A tribute to Najai Turpin: How NBC's The Contender Destroyed A Good Man!

By Brian Sutcliffe as told to Scott Shaffer


A tribute to Najai Turpin: How NBC's The Contender Destroyed A Good Man!

Brian Sutcliffe is a 38 year-old vice president at Merrill Lynch in Bala Cynyd, Pennsylvania.  A self-described upper-middle class white guy, Brian works out at the James Shuler Memorial Gym in West Philadelphia where he befriended a young middleweight named Najai Turpin.  Last year, Turpin was selected to participate in NBC’s boxing reality show, The Contender. It seemed like the chance of a lifetime for Turpin, but it turned out to be the end of his lifetime.  Turpin lost his bout during the taping of The Contender and apparently took his own life shortly before the first epsiode aired.  Sutcliffe reached out to Boxingtalk, and with a little encouragement, he turned his thoughts and memories into this article. Boxingtalk is proud to present Brian’s story in his own words as a tribute to the late Najai Turpin.

My story starts with Robert Hines, who was the IBF junior middleweight champion back in the late 1980s I met him in 1996 and asked him to teach me how to box. He introduced me to the James Shuler Memorial Gym in West Philly and I found a beautiful place there with great people. It really is everything you would never expect from a boxing gym and it is a center of the community.

I met first Najai Turpin seven years ago when I stumbled onto this gym where he trained.  I was working out with Robert Hines, who brought me into Shuler’s.  That neighborhood is full of drug dealers and gangs.  The kids who train there, all they know growing up is death.  I am an upper middle class white guy, an investment professional.  I can't tell you how wrong I was to be scared. The people at this gym are so warm and caring. They are all so beautiful in such a bad place.

I was taken with the way these kids are helped through this place. A lot of them are troubled youths who don't have families.  This gym is a brotherhood and it teaches them not to steal, not to deal, not to join a gang. These kids are taught humility and respect. These are tough kids who never complain and show their elders respect. It molds them into adults who are respectful of their community and people around them. Najai was one of these kids. He was so shy. When you talked with him, you realized how warm a person he was. I saw the life these kids had, and I realized that if I were dealt the cards they were, I would never have been able to survive. But they never complained about anything. These kids are all so nice like Najai.  Since that time I have bought many of my friends to Shuler’s and they all feel the same way. The gym is run by trainer Percy Custus.  It really is a testament to what Percy has done. He is a tough-as-nails guy with the biggest heart.  His only fault is he cares too much. A number of boxers from his gym have died, including Tybius Flowers, who was murdered last year shortly before he was to appear as a key witness in a murder trial. But I think this last death was the worst. Najai really was special in how much he cared about people.  He was twice the person I am. I have been trying to get grants for the gym and donations from clients for this place.

The gym is a non-profit organization but it really gets no funding. People find it more politically correct to send money to cancer research, so Percy basically winds up supporting the gym out of his own pocket. Shuler’s really serves the community but I believe that because it is associated with boxing it gets no funding.  Percy wants to run a summer program but he lacks the money.  He needs to pay other trainers. Most of the kids come to the gym for free or pay only if they have some money. Percy can't work with everyone.

Najai was, to say the least, eccentric. We used to laugh with him all the time about the things he would do. He never slept in the bed. His brother went to jail when he was like 15 years old and after that Najai considered himself the man of the house. He slept under the bed or in the closet with a gun. Mostly I think he was scared of getting shot but it was something he always did. When he would go away to camp before fights he would sleep in the van. He was a little strange in that regard. He would even laugh about it. He liked to sleep at the gym in a back room a lot as his girlfriend and daughter lived next to the gym.

I am the person whose idea it was to have Najai audition for The Contender.  As a matter of fact, I made his audition video. He was a great fighter and we thought that this show would help him. He was one of the kindest people I have ever met. and I can only pray I would have a son with half of his qualities. The contract Najai signed with the producers of The Contender forbade him from discussing the results.  We know now that Najai lost his first bout by decision to Sergio Mora.  After he left the show, he was left without a support structure.  He was completely alone and felt he let everyone down.

The real tragedy in all of this was the fact that he was one of many kids pulled from the streets in West Philadelphia into Shuler's. Najai was a perfect example of a troublesome youngster who became a respectful, loving person. It was the gym that made him that way. I fell in love with this place and the people it helps.

Shuler’s served as Najai’s family. After he joined, he still saw his friends dying around him, but now a least he had a support system in place. The tragedy of The Contender is that the confidentiality requirement he had to sign prevented him from dealing with his loss through the only support system he had.  I know they needed to keep the show a secret but it hurts me that he might have been able to survive this depression if he had a been able to discuss what he was going through inside. It is all nice that they are setting up a trust fund for his daughter [although it doesn’t appear that they are even contributing to the fund] but they are missing the real story. That gym was Najai’s life. It was taken away from him and I am devastated by these events. As a mater of fact in the extended interview that The Contender posted on Yahoo TV, Najai says he wishes I or Buster (as he calls Percy) was there to give him some words of encouragement. I can't tell you how I feel about his [apparent] suicide. This world lost someone who was a truly special person, someone who wanted to make others happy and proud.

This story is not just about boxing any more.  It is about people. That is all this sport ever has been about. From as far back as I can tell, this sport is dominated by the underprivileged. The Contender should try to help all the other hundreds of kids in that neighborhood that they didn't pick for the show. They should help that gym because they sure need it.  I know his daughter was his life but she will probably be more than taken care of with the donations. The producers of the show should set up a fund to help that gym. There are a hundred other Najai's down there that nobody cares about. Nobody but that gym. They are all the purest souls I have ever met. They get support and hope from that place. That is all they really have and Najai was a prime example of the good work this gym does.

Najai usually fought at 148. These guys on The Contender were all so much bigger than him. Najai looked like he gained weight out there. I know he did when he came back. He had to be six inches shorter than Mora. Najai wanted to fight everyone in the gym no matter how big they were. He was so slick.  He fights like Bernard Hopkins or James Toney. He was beautiful to watch, a natural counterpuncher. He just rolled with every punch and countered back. God, I loved watching him. He was a natural and I have no doubt he would have been champ. He sparred with so many world class guys in that gym and everyone felt the same way. Robert Hines used to rave that Najai had so much more talent than he ever had.

Our biggest concern when Najai went away to the show was the fact that he would be away from Percy. The show would not allow Percy to go or visit. We had even suggested that we have Percy near by in a hotel or something so he could see Najai from time to time while he was out there. We laughed with Najai about what the over/under line should be on how long it would be before he tried to escape. On the show, they ended up putting him in a room with Ahmed Kaddour and as you can see from the first three episodes, Ahmed is crazy. Najai never would want to share a room with any one. I am sure he was unsettled by this arrangement because he called Percy every day and said how much he hated it out there and that it was not about training and fighting but more about T.V. I guess they wanted drama. The show would call Percy and ask if he could get Najai to talk more and Percy would tell them he was a fighter not an actor. Najai was a great fighter but he was guarded and reserved. He was not loud or disrespectful. These are attributes he learned from Percy. Anyway, the show kept him locked up for a couple of months. I think he did escape a few times just to get away and have some freedom. He didn't necessarily want to jump on a train but I just think he needed Najai time. We all thought that this would be a great experience for him to come out of his shell somewhat. When he came back, he seemed happy and told us what a great time he had so we believed he made these adjustments. I think back and wonder if he felt that The Contender was his only shot.  However, when he came back he was not allowed to discuss the show.  Believe me, Najai would do what he was told. He obeyed people like nobody else I know.  We also did not want to ask how he did because we knew he wasn’t supposed to say anything but he was not the type to lie to anyone. I don't think he was capable of lying. So we never asked but we assumed he had done well
because of certain things we heard. We thought everything was working for him and he was finally getting his break.

Well, now it looks like he really needed to talk to someone. He needed encouragement or to get back into the ring. He wanted to fight again so badly but his agreement with The Contender didn’t even allow him to attend a fight. But one time, he snuck into his friend Yusef Mack's fight at the Blue Horizon because he wanted to see him fight. He trained when he came back, but not hard as he was not preparing for anything. He always got through hard times, like when Ty Flowers got murdered, by training for a fight. But this time, he was just waiting. He was a professional athlete and he needed to focus on something. Well the months of delays (the show’s premiere got pushed back more than once) dragged on and he was more and more frustrated. I think he really felt he needed to redeem himself for losing on The Contender. I don't know and never will know for sure what was the trigger. These are just my assessments of the events. I hold a great deal of sadness now as I wish I had never pushed him into this situation. He wanted to go on the show but I think he was also nervous. I just thought it was such a great opportunity. Percy always questioned the show and how it was "Hollywood" and they don't care about these kids as much as it was about ratings. I always told Percy to not worry and it was all going to work out. He was going to be great and the country would fall in love with this kid. I guess Percy was right and I was wrong. I don't blame myself but I wish he had been able to fight or talk to people about what was going on in his mind. He kept so much hidden from everyone
including Percy. I just feel now like he may have felt he let us down. He was my hero and I would have done anything for him. I hope that the pressure of failing was not too great.

The more I think about it the more The Contender bothers me. The show really was neglectful in helping him cope with his stress. When he came back, we had no idea Najai had lost. He couldn't talk to us about it, he needed to talk to someone. And the people at the Contender could see how devastated he was after the loss. Sylvester Stallone was never a fighter he didn't know what it felt like to lose a real fight but Ray Leonard should have known how much it must have hurt. He needed friends. If he had lost in a live fight all his friends would have been hugging him and telling him it was alright. Instead we were in the dark, congratulating him and telling him how excited we were to see the show, etc. But the airing of the show was delayed and delayed and it just kept eating him up. He never mentioned it to anyone. His life must have been hell. I think this is so horrible. I guess I just wish I could have spoken to him about what he was going through. I would have told him this loss to Mora was nothing. Told him things he needed to hear to prop up his spirits. This is not about a fight. This was a human being who needed support.

After taping was finished, nobody from the show, not Stallone, Leonard or any of the producers or executives ever called Percy or the gym.  They showed up at the funeral and got their faces in, but then they just left. It was so obvious to us after watching this show how much he was hurting. It just shows how little they cared. These guys from the show only cared about ratings. Najai was just left out there anticipating this date. He wanted so bad to start fighting. We didn't realize how much he really needed to get on with things. Now in hindsight, I see why he wanted to fight so badly. He needed a purpose and he needed to have his confidence rebuilt. It was my idea to put him on the show. I made the video. I pushed this on him. I had good intentions. I told Percy not to worry, this was his shot. I told Najai that this was going to be a great experience when he started to say he wasn't sure if he wanted to go. My father used to say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Well, that is how I feel now.  This whole thing just fell apart.  I just thought it would all be completely professional. I thought that with NBC involved, it was going to be legitimate. Now I look even the editing of the show and I realize they are showing only what they want us to see. They even edited Najai’s speech after the fight. They take out the statement "Since I was out here I never cried so much". They make it look like he was saying he broke his promise to his daughter when he was actually talking about a promise to another boxer. I have no idea what we are watching. The crowd shots could be from any round. They edit out 2/3 of each round. I think I even saw them repeat sequences of punches. This is just what Percy said it was going to be, too Hollywood. Percy was like this kid’s father. He is so lost right now. He has lost too many kids to violence at that gym. This hurts him so much. We all felt like we wish we could have helped Najai. and now Najai is gone.

We were blind to these events until after Najai killed himself. If I had seen this show I would have given him a hug and told him how great he fought and how good he did, just like everyone else in his life would have done. He didn't get that support. I know other people lose all the time, but Najai was one of the ones who needed help getting through these losses.

I watched Najai’s post fight interview, [online at http://contender.tv.yahoo.com/01/index.html] and it was such a shock to me, Percy and everyone else who was close to Najai.  He never let us see this breakdown. This image will haunt me forever. My friends and I were all telling Najai he was finally going to be a star. When he came back, He had to keep this all bottled up for months. He said "Mr. Brian, Mr. Herb, Mr. Buster, I wish you were here to give me words of encouragement and support." He was so respectful and called all adults Mr.  It was just another great quality of his. You don't know how this pains us. I am forever going to be haunted by those words on the video and the fact that my actions when he returned only probably added gasoline to the fire. I kept telling him how excited everyone was to watch the fight, how we were going to have a big party and invite the world to watch when he was going to fight. We had no idea he lost!!! He had no one to help him and we only made his pain worse. Najai’s life was the sport. It is such a tragedy and it saddens me beyond belief.

For those who would like to help Najai’s family at the gym by making make a donation, the address is

James Shuler Memorial Boxing Gym
Attn: Percy Custus
750 N. Brooklyn St.
Philadelphia, PA 19104
The gym is a non-profit with 501c(3) status.


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