TELE­VI­SION Rock’s show a test of brute force

John­son looked for Ti­tan Games ath­letes who have ‘over­come odds and chal­lenges’

Times Colonist - - Arts - CARLY MALLENBAUM

Dwayne John­son doesn’t ex­actly have a “ninja” body. But it’s fair to say the for­mer WWE star is “ti­tan”-size.

So it’s fit­ting that one of the big­gest stars in the world is the host of NBC’s new­est ob­sta­cle­course com­pe­ti­tion, The Ti­tan Games (Thurs­days), which asks super-strong com­peti­tors on super-size head-to-head cour­ses to knock over 1,000-pound walls, po­si­tion and light 600-pound torches and play a blind tug of war.

John­son says he’s been “look­ing for a se­ries we could cre­ate to give a plat­form to re­ally good ath­letes. And what was out there inspiring us was Amer­i­can Ninja War­rior, ” NBC’s pop­u­lar con­test based on a Ja­panese for­mat.

So John­son teamed up with NBC for the new 10-episode se­ries, fea­tur­ing con­tests in­spired by John­son’s gym work­outs (such as one in­volv­ing a 300-pound cin­der block) and drunk ideas (in­clud­ing a “lu­nar eclipse” chal­lenge that has ath­letes running around a half-moon shape).

“I was prob­a­bly on my third tequila and look­ing out­side and see­ing the moon and thought: ‘What if there was some­thing like this?’ ”

Each episode fea­tures four fe­male and four male ath­letes in two rounds of paired bat­tles, with a fi­nale pit­ting the best of both groups against each other. There are com­men­ta­tors, a side­line re­porter and, of course, John­son, who in­tro­duces the bat­tles and gives pre­race pep talks. In all, 64 con­tes­tants are whit­tled down to one male Ti­tan and one fe­male Ti­tan, who win $100,000 US each.

Un­like Ninja War­rior, the races are woman to woman and man to man (not just ath­lete ver­sus course), and in­stead of test­ing grip strength and agility, the bat­tles rely more on brute strength and power, or their “in­ner mana,” a Poly­ne­sian term for spir­i­tual en­ergy, as John­son calls it.

But what makes the con­test “Rock”-like isn’t just its over­sized “Mount Olym­pus” fi­nale course or the thick­ness of com­peti­tors’ bi­ceps: It’s the ath­letes’ back­sto­ries.

John­son’s fans know that he wasn’t born into fame and for­tune. At a young age, af­ter he was evicted from his apart­ment in Hawaii, “I would go to the gym and think: ‘I can con­trol my fu­ture. I can build my body to be­come some­thing,’ ” he says. Af­ter sev­eral ar­rests and a failed at­tempt to be­come an NFL player, we all know what hap­pened: John­son be­came one of the big­gest movie stars on the planet.

As with many a re­al­ity show, in cast­ing Ti­tans, John­son sought “men and women who have over­come odds and chal­lenges in their life.” Ath­letes in­clude a man who spent 17 years hid­ing an arm short­ened by a birth de­fect and a woman who dealt with a heart con­di­tion and teenage home­less­ness.

“When I was 17, I was go­ing through abu­sive re­la­tion­ships. I bar­gained with peo­ple who owned the es­tab­lish­ment I was work­ing at and I slept on the couch in the kitchen,” says 26-year-old Char­ity Witt. But Ti­tan fans will see her as a power lifter who ap­pears to ef­fort­lessly drag a sev­eral-hun­dred-pound ball and chain across the arena floor.

“My whole mis­sion in fit­ness is to give some kind of ex­am­ple to other women,” she says.

Though the men tend to be faster on the course, John­son says the women’s con­tests are the most rewarding.

“The emo­tional and phys­i­cal arc women on the show go through is ex­tra­or­di­nary,” he says. “The women are dig­ging deep. One con­test lasted 30 min­utes, with legs shak­ing, lac­tic acid build-up and with one woman right at the edge, say­ing ‘Not to­day.’ ”

John­son’s own daugh­ters are be­ing raised to have that same kind of men­tal and phys­i­cal tough­ness.

His el­dest, 17-year-old Si­mone, “is a very ath­letic young girl who goes to the gym with me and Dany [Gar­cia, Si­mone’s mother and John­son’s busi­ness part­ner and ex-wife]. “She wants to be­come a WWE wrestler. The idea of com­mit­ting to a goal of phys­i­cal­ity and train­ing, she has em­bod­ied.”

John­son’s young daugh­ters with girl­friend Lau­ren Hashian are get­ting there.

“Ev­ery day while I’m work­ing out, Lau­ren will bring in Jazzy, who’s three and running around the gym. Ev­ery time I do a set, she knows to sit down. When [eight-month-old] Tiana gets old enough, she’ll be right in the gym with me.”

Dwayne John­son is the host of NBC’s new­est ob­sta­cle-course com­pe­ti­tion, The Ti­tan Games.

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