Reality TV Boxer Commits Suicide

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A contestant in the upcoming NBC boxing reality series "The Contender" fatally shot himself in the head early Monday while sitting in a parked car in West Philadelphia, police said.

Police said 23-year-old Najai Turpin shot himself in the head at 4 a.m. Monday while sitting with his girlfriend in a parked car outside the West Philadelphia gym where he trained. Investigators were unsure why he took his life.

He was only weeks away from the show's March 7 premiere.

Percy "Buster" Custus, a trainer who had worked with him since Turpin was 12, said the boxer had enjoyed his experiences with the show but seemed troubled in recent weeks. He said Turpin abruptly left a training camp in the Poconos and returned home to Philadelphia, saying he missed his family.

"None of us really know what brought this about," Custus said Tuesday. "You just want to see the boys come out of the neighborhood. From the time they're young kids, you really want to see them make it. And he was right there."

Turpin had a 13-1 record and had won a city Recreation Department title before he was picked for "The Contender."

"The Contender" chronicles boxers' efforts to win a television tournament, with a prize of $1 million. It also follows their personal lives, including their relationships with spouses and children. Turpin's girlfriend also appears in the series, NBC said. They had a two-year-old daughter.

Except for a planned live championship, set to take place in May, all the bouts in the "The Contender" have been completed and are on tape. No results of the bouts have been released.

"Nothing changes. I'm not even going to make any edits because it's real," Mark Burnett, the show's executive producer and producer of CBS' Survivor series and NBC's "The Apprentice," told The New York Times. At some point during "The Contender" series, he said, Turpin's death will be mentioned, probably in an onscreen message at the end of an episode.

Sylvester Stallone, a host and executive producer of the show, describes Turpin in the premiere episode as "a tough, punchy street kid from Philadelphia fighting for a better life for his family." Turpin had a 13-1 record.

"Moving forward, we're still mourning the loss of a man we came to know. The show will continue," an NBC spokesman for the show said. He declined to comment further. NBC plans to set up a fund to help Turpin's family.

The suicide does present a problem for the show. Each week, two boxers are selected to be the principal characters in that week's episode. Turpin must have been a principal character in at least one show, and, if he won his bout in that episode, possibly in others.

Reality TV shows are generally less expensive than scripted sitcoms and dramas, but NBC has committed to spending more than $2 million an episode for the 13-week series.

Burnett and co-producer Jeffrey Katzenberg of DreamWorks had made deals with all 16 boxers involved to promote their careers. The fighters agreed not to pursue any other matches until the series was completed this spring, and the show is paying them $1,500 a week to stay in training in the interim, Burnett said.

That prohibition on fighting until after the season finale May 24 may have made Turpin despondent, according to his trainer.

Turpin, who won a Philadelphia Recreation Department 147-pound division in 2000, apparently had gained some 20 pounds because he stopped working out, trainer Percy "Buster" Custus told the Philadelphia Daily News.

"It wasn't about the money. Fighters want to fight," Custus said Monday. "He was frustrated, because he was, like, training for nothing. He had no motivation. I don't know if that had anything to do with what happened today or not."

A contestant in the first version of Survivor, which was made for Swedish television and was not produced by Mr. Burnett, committed suicide after he was the first person voted off the island.

The incident stirred concerns about the risks of reality television, and led Burnett to conduct extensive psychological tests on his contestants. The boxers on "The Contender" also had undergone psychological testing.

A biography of Mr. Turpin on the show's Web site said he had been a restaurant employee who worked cleaning seafood when he was not training for his matches.

The biography described him as determined to use his boxing career to create a better life for himself and his family.
  • Lloyd Vries

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