other, and through our continued relationships with one another, that is how this show came to be.
"Piligian and I have worked on a lot of different projects over the years, and he's not like any of these other guys you hear about," White added. "He is the best reality show producer in television, bar none. His style of shooting is what reality shows are supposed to be. It's a 'fly on the wall' approach where he gets right in there. Nothing he does is scripted or manipulated. It is what it is. That's his style, and in my opinion, is the way reality shows should be."
The three longtime friends collaborated to put the show's focus on a brand of storytelling they believed would not only highlight a very unique struggle, but one that had the potential to resonate with fans of sports entertainment. With Piligian's "fly on the wall" approach to camerawork and Welch's ties to the hardscrabble boxing scene on Boston's south side, all the elements were in place to bring the audience a much different look than anything currently being done in reality television.
"Pete had already been doing these things called smokers," Piligian explained. "We talked all the time as is, and he would tell me about these smokers where they would put on shows every Friday night to compete with other gyms in the area. He would get together with the other boxing coaches, and they would determine the matchups and who was going to fight at these shows.
"I called up Dana and told him about these smokers Pete was putting on and asked him if he thought that would make a good reality show. Dana liked the idea and was in, so I called up Pete to ask him if he thought the fighters would agree to be on camera as they went through these things.
"That is when the idea really started to come together. The coaches could get together every week to determine who was going to fight, and then the fighters would step in and get after it. We are intent on being purists in how we deliver our reality product. It was the same with The Ultimate Fighter because we have done it in a very pure way. That is the beauty of doing a show like this because it didn't take much to get a cast of great characters."
While boxing serves as the most visible aspect of the show, it is the unique cast of characters which ultimately drives the vehicle forward. The first episode unleashes a chaotic blend of individuals that runs the spectrum from those who combust to those who simmer in a constant downward spiral. The inaugural coaches meeting of the show results in a fistfight, and then, later in the episode, we are introduced to the two combatants involved in the opening bout who are each battling their own circumstances.
One young fighter is living out of his car, while his soon-to-be opponent is only four months removed from drug addiction. Both find a level of peace in the turbulent storm of the fight, and White believes showing this perspective will only improve the general public's understanding of the life-changing impact a boxing program can have.
"There were two other boxing shows out there previously but neither of them made it," White said. "Our show is different. If you go behind the scenes in the boxing world, you are going to find the craziest cast of characters you could ever meet. It is a very unique and crazy sport with a lot of unique and crazy people. What makes better reality television than intriguing personalities?
"It's very character driven. People are so quick to attach all of these negative stigmas to fighting, and that doesn't allow them to see the good that can come out of it. The one kid on the first episode of the show had been sober for four months, and he turned to fighting to make those changes in his life.
"I also love this show being on Discovery," he added. "You go to different channels and they have all these different themes. One channel tries to be funny. Another tries to bring you dramas. Discovery has something for everyone. You can be a man, woman or child and there will always be something on Discovery you are interested in. That is why this show fits in so well at Discovery. It has something for everyone. If you are a huge boxing fan, you are going to love this show. If you've never watched boxing a day in your life, you are going to love this show. It is a great television show with a great cast of characters."
While there is no doubting the fact the team of White, Piligian and Welch are shooting for success and solid ratings out of the gate, the group also holds high hopes on a larger scale. Where the sport of boxing once ruled the combat sports universe and produced icons and legends, the discipline has been on a steady decline over the past 15 years.
Save for a handful of legitimate superstars, the infrastructure that once made the sport great has all but deteriorated as gyms across the country have closed up shop for good. While the rise of the UFC created a large shift in public interest between the two sports, it is the group's collective opinion that the demise of the farm system in boxing has brought the sport to its current state.
The gyms in fighting cities across the country used to cultivate talent from an early age, but that process has been halted on a grand scale and is showing little sign of improving. Welch, a longtime gym owner, shared his thoughts on why this has happened and how the problem spread rapidly.
"The thing with boxing is that it is a neighborhood sport," he said. "The grittiest, blue-collar neighborhoods produce the best fighters. And that's what we are. There are countless neighborhoods in the country that are just like us. What has hurt boxing over the past 25 years is the sanctioning body—USA Boxing—didn't allow us to do smokers. They ceased all smokers.
"So a guy who has a little storefront gym and pays 300 bucks a month can't make that 300 bucks a month from charging people at the door when they run smokers. Then guess what? He goes out of business and has to close his doors because of it and that neighborhood doesn't have boxing anymore. The next thing you know, it happens throughout the city. Then boxing is gone. We don't even exist when it comes to the Olympics because we no longer have that farm system when it comes to boxing. You can see it in the pros. It is international, with talent coming from all over the world because we don't have homegrown talent anymore."
The sport of boxing has certainly taken its fair share of hits over the past two decades, but White isn't willing to give up on a sport that has meant so much to him. The Boston native started his professional life in the boxing business, and while it was his work in the UFC that ultimately made him successful, he refuses to give up on his first love.
He still believes there is hope for boxing and feels The Fighters has the potential to bring some much-needed attention to the sport by highlighting the grassroots struggle. The show is his chance to give something back to a sport that has meant so much to him throughout his life.
"It's huge," White said of the opportunity the show brings to boxing. "I love the sport, and getting this on Discovery was big. For the last 13 years I've been the enemy of boxing. That is how those guys have felt about me. Like I'm trying to kill boxing or something, and that simply isn't the case. I love boxing and I think this show is great. I think this show is going to be a hit, and on Thursday night we are going to find out if I'm right or wrong. I think this is going to be great for the sport and can make people look at it a different way."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.