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A Fight to Remember

EW staffer goes up against the ''Champ'' -- Fox's ''Next Great Champ'' gets the first punch in the reality TV boxing wars

You need heart if you plan on becoming the next great champ. You also need courage, guts, and determination. But if you're found lacking those four things, ignorance and a willingness to get your head bashed in will do. That's why I decided to slap on some oversize trunks and join the hopefuls competing on Fox's new inside-the-ring reality series (which airs Tuesdays at 9). But I wasn't training for a spot on the program, in which 12 amateur and recently-turned-pro boxers compete for a fighting contract and a title fight within the World Boxing Organization (WBO). I had another mission in mind: to go one round with The Next Great Champ's host, eight-time world champion Oscar De La Hoya.

It wouldn't be easy. After all, I'm weak. Scary weak. At 6 foot 2 and 140 pounds (after a big meal), I look like a toothpick sculpture, so if I were gonna try this, I'd have to learn from the best. Unfortunately, Burgess Meredith died in 1997, and Rocky is attached to NBC's boxing reality series The Contender, so I was forced to go to Plan C. That entailed getting some instruction from Next Great Champ trainers Lou Duva and Tommy Brooks. Maybe they could make me eat lightning and crap thunder.

I arrive at a warehouse in downtown L.A. that serves as the gym for the aspiring ass kickers, who are going through an intense workout. But the most shocking thing is what's not in the gym: cameras. ''It's not like we're doing this for TV,'' says Paul ''The Perfect Storm'' Scianna, a 30-year-old clothing designer from Jersey. ''None of us worked out for this show. We worked out, and the show came to us.''

I'm introduced to Lou and Tommy. These guys are hardcore: Lou's trained 19 world champions, including Evander Holyfield. Brooks? He worked with some guy named Tyson. They size me up and do the only thing they can do: laugh. Lou orders me to give him 20 crunches, but after watching my pathetic attempt, he immediately downgrades it to 15. I follow this up with a medicine-ball drill in which I accidentally throw the 12-pound ball too high, almost hitting the jaw of Gilbert ''The General'' Zaragoza (who just went pro after spending three years in prison). Great, I've just made enemies with the ex-con of the group. That said, the TNGC pugilists are a friendly bunch. Otis ''Triple O.G.'' Griffin, a correctional officer, is kind enough to offer a few pointers; Mike ''Pit Bull'' Vallejo is the resident class clown; and Rene ''Lone Star'' Armijo Jr., the youngest fighter at 20, marvels at the diversity of the group (''We look like a bag of mixed M&M's''). But friendly extends only so far. They're all here to win.

Not me. I just want to survive one round with the champ. Brooks puts me through his famed 30-second drill and pronounces my workout over. Before dismissing me, he offers some words of encouragement: ''Hey, call your wife first and say goodbye.''

After a long, hot bath, I'm back at the warehouse when in walks De La Hoya. Now's my chance to mess with his head. Should I talk a little smack before we get in the ring, or recite a few lyrics from his self-titled CD? Nah, too easy. Instead, I distract him by deflecting his anger toward The Contender, exec-produced by Mr. Survivor, Mark Burnett. Fox tried to nab the program, but was outbid by NBC; soon after, Fox unveiled TNGC. Naturally, cries of copycat programming were flung. ''Everybody and his mother had a boxing pitch,'' says Fox's reality guru Mike Darnell. ''I did Celebrity Boxing a couple of years ago, and so I've always liked boxing.'' But with Fox airing its version two months before NBC's, Mark Burnett Productions and DreamWorks Television claim they were sucker punched and made two failed attempts in court to prevent Fox's show from airing. ''I just do not understand how the people from The Contender are saying I copied them,'' replies De La Hoya. ''I mean, this is my sport! We didn't steal nothing from nobody.''

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