The sweet science is in the middle of another fascinating year around the sun, with major fights itching to take up some Saturday night real estate in the coming weeks. But in the meantime, just as all else on television, there’s a revival afoot thanks to EPIX with The Contender.
The boxing competition program returns with a refreshed group of talents who give a huge jolt to the franchise after several years away from the sporting conscious. As discussed last month, future Hall of Fame pugilist Andre Ward takes the hosting mantle of the reboot, with sixteen fighters competing for a $250,000 purse and a step into the big time in the boxing world. The reprisal has Freddie Roach (cornerman for Manny Pacquiao, Miguel Cotto and others) and Naazim Richardson (who worked with Bernard Hopkins, ‘Sugar’ Shane Mosley and more) flanking the corners for two teams of combatants who live and train under the same roof in hopes of that greater life.
Beyond the previous chat, TSFJ had the chance to not only screen the first two episodes of show, but speak with Ward as he came to New York’s famed Foley’s NY Pub and Restaurant to promote the show as well as his turn in the upcoming flick, Creed II.
TSFJ: In the show itself, you have sixteen hungry boxers who are trying to grab the top spot, but they are training and living together through the competition. It’s not the normal experience for boxers, especially when they are in training camps. Did the show’s setup remind you in any way of your experiences in preparing for fights?
Ward: I would say that the gym atmosphere was like camp, but everything else was different. I told the guys that I don’t think I could do the show (if I was active). I came up in the old school way where you stay as far away from the opponent as possible. I don’t want to see you, I don’t want to see anybody from your camp! If we do see someone from your camp, we’re gonna kick him out of the gym! (Laughs) That’s what I came up doing, that’s the mindset I have.
So you see these guys interact where they walk past each other every day. They’re living together, they’re training together. Like, you’re fighting a guy a couple of days from now, he’s watching you. He’s watching you and maybe you have a bad day sparring or something. That dynamic was totally different for me, but I’m sure for most of the guys there, they made the adjustment. Some guys were okay with it and other guys weren’t. The guys who weren’t, maybe you saw them withdraw a bit within themselves, kind of do their own thing. It’s a dynamic you can’t get around if you’re going to be on the show.
TSFJ: Talking about adjustments, these fighters came in with their own profiles and styles, developed with their own trainers. Now they come in and work with two legends in Richardson and Roach. With these guys, they know what their trainers have told them for years, now you have two Hall of Famers that may tell them something different. Did you see a lot of consternation with the fighters in this different environment – trying to balance what they know with what Richardson and Roach are telling them?
Ward: it was an ongoing process, it was a learning curve. Without giving up too much, there were times where certain fighters got into it with the trainers. There’s a lot of testosterone, you know (laughs)? There are guys with lots of different backgrounds going after one goal – $250,000, The Contender championship and hopefully, a household name.
I’ll give you an example. You’ve got Eric Walker out of Baton Rouge, who did ten-plus years in a Louisiana state prison. Then you’ve got Shane Mosley, Jr., who did not grow up in the streets, but he’s been fighting to come out of his father’s shadow, sort of speak. So it’s that type of dynamic, those kinds of ebbs and flows that saw and felt. It’s very, very real. Very real.
TSFJ: Working with Richardson and Roach puts three Hall of Famers in the same project. You’ve never worked with them in your in-ring career, but what was the atmosphere like when working with them on the show?
Ward: I’ve grown up with Naazim, working in the amateurs. This was my first time working with Freddie, and he’s a great dude. Down to earth and knowledgeable. Being that all three of us were in the gym, in the room, in the house? All of these guys had no excuses to not succeed.
TSFJ: What kind of stories did you guys tell?
Ward: (In excitement) Ah, man, listen! We did a segment after each fight that we called ‘Coach’s Corner.’ I hope there’s a heavy dose of that, if not in each episode, at least online. EPIX had to pull us away each time because we just kept going off-topic, talking about fighters and (everything). ‘Coach’s Corner’ was probably my best moment.
TSFJ: For brief moments in the first two episodes, we get to see the show’s first star, Sergio Mora. (Mora won the first season of The Contender, which aired on NBC in 2004-05, and is a one-time WBC light middleweight champion.) How much involvement did he have with the reboot, if there was any at all?
Ward: He was involved a lot in terms of sparring with guys, mentoring guys. He was at every fight. He wasn’t on camera for every episode, but he was very much involved, had his hands on it and cared about (the fighters). He did everything in his power to assist these guys and promote the show, and that was really cool for me to see.
He wasn’t the (stereotypical) elder statesman like “back in my day…” and all that. I was looking to see if he would, but he didn’t. Every day, he told these guys, “I’ve been there and done that.” Sometimes, these young guys, they’re not trying to hear that. All 16 of these guys were extremely receptive to anything I had to get across or Sergio had to get across. That was a pleasant surprise, for sure.
TSFJ: Have you seen all the episodes since you finished filming?
Ward: I’ve seen most of them, I have a couple I need to go back and watch, but I’ve seen most of them.
TSFJ: Were there moments you watched where you wished you did something differently or critiqued yourself?
Ward: I’m always going to be hard on myself. I don’t care how great it may seem to the masses, I’m always going to pick apart myself. I think that’s what made me a good fighter, and I always try to balance out giving myself credit with keeping myself honest.
TSFJ: As a host, did you see yourself being different from Sylvester Stallone or ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard for this reboot?
Ward: Big shoes to fill, so I just tried to play my part. I’ll never replace those guys. I just want to lend what I can to the franchise.
TSFJ: You worked the show and then there’s Creed II – two completely different arenas. With The Contender, you were very active with the show in a hosting and mentoring role. With Creed II, you’re on camera, but you’re also consulting with the actors and crew.
Ward: The consulting part (of Creed II) was already built in through relationships. Very down to earth crew. But the differences… (pauses)
They’re (each) hard in their own way. I got to digest the script on Creed, the choreography I got to figure out and work on, so that was that. With The Contender and hosting, it’s all on you, baby! You can’t really have a bad day as a host, so that’s a different level or pressure. I embraced them both individually, I think I did a pretty good job with both, but I’m excited for people to see both projects.
There could be some bias here, but the first two episodes of The Contender are worth watching, whether you’re a hardcore boxing fan looking for an edge on future bets or a casual fan looking for much more authentic tension than you’d find on most ‘reality’ shows. There’s a proper amount of tension to go with the action fight fans clamor for between boxers pushing for a bigger payday and a spotlight.
The new season kicks off on EPIX on Friday, August 24th, so feel free to pay your cable bill if you don’t have the premium channel yet. You will also see Andre Ward on the silver screen when Creed II – the sequel to the 2015 hit film starring Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone – opens in theaters on November 21st.
Jason is the editor-in-chief here at TSFJ. In addition to a past life as a research analyst in advertising, television and online media, he spent seven seasons as the New York Beacon’s beat writer for the New York Giants. Jason has written for Yardbarker, Dime Magazine, Decider, Awful Announcing and The Week. He is also a member of his high school’s 4th period gym class floor hockey champions.
He shares more of his perspectives at jasonclinkscales.com.