Reality shows don’t come with more blood, guts and testosterone – a good dosage of heart tugging drama and a dash of comedy to boot than The Contender Asia. The Asian version of the American boxing reality show is screened on AXN every Wednesday at 9pm.
Sylvester Stallone and former heavyweight champion, Sugar Ray Leonard, introduced viewers to The Contender format back in 2005. Mark “Survivor” Burnett, Stallone and DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg produced that boxing reality show, which captured the glory of the sport and its players in an engrossing 15-episode reality series.
With The Contender Asia, produced in Singapore by Imagine OmniMedia in association with Mark Burnett Productions, audiences will gain access to the thoughts and actions of 16 professional MuayThai fighters from around the world. The one who outlasts all other contenders earns himself a cash prize of USD$250,000 (RM950,000).
In the pilot episode which aired Jan 16, there was heart-wrenching drama when one contender accidentally tripped a fellow fighter causing the latter to hurt his shoulder and elbow.
The Contender Asia is Burnett’s first reality venture into Asia; there’s a possibility of The Apprentice Asia possibly happening in 2009. In October last year (a month after Contender Asia began filming in Singapore), Burnett signed a 10-year exclusive joint venture with Genting International to develop, produce and distribute game shows and reality television series in Asia. Contender Asia is not part of that deal.
At a press conference held in Singapore recently, Riaz Mehta, the CEO of Imagine OmniMedia and executive producer of Contender Asia, said: “We have established a new standard in Asian television and raised the bar in Asian productions based in Asia... Putting together this programme, we’ve done an Asian first – it was made here, and it’s being distributed in the United States.”
Burnett, who flew down to Singapore from Los Angeles for the premiere of the series, seconded Riaz’s thought: “I think you will see a lot of people are surprised that you can shoot something and edit something entirely on location in Singapore, in this case, and it is exactly the same quality (as the American programme). I am not surprised. I think the talent here is equivalent to anywhere in the world. It’s only a matter of vision.”
Ricky Ow – general manager of SPE Networks, Asia, which owns AXN – put it in plainer words: “They’ll be shocked by the quality of this show.”
The idea for The Contender Asia with MuayThai as the fighting style started two years ago, and was fuelled by Burnett’s love for Asia.
“I really love the quality of MuayThai. When I was hanging out in Thailand, there’s nothing greater than watching a fight. There is this sense of history and respect for the inner spirit (in the game). When they take a moment before the fight, before the combat, to pray, it’s beautiful. It’s the inner journey. One thing that comes across in Contender Asia is the decency of the competitors. It’s combat is done in a very kind way, combat can be kind; there is a sense of pageantry. (But) it’s still a competition; they still want to be the best. And some – despite the sense of majesty – still succumb to their inner id, it’s about self-preservation. And other people take the moral high ground. (It’s all) good story telling.”
According to Burnett, good story telling begins with finding the right people. For Contender Asia, the 16 fighters were handpicked by Stephan Fox, who is vice-president and international co-ordinator for the World MuayThai Council in Thailand. Fox is also the series’ host, along with Jaymee Ong.
Fox said: “I picked them based on their ranking in the MuayThai Council and their personalities. This is a new learning experience for them and throughout there was great enthusiasm. They lived together and became friends. Yes, there were some heated moments but this is sports.” Fox hopes that the series may elevate the sport even further, and that it could be included in the Olympic games some day.
Singaporean Zaki, one of the fighters, described the bond he forged with the other contenders as thus: “A lot of respect went in that house.” Zaki is the contender who hurt himself in the first challenge. Although he wasn’t angry as accidents happen, this one was hard to weather and he confessed to having thoughts that the injury would ruin his chances in the competition.
It is these kinds of real emotional ups and downs that make The Contender Asia a prime candidate for popularity.
Burnett concluded: “ ... in the first episode where the guy tripped over and hurt his shoulder, think how much he had trained, he wants to win, he’s on international television and his parents and friends are watching. It’s a combat show and he falls over and dislocates his shoulder on the first day. Oh my god, you feel so much for this person. You can’t write this stuff. I mean you could write it but you don’t have to. Something always happens.”