ESPN announces Ryder Cup-like 'The Contender Challenge' series
By Christopher Rocchio, 02/12/2007
ESPN has announced plans for The Contender Challenge, a new reality series that will follow a team of The Contender boxers as they take on seven British boxers for the inaugural "Sugar Ray Leonard Cup." The six-episode series is scheduled to premiere on ESPN on Tuesday, April 10, and it will also be shown in Britain on ITV.
The American team, which will feature fighters from both seasons of The Contender, will be led by Leonard, the former professional boxing champion who has served as The Contender's co-host/mentor during both its NBC and ESPN editions. They will box against seven British fighters promoted by Frank Warren.
The two teams will box against each other on Friday, March 30 at the 10,000-seat Metro Radio Arena in Newcastle, England -- with the team winning the majority of the eight-round bouts taking possession of the Sugar Ray Leonard Cup. Although the all fights will take place at the March 30 event, they will be recorded and serve as the basis for The Contender Challenge's six-episode run.
"The idea is that the cup will become a regular on the sporting calendar and that next year we will be taking a team to the US," Warren told The (U.K.) Guardian newspaper during a meeting with the British press last week.
While The Contender producer Jeff Wald says Team USA's roster "isn't finalized" yet, he expects first boxer Alfonso Gomez and second season boxers Freddie Curiel, Cornelius Bundrage, Walter Wright and Vinroy Barrett to be part of it. Captained by former featherweight champion Barry McGuigan, Team Britain is expected to include Paul Smith, Ross Minter, Nigel Wright and Wayne Alexander.
"I like tradition and I like rivalries," Wald told ESPN.com. "I like the sport not to be just about one person. I think teams and countries resonate with sports fans. The Ryder Cup has been a very successful series [in golf]. I would love to see the Sugar Ray Leonard Cup be that tradition in boxing. We want people to walk out of the arena and say they had a really good boxing night, that those kids fought there hearts out."
Leonard, a 1976 Olympic gold medalist who has been a part of The Contender since before its first season auditions even began, said he is aware of "how important nationalism can play in boxing and how such a competition can help build stars."
"I am really excited by this idea," Leonard told The Guardian. "In my era, the fans knew who the fighters were. There was Tommy Hearns, Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran and me, and the fans all knew our stories. The Contender has humanized boxing and helped today's public understand the fighters involved in the program, and what sacrifices they make in pursuit of their dreams."
Through The Contender Challenge, ESPN says it has also addressed a few of the problems that plagued the reality competition's first two seasons. Unlike The Contender, The Contender Challenge's fights won't be limited to just one weight class. In addition, the heavily edited matches that aired during the first two seasons of The Contender will be a thing of the past, according to ESPN's Ron Wechsler, vice president of development and production for the network's original entertainment arm, which will oversee the series.
"We'll capture the fights like we do with the World Series of Poker," said Wechsler. "We'll have the fights and some behind-the-scenes stuff to go with them, but primarily it will be the fights. We know some of our fight fans have an issue with the way The Contender fights are edited. On this series, they will certainly be shown in their entirety."