Leonard to advise, mentor skein's would-be boxing stars

NBC’s big-budget boxing reality skein “The Contender” is adding another heavyweight to its team: Sugar Ray Leonard.

The five-time world champ has signed up to play a key on-air role in the 16-episode series from exec producers Mark Burnett, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Sylvester Stallone. Leonard will serve as an adviser and mentor to the would-be boxing superstars, working with Stallone, who also will appear on camera.

In recent days, there’s been speculation that Leonard might be interested in toplining his own boxing-based reality skein or joining forces with the several other pugilist-focused skeins in the works around town (Daily Variety, March 12).

In fact, the “Contender” producers have been wooing Leonard almost since the moment the show was announced, Katzenberg said.

‘Best of this sport’

“The way Sylvester Stallone is respected as an icon who represents the greatest fictional boxing character ever created, we needed someone who could get in the ring and represent the best of this sport as an athlete,” Katzenberg told Daily Variety. “Sugar Ray’s still in amazing shape, and he can really get in the ring and understand the sport.”

Burnett said signing Leonard was key to establishing street cred for “The Contender,” as well as for the boxing league the show’s producers hope to establish.

Other than Muhammad Ali, “He’s the only (champion) who’s come out of the pro boxing world (with his reputation) unscathed,” Burnett said of Leonard. “We’re building a serious organization. This is a much bigger business than a reality show.”

Seeking contenders

Katzenberg — who had struck up a friendship with Leonard when they ran into each other on vacation in Hawaii, pre-“Contender” — said the champ will be “involved in much of the show, (including) the finding of the candidates. He’ll help ensure they’re well cast in their ability to compete with one another.”

Also coming on board to help in the casting process: boxing expert Prentiss Bryd, who has worked with boxers including Thomas Hearns and Leon Spinks during his 27-year career. Open casting calls will begin April 9 in Tulsa, Okla., and end May 31 in Los Angeles.

Finalists in “The Contender” will face off in a live match boasting $1 million in prize money.

News of Leonard’s signing comes as MGM Television prepares to pitch its own boxing star search, “The Real Rocky.” In their first public comments on that skein, Burnett and Katzenberg welcomed other parties into the ring.

Bigger pie

“I’m not fazed by it,” Burnett said. “Every opportunity for young boxers is good. I only know that many people underestimate what it takes to make unscripted dramas as good as scripted dramas. I’m certain we know what we’re doing. We’ve been actively working on this for many months.”

Katzenberg, meanwhile, said the potential competish “will only push us to do better work.”

“I think we have to make a great show irrespective of what anyone else is doing,” he said.

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