For a little while there it seemed like the sport of boxing was on life support, supplanted in the public imagination by the UFC. But with a few particularly interesting fights over the past year or so — Andre Ward dethroning Sergey Kovalev, the action-packed Canelo/GGG fight that went to a draw, and of course UFC champion Conor McGregor’s challenge of Floyd Mayweather — interest in the Sweet Science seems to be once again on the rise.
Where there’s interest, a reality competition is sure to follow, and what’s great about The Contender, coming out of retirement for a fifth season and moving to EPIX, versus other reality competition series like Project Runway or Top Chef or The Voice, is that we don’t have to take the judges’ word for who wins and who loses, because it’s settled in the ring.
As in the previous seasons, sixteen middleweight boxers are divided into two teams, blue and gold; in the first week, each team chooses one fighter to represent it against the other. In subsequent weeks, the team who won the week prior has “match making power,” or the right to choose who will represent both teams in that week’s matchup. In other words, the winning team gets to put its strongest fighter against the other team’s weakest until the underdog wins.
The aforementioned Andre Ward, who won the unified light heavyweight belt in 2016 from Sergey Kovalev and defended it in a 2017 rematch before retiring, hosts, while longtime Manny Pacquiao trainer Freddy Roach leads the Blue team against veteran Philadelphia trainer Naazim Richardson and the Gold team.
As for the fighters, with the exception of Shane Mosely Jr, son of four-time champion “Sugar” Shane Mosely, none are familiar names, though some of the names are spectacular (looking at you, Quatavious Cash). But they are all hungry for both the $100,000 purse and the chance to break into the next level of the sport, and eager to get in each others’ heads and establish themselves as the alpha dog of their respective teams. With all of the fighters living together, Next Top Model style, there is ample opportunity for these head games.
Admittedly, the level of boxing is not up to what you would have seen in any of the recent prizefights mentioned above. But much the way some people prefer NCAA basketball to the NBA, simply because there is more at stake for the college kids and you can see from their body language how excited and nervous they are and how much they want it, there is something exciting about watching these guys give their all for what many of them see as their last best chance to make their dreams come true.
My only disappointment was, there is no cute catchphrase for the losers. “Sorry, Quatavious, but that’s the final bell.” Was that so hard?
New episodes of The Contender air Friday nights at 9pm ET on EPIX, and will be available Saturdays on demand.