The creative forces behind Fox Sports 1's The Ultimate Fighter are next tackling the world of boxing, via Discovery Channel's new series The Fighters. The show, which premieres Thursday, Jan. 23 at 9/8c, is shot in South Boston, where rival gyms set up matches in a bid to help revive the sport.
But in success, Craig Piligian and UFC president Dana White, both of whom executive produce The Fighters, are already thinking bigger. "I've got a lot of things spinning around in my head," White says. "We've got to do Season 1 first to see how people like this thing. And then we'll go from there. The sky's the limit for this show. There's a lot of incredible possibilities for this format." Among the options: Taking The Fighters to other cities, such as Miami, Detroit and Los Angeles, and perhaps even turning it into a national league.
The idea for The Fighters came from White's friendship with gym owner and former fighter Peter Welch, who was also seen in the first several seasons of Ultimate Fighter. Welch had already been organizing fights in Boston between young boxers. "I love the sport of boxing," White says. "I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for the sport of boxing. The fact that we were able to do this is huge for the sport. The fight business is the most fascinating business in all of sports."
Piligian says The Fighters is completely different from Ultimate Fighter, which is a reality competition in which contestants are competing for a UFC contract. The Fighters is more of a docuseries. "We get to really know them," Piligian says. "We go home with them, we understand where they're coming from, what the stakes are, what the coaches are doing. We understand the mindset and the way they try to get in the head of their fighter. These guys live this life. You don't script these guys."
In the first episode, fighter Matt Phinney, who is hungry to turn pro, faces off with Anthony McKenna, a boxer with a troubled past.
The Fighters comes nearly 10 years after NBC's The Contender and Fox's The Next Great Champ attempted to bring boxing to a mainstream audience. Neither show caught on with viewers (although The Contender bounced around different networks for a few more seasons).
"The biggest problem with The Contender is they cut the fights," Piligian says. "They had sound effects, they added slow-mo, all these things. True fight fans want to see the fight. These fights are real. The one reason they're going to come to the show is because of the integrity we have as producers and Dana has as a promoter."
Piligian says the look and feel of the show is different from most other shows on Discovery, where he's produced shows like Dirty Jobs and American Chopper. "This was a brave move by Discovery. Dana's going to bring in this huge base of real fight fans but it's on a general entertainment network where we can get a broader audience. Because of the characters, the setting, the story, we'll get a female audience."