'Celebrity Boxing' is a Stiff

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At the outset of Fox's Celebrity Boxing Wednesday night, announcer Michael Buffer stood proudly in the middle of the ring and intoned with a straight face, "Ladies and gentlemen, please rise as we honor America..." To which America, collectively, replied: Uh, "honor"?

It would have been a pretty bold statement, even if it hadn't been immediately followed by Howie from Backstreet Boys doing a tuneless rendition of the national anthem with his sister. (Which just goes to show you, there are greater degradations than those *NSync Chili's Baby Back Ribs commercials.) This was, after all, the already-legendary newest low point in reality TV, three three-round bouts between professional has-beens on network prime time. But congratulations, Fox: if by "honor" you meant "titillate, tease and ultimately leave feeling slightly dirty," well, mission accomplished!

As Linda Richman would once have said, Celebrity Boxing was actually neither celebrity nor boxing. Given the matchups — Danny "Danny Partridge" Bonaduce vs. Barry "Greg Brady" Williams, Todd "Different Strokes" Bridges vs. Rob "Vanilla Ice" Van Winkle and Tonya "Kneecaps" Harding vs. Paula "Kiss It" Jones — it would better have been called "Didn't You Used To Be a Celebrity? Boxing." And the pugilism was more like flailing than boxing (plus, with 16-ounce gloves strapped to the fighters' hands and cushiony sparring helmets on, nobody was likely to emerge too bloodied) but then, nobody was tuning in for a grand display of sport.

And Celebrity Boxing did not disappoint. In fight 1, the battle of the child stars, Barry Williams entered the ring like an old man ready to die, sunken-eyed and flabby. Bonaduce bounced into the ring with an outsized confidence for a man who spends his days co-hosting "The Other Half," looking like he'd done plenty of bodywork since his well-publicized bouts with drugs. Sure enough, he sloppily but quickly dispatched Williams, who threw in the towel in the second round. Williams, who took as many standing 8 counts as Ali did in his career, gamely said in the post-fight interview that he wasn't really hurt, just dazed. "I spent the entire decade of the 80s dazed, so I'm used to it," countered Bonaduce, who has one shtick and works it harder than Yakov Smirnoff.

The second round was probably the most strictly athletic. Bridges came in, to a heavy-metal version of the "Different Strokes" theme — looking surprisingly buff for those of us who remember him as Willis. Van Winkle (apparently forced to use his old moniker Vanilla Ice under protest for this bout) was identified as an accomplished athlete in terms of motorcross. Van Winkle went three rounds, but must have eventually wished he had a getaway bike, as Bridges whomped his way to a easy win on points.

It was a credit to the triumph of women's athletics, I guess, that the female bout was the main event. Harding tromped into the ring like the bitter little ball of anger we remember so fondly from 1994. (She was introduced as "the only world-class athlete" of all six competitors, omitting the whole unpleasant knee-bashing business, but I'm sure Jones had her gloves inspected for horseshoes anyway.) The giggly Jones seemed to think the whole match was a big joke. Neither woman would disclose her weight because, you know, women who volunteer for Fox Celebrity Boxing are the shy type.

Harding was the heavy favorite, and the crowd went wild the few times Jones landed a punch. But by the second round, the woman who nearly brought down a president was running away from Harding, seemingly in tears. To her credit, she made it to round three, when she miserably asked for the fight to be stopped — while Harding came up and popped her anyway, in the back of the head. The crowd booed, but Tonya's probably immune to that by now, and she accepted her win with what was probably the closest to graciousness she's ever come: "I knocked her down a few times," she said. "That's all that matters."

TV critics are probably worst qualified to review spectacles like Celebrity Boxing because they sit in a quiet room, alone, watching entertainments that are probably best enjoyed loudly with other people, preferably drunk. But from where I was sitting, Celebrity Boxing was not nearly as pleasurable in practice as in concept. It was funny as an idea — its inspiration, MTV's claymation "Celebrity Deathmatch," is hilarious. But as an actual event, it still came down to cheering as two has-beens sloppily beat the crap out of each other, which becomes sickly real when you're watching Todd Bridges pop poor Rob Vanilla Winkle's head like a tetherball. It finally felt like watching, in some grimy corner of some city, watching two winos whale on each other in a back room for $20 and a bottle of Ripple. It should have been a guilty pleasure, but there just wasn't enough pleasure to cut the guilt. This was boxing at its skeeviest and most degrading, a 21st-century version of "Invisible Man"'s Battle Royal scene, but with movie commercials.

I will say this: Celebrity Boxing accomplished something I thought was impossible. It made me feel genuinely sorry for its limelight-grubbing pugilists. Perhaps most pathetic, in each fight one of the boxers had the name of a gambling websiite — goldenpalace.com — literally written on their skin. Because, you know, getting pummeled in front of a hooting crowd for a few more fleeting hits on the fame bong isn't truly humiliating unless you get branded like a steer too.

You finally had to wonder: what's next? Celebrity Porn? You can't tell me there aren't people who would pay good money to watch Barry Williams finally get it on with Maureen McCormick...

OK, I'm having my agent call Fox right now. Don't even try to steal the idea.