- Dan Rafael, Boxing
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Four months after ESPN canceled "The Contender," the boxing reality series that produced junior middleweight titleholder Sergio Mora and other title challengers has found new life on Versus.
After airing for one season on NBC followed by two seasons on ESPN, "The Contender" will make its fourth-season debut on Versus in December with the first of 11 one-hour episodes followed by a two-hour season finale to crown the tournament winner.
"We're the show that refuses to die. We're like the fighter that keeps getting off the mat to fight on," said Jeff Wald, co-executive producer of the Tournament of Contenders promotional company. "We're excited to be on Versus."
Versus declined comment.
In previous seasons, "The Contender," which is co-produced by reality series hitmaker Mark Burnett and powerhouse DreamWorks Television, has focused on junior middleweights, middleweights and super middleweights. However, the new season will feature a 16-man tournament of cruiserweights (200 pounds), in which American fighters will face a team of international boxers.
Trainer Buddy McGirt will return to the series to coach the American fighters. The international trainer has not been determined, although series producers are interested in including Wales' Enzo Calzaghe, the father and trainer of light heavyweight champion Joe Calzaghe.
Boxing icon Sugar Ray Leonard, host of the series for the first three seasons, also is expected to return.
Although the field of fighters has not been signed, show executives are talking to promoters of several notable cruiserweights, with former undisputed champion O'Neil Bell the most prominent name among them.
"They've called me and I've spoken to them and I spoke to O'Neil and we're all going to talk about a deal," said Leon Margules of Seminole Warriors Boxing, Bell's promoter.
Others in the mix include Vadim Tokarev, B.J. Flores, Darnell "Ding-A-Ling Man" Wilson, Matt Godfrey, Johnathon Banks, Aaron Williams, Shawn Hawk, Emmanuel Nwodo, Ola Afolabi, Ehinomen Ehikhamenor and Mike Alexander.
"'The Contender' doing cruiserweights is a great opportunity for guys in a weight class that doesn't get a lot of attention but has a lot of talent," said promoter Lou DiBella, who works with Ehikhamenor and Alexander. "The show would be a great opportunity for these guys, so we're talking to them about it. These are guys I've worked with and they would be great for the show."
Like in previous seasons, the group of fighters selected to participate will live and train together, with each episode culminating with a fight. The loser will be eliminated. However, unlike previous seasons, which were filmed in Los Angeles, the fourth season will take place in Singapore.
The grand prize has not yet been determined, but previous season champions collected $1 million (first season), $500,000 (second season) and $750,000 (third season).
Mora defeated Peter Manfredo Jr. to win the first-season tournament and is the first graduate of the show to go on to win a major world championship. He did it June 7 by outpointing Vernon Forrest for a 154-pound world title.
Manfredo and first-season contestant Alfonso Gomez also went on to fight for major world titles, but Manfredo was stopped by Calzaghe in a super middleweight championship fight and Gomez was stopped by welterweight titlist Miguel Cotto.
Grady Brewer edged Steve Forbes for the second-season title but has not fought since because of a knee injury. Forbes' exposure on the series was one of the key factors in him landing a fight with Oscar De La Hoya in May.
Sakio Bika stopped Jaidon Codrington in the eighth round of November's third-season finale in a wild fight-of-the-year candidate.
In addition to picking up the boxing series, Versus will also air a similar program, "The Contender Muy Thai." It will run for 15 weeks beginning July 31 (10 p.m. ET) and feature a 16-man tournament competing in the Thai version of kickboxing.
In addition to the two reality shows, Tournament of Contenders will have at least three live boxing events on Versus under the deal. Versus' entry into boxing came two years ago with an exclusive contract with promoter Top Rank to provide monthly bouts and access to its library. However, Top Rank's final show under the agreement was last month.
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.
Four months after ESPN canceled "The Contender," the boxing reality series that produced junior middleweight titleholder Sergio Mora and other title challengers, has found new life on Versus.