PHILADELPHIA (AP) – Plucked from a tough neighborhood in Philadelphia, Najai Turpin tried to emulate the “Rocky” story and rise from unknown boxer to inspirational star fighter.

Turpin even jogged the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art as an homage to the fictional fighter for Sylvester Stallone’s boxing reality show, “The Contender.”

The footage got an earlier-than-expected premiere, played as part of a continuous highlight reel at Turpin’s funeral.

Days after police say Turpin, 23, shot himself in the head in a parked car outside the gym where he trained, those closest to him remained baffled about why he took his life. Stallone, Sugar Ray Leonard and NBC executives were among the mourners who packed a Baptist church on Friday.

“He was a very mysterious man,” said Stallone, who developed the boxing series with reality TV mogul Mark Burnett. “He was very quiet, very shy. You never knew what was on his mind.”

Stallone and Leonard, one of the hosts of the TV show, paused at the open casket, where a pair of yellow boxing gloves rested atop his coffin.

Karen Conyers knew Turpin – or “Nitro” to his friends -since he was 8 and recalled how excited he was about earning a shot at stardom.

“It was somebody from the hood that made it,” she said. “He was going to be big and famous. He was like somebody that came from the projects and was going to look out for everybody in the projects.”

Turpin had a 13-1 record and had won a city Recreation Department title in Philadelphia before being picked for “The Contender.” He seemed to have a happy home life with his girlfriend and 2-year-old daughter.

“When you see the show, you’ll see he was so full of life,” Stallone said. “When he was with his daughter and his girlfriend, he was so open, so expressive.”

None of it seemed to match with a man who committed suicide only weeks before his big break that could have kick-started his career.

“The Contender,” which follows the lives of 16 boxers competing for a million-dollar prize, began taping six months ago and is scheduled to debut March 7.

The episodes involving Turpin had already been taped, and footage showed Turpin smiling and sparring. One of the executive producers said he saw no signs of trouble from the young fighter.

“He was a tough kid. Everybody was afraid to fight him,” said Jeff Wald. “He was perceived to be on one of the tougher guys.”

Something, though, changed for Turpin when he returned home. His sister, Launita, said she had noticed a difference in her brother’s attitude, that he had been staying out late and partying while slacking off in his training.

She told the Philadelphia Daily News this week that her brother often complained of being too tired to train.

Life back in the housing projects was nothing like the high life he had been living.

“This ain’t no Hollywood show. This here is the real thing,” said pastor Tokunbo Adelekan, who mixed the Book of Job with an LL Cool J rap in his eulogy.

Burnett said there were signs that Turpin’s rough surroundings had taken a toll: He wouldn’t sleep in his bed while the series was taping because he was used to sleeping under his bed or in his closet for fear of bullets or burglars.

NBC started a trust fund for the boxer’s daughter, and viewers can contribute. Stallone said he never could have imagined this ending for Turpin.

“He said, ‘I have greatness. I feel greatness for me,”‘ he said.

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