Any movie buff knows the iconic Marlon Brando line from “On The Waterfront,” one which has been mentioned millions of times in conversations over the years. The good news is that for at least 15 young fighters, the historic series by that name, which started the genre of sports reality shows on TV, is returning this week, with a champion who was much more than a Contender as its lead voice.
Recreated by Mark Burnette and much of the original production team, the boxing reality series “The Contender” will begin its fall run this Friday on premium service EPIX, leading to a live championship bout in November. While previous versions of the show have had to adhere to more conservative rules of broadcast TV, this version will be a fight fans, either casual or diehard, dream, with deep story lines, and for the first time full fights, something which earlier shows did not have. Also at the helm as coach this time is undefeated boxing Champion and Olympic gold medalist Andre Ward, taking over the role Sugar Ray Leonard held early on in the series. With Ward at the helm, the series will not miss a beat.
“The fights and the stories of our guys, all of them, will bring people back to watch every week, I’m as proud to be associated with this show as with anything I have done in my career,” the Bay Area resident, who left the ring with a perfect 32-0 mark, said on Tuesday at the legendary bar Foleys NYC in the midst of a three day media blitz for the show. “There is something here for everyone.”
Part of that something is Ward, who has transitioned nicely from the ring to other ventures, which include his role in this show, a new gig calling fights for ESPN, and a reprise of his role as Danny ‘Stuntman’ Wheeler,” in the much anticipated upcoming film “CREED II” which will make it to theaters the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. All those roles, as well as that of being a father and husband, have kept Ward quite busy to this point in the summer, and long into the fall.
“I love this next stage of my career,” he said. “I have gotten to see boxing from a whole different side, and the time spent around CREED II, listening and learning from Sly Stallone and watching Michael B. Jordan carry out his role has been a great learning experience for me. It has been really busy, but it’s been extremely gratifying and rewarding as well.’
For those who may not be that familiar with “The Contender,” the series, which spawned reality series like the UFC’s ultra-popular “The Ultimate Fighter,” and in some respects HBO hits like “24/7” and “Hard Knocks,” will have fighters from all walks of life broken down into two teams, one trained by the legendary Freddie Roach, the other by another legend. Nazeem Richardson, with one hand picked fighter squaring off against another each week. While the shows were recorded this past summer, the results, which do count on the fighters records, have been kept quiet, keeping the weekly drama, and the storytelling going. At the center of all of this is Ward, who consoles, counsels , and helps guide all of the fighters week in and week out. The result, we saw the first two episode in advance, is high drama with lots of realism, and some rapid fire fighting.
“I went into this knowing about the past shows, but not knowing the level of intensity or the emotional attachment that these guys’ stories can play out,” Ward added. “Even now when I have seen the shows and the fights, I marvel at the level of athleticism and the intensity that comes across. I think fans are going to love this version of the show, and will really be drawn to the fighters as their stories, and the fights play out.”
Speaking of fights, is Ward’s career in the ring over, and is acting next on the list, now with CREED II under his belt? “This show kept me in shape and I’m excited about what could come next. As far as acting, I have a lot to learn,” he added. “The good news is like in boxing, I’m learning about acting from some of the best, but that is going to take time if at all. Right now my focus is on all the opportunities I have outside the ring, and ‘The Contender” is a big part of that.”
Coulda been a Contender? Andre Ward has been much more than that, now with a reality show that would have made Brando, one of our legendary actors, proud.