Retooled ‘Contender’ heads back to the ring

Tribune Media Services

Once knocked to the canvas, every honest boxer struggles to get back up and continue the fight. “The Contender” is no different.

The boxing reality series from Mark Burnett Productions (“Survivor,” “The Apprentice,” “Rock Star: INXS,” “Rock Star: Supernova”) garnered critical acclaim during its run on NBC in early 2005 but struggled to get network-sized ratings. When NBC opted not to renew, executive producer Burnett bounced back and found the series a new home on sports cable network ESPN.

“The Contender” has its two-hour season premiere Tuesday at 7 p.m. The series, with additional content provided on, ESPN360, ESPN Motion and Mobile ESPN, culminates in a live finale bout from Staples Center on Sept. 26.

Last season’s host, Sylvester Stallone, remains an executive producer, but since he’s off working on the sixth installment of the “Rocky” movie franchise, sole hosting duties fall on boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard. As he did last year, Leonard also acts as a mentor to the 16 welterweight boxers.


From the show’s five-round bouts to its cinematic look and sound, much remains the same, but missing this time around are the reality-show-style challenges that determined who got to choose the boxers in each bout of the early rounds of the tournament.

“We’re on ESPN,” Burnett said, “and we’re really focused on pleasing that audience and keeping the drama, keeping the emotion, very much like ‘Rocky,’ where you really felt that emotion. This time, we’re making it much more pure.”

With the boxers split into opposing teams, the winning team in each bout gets to choose who fights whom the next time.

“We’re removing the challenges,” Burnett said, “which didn’t really fit. Now, we’re focused on the more important stuff, which is three things: the relationships in the loft between the 16 boxers, the relationship of each boxer to his family and, of course, the fights.”


Last year’s winner, undefeated middleweight Sergio Mora, appears in Season 2, starting with the premiere. As to what advice he gave to the competitors, he said, “My piece of advice before the show was to be yourself, not to try to manipulate or build alliances or whatever, because it’s not ‘Survivor’ or ‘The Apprentice.’ It’s not a popularity contest. It’s going to be who is the better fighter and how are you going to get portrayed to millions of people watching.

“So I basically told them: ‘Be yourself. Viewers can spot who’s trying to be something they’re not, and fight your heart out, because it’s just five rounds. Don’t try to wait until the last round to catch up, because that’s how the favorite loses.’ ”