Season 5 of Mark Burnett’s boxing competition show “The Contender” is hoping to deliver a knockout punch when it premieres on EPIX Friday night.
While much has changed in both the worlds of reality TV and professional boxing in the nine-plus years since the fourth season finale aired, the essence of the series has stayed the same, host Andre Ward told TheWrap.
“I think that it would be blasphemous for me to say that it [Season 5] is better” than the first four seasons, Ward said. “I just want people to view it, make their assessments and have their own judgment.”
Original series hosts Sylvester Stallone and Sugar Ray Leonard “are guys I look up to and have a great deal of respect for, but I do think this is something special … this is an updated version but it is the same card,” the undefeated former light heavyweight champion explained.
The 12-episode series from MGM Television and Paramount Television pits 16 boxers against each other as they compete in an elimination-style competition vying for a six-figure purse. It is produced by Mark Burnett and his longtime executive producer Eric Van Wagenen, with legendary boxing trainers Freddie Roach and Naazim Richardson overseeing a team of eight fighters each.
“I can’t stress just how real it is enough,” Ward told TheWrap. “My biggest frustration is that people think it is very scripted — the fights are not scripted and we literally do not know who is going to win.
“Some guys have physical injuries, you see kids crying, you see wives crying — this is what we go through as fighters and combatants. Some people say we’re crazy for doing it but it runs through our blood,” the former Olympic gold medalist added.
Two ways in which “The Contender” is actually tougher than real-life boxing is its tight filming schedule (the series was shot at a secret L.A. location fully equipped with a ring, gym and kitchen manned by a team of chefs) and the fighter’s tight living quarters.
“The contestants had to make weight, which is extremely hard when you have a fight eight weeks away, but they had one every few days. That means that you can’t eat normally because you have to curb your appetite to stay within a weight range,” Ward explained. “They trained really hard and they didn’t take any days off. It is one thing when you’re isolated away from your opponent but when that individual is to the left or right of you in the same gym — it makes you train harder, it pushes you to a different kind of level.”
Sports media has been rampant over recent years with statistics claiming a decline in popularity for boxing, especially among younger audiences, but Ward said that “reports of boxing’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. The critics say it’s been on life support all these years, then you look up and it’s still alive and kicking. You go to a huge fight in Vegas or New York and you still get 10 or 12,000 people, so that doesn’t tell me that boxing is dying.”
However, “it is tough to say where boxing is — obviously in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s … that was definitely a different time in the sport. The promoters and the fighters were different. It is hard to say where boxing is on the scale of popularity,” he continued.
Ward retired from pro boxing in September 2017 as the WBA, IBF, WBO and The Ring light heavyweight champion. And while he’s had acting roles in “Rocky” spinoff “Creed” and its upcoming sequel, he had never hosted a TV show before “The Contender.”
“It was a lot of pressure, I had big shoes to fill,” Ward said. “I knew it was going to be work but it was a lot more work than I anticipated … you have to determine how much you’re going to put into it. I would go back to my hotel room every night exhausted and study the script for the next day. Nothing you are trying to obtain that is going to be good is going to be easy,” he added.
“The Contender” premieres EPIX Friday, Aug. 24 at 9 p.m.