With less than championship ratings, NBC's The Contender is definitely on the ropes. Unwilling to admit defeat, cohosts Sylvester Stallone and Sugar Ray Leonard rushed this week to create a one-hour special that will air just before Sunday night's regularly scheduled episode. On Thursday afternoon, these two tough superstars, both significantly dressed in black, met TVGuide.com for an exclusive interview at a Los Angeles boxing club.
TVGuide.com: Despite your star power and a tremendous amount of on-air promotion, The Contender has not lived up to expectations in the ratings. Why?
Sylvester Stallone: Other networks were dropping nuclear weapons on us. They were trying to see if we had the legs to survive.
Sugar Ray Leonard: Based upon what we have been up against, with the other networks doing everything they can to break us down, we stayed strong.
Stallone: [Fox's] The Next Great Champ put a negative spin on boxing, which is a subject that was dubious to start off with. No one really knew or cared about boxing anymore, so we were really starting off from ground zero. But it is building momentum, not just here but in England, where we moved into first place in our time slot. And we are going to be opening in Germany, Australia, Italy and Spain. So the idea of this American dream still translates. The Rocky philosophy still resonates. So I think it's really going to catch on. I really do.
TVG: Is that why you're doing the extra hour? What are you doing in it?
Stallone: We decided to do this three days ago. [NBC-Universal president] Jeff Zucker is taking Dateline off the air this Sunday [to make room for our] hour special. So from 7 pm to 9 pm/ET will be The Contender. It will be me interviewing the wives, showing a different aspect, and then Sugar Ray and I will be recapping the four wonderful battles in the ring. We will sit there with the four winners and analyze what they did. You are going to meet them up close and personal.
Leonard: We are going to recap the first four episodes to let people catch up. There are some very dramatic moments, [like] the big shock in the first episode, when Alfonso Gomez decided to fight the most celebrated boxer of the competition, and it blew everybody away. And then in the third episode the fight with [Ishe Smith and] Ahmed Kadour [who lost]. They hated Ahmed. He walked around like he was God's gift to the earth and to women. And last week [featured] the heartbreaking fight with Najai Turpin [who later committed suicide].
TVG: This show has been an uphill battle all the way. Why continue to fight so hard?
Stallone: We really love this show. And strangers were coming up to us in the street and recapping it. Then the studio executives caught all the chat on the Internet and it was so positive, they thought they were really getting something at the grass-roots level. The odd thing is, this is how the first Rocky started off. [Producers] Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff took this canister of film to people's homes and created a buzz — because nobody wanted to see an unknown in a boxing film that was done for under $1 million. We couldn't even get distribution. It was hard. So we did the same with The Contender. We said, "Let's flog it. Let's work it."
TVG: So The Contender will not be pulled from the network's schedule?
Stallone: NBC is not giving up. We are going to the end with a fight at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. I am even thinking about ways to do a second season, which would be dramatically different from the first.