By Keith Idec
Andre Ward was brought to tears during filming of season five of “The Contender.”
As the new host of the relaunched reality series, Ward developed deeply personal relationships with the show’s participants, some of whom drew raw emotion out of the retired two-division champion. An appreciative Ward hopes viewers become as attached to these fighters as he did while shooting the show for a month earlier this year in Los Angeles.
That process will begin Friday night, when the new 12-episode season premieres on EPIX at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
“It was probably the time I spent with these guys after hours,” Ward said regarding what he remembers most about filming the show. “Even though it was after hours, the cameras were still rolling. EPIX did a tremendous job of being a fly on the wall and we had some real conversations. There were tears shed. I was one of the guys who cried on camera. There were some intimate questions they were asking me and I was trying to be as open and honest as possible.
“And I got to ask them questions about their families and their lives. When you take the time to do that, you can understand their why. And if you can understand their why, it’s hard not to root for these guys.”
Ward replaced actor Tony Danza, a former boxer who took over as host of “The Contender” in season four once “Sugar” Ray Leonard left after filling that role in its first three seasons. The 16 middleweights were trained in season five by Hall-of-Famer Freddie Roach and Naazim Richardson, best known for his work with Bernard Hopkins and Shane Mosley.
Shane Mosley Jr. was one of the 16 fighters who participated in season five (see below for the full list).
EPIX isn’t available to nearly as many viewers as NBC, which aired the first season in 2005, or ESPN, which aired the second and third seasons in 2006 and 2007. But Ward hopes the deeply personal nature of the show helps create new fans of the sport.
“The hardcore fans, they’re gonna ride with whatever you do in boxing – good, bad or indifferent,” Ward said. “They’re there. That comes with the territory. But the fight is for the casual fan, right? It’s for the individual who is not necessarily going to watch a boxing match. That’s who you want to hopefully stumble upon ‘The Contender,’ watch it enough to understand what’s going on and maybe start to buy into some of these individuals and their stories. And then maybe you have a new fan of the sport and a new fan of that fighter.”
The first season of “The Contender” launched the careers of Sergio Mora, who won the $1 million prize, runner-up Peter Manfredo Jr., Alfonso Gomez, Ishe Smith and others to lesser degrees. Ward watched that season from afar as his own professional career had just begun, but he remembers the impression the show made on the general public.
“I saw Sergio go from a guy who was well known in the boxing community to being on red carpets, to being known just by average sports fans,” Ward said. “He’s a Hispanic guy, he had a fan-friendly style on ‘The Contender’ and I know for a fact that it changed his life. When I talked to him while we were filming this, he confirmed that. He said, ‘Bro, I know what this means to these guys intimately, because my life changed when I won this series.’ And I hope it’s gonna be the same for whoever wins season five. That’s the whole point.”
Working on “The Contender” helped fill a void for the 34-year-old Ward, who sought constructive uses of his time once he announced his retirement 11 months ago. The former light heavyweight and super middleweight champion also signed a long-term broadcasting contract with ESPN recently, and is working on a book and a documentary.
Becoming close to these 16 fighters made the 2004 Olympic gold medalist appreciate more than ever what many members of the boxing fraternity endure will trying to succeed in this brutal business. While Ward benefited from his Olympic pedigree and was well-exposed early in his career, many of the fighters who participated in this season of “The Contender” have worked full-time jobs and trained after work.
“I’ve never been a guy that thought, ‘I’m this guy, with these titles,’ and looked down on other fighters,” Ward said. “I actually have more compassion for them than the guys that actually had the opportunities. I don’t know what it feels like and I can’t comprehend working eight hours and then going to a boxing gym. I don’t know what that feels like and I can’t imagine having to do that, and still experiencing success in the pro ranks. So when you see those kind of stories or you see a young man like Shane Mosley Jr., who didn’t grow up in the streets, he didn’t grow up in the slums, but yet he’s been fighting to get from under his father’s shadow all these years, I have empathy for that.
“When you have a guy like Eric Walker, who comes from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who did 10-plus years in a Louisiana state prison and yet he’s, in real time, trying to rewrite his story, I have empathy for that. That’s my main takeaway from it. Of course I want the people to enjoy the unedited fights. That’s something that the fans have asked for from the previous four seasons. We gave them that. I want them to enjoy that. I want them to enjoy the preparation and the training. But the main thing I hope that they walk away with is a greater appreciation for what these guys, and fighters in general, have to go through in order to go out there and perform.”
PARTICIPANTS IN SEASON FIVE OF “THE CONTENDER”
Brandon Adams (17-2, 12 KOs); Los Angeles
Tyrone Brunson (26-6-2, 24 KOs); Philadelphia
Quatavious Cash (10-0, 7 KOs); Atlanta
Morgan Fitch (18-1-1, 8 KOs); Pittsburgh
Marcos Hernandez (11-1-1, 3 KOs); Fresno, California
John Jackson (21-3, 16 KOs); St. Thomas, Virgin Islands
Ievgen Khytrov (16-1, 13 KOs); Ukraine
Devaun Lee (10-3-1, 5 KOs); Queens, New York
Malcolm McAllister (9-1, 8 KOs); Long Beach, California
Michael Moore (15-1, 7 KOs); Cleveland
Shane Mosley Jr. (10-2, 7 KOs); Pomona, California
Lamar Russ (17-2, 8 KOs, 1 NC); Wilmington, North Carolina
Gerald Sherrell (8-0, 4 KOs); Pittsburgh
John Thompson (18-3, 6 KOs); Newark, New Jersey
Daniel Valdivia (14-2, 10 KOs); Tulare, California
Eric Walker (15-1, 8 KOs); Plaquemine, Louisiana
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.