Matt Iseman: USA Network Taking ‘American Ninja Warrior: Ninja vs. Ninja’ to the Next Level

Matt Iseman - American Ninja Warrior - Season 9
Tyler Golden/NBC
Matt Iseman, host of the American Ninja Warrior franchise

Iron sharpens iron when the best of the best goes head-to-head in American Ninja Warrior: Ninja vs. Ninja. The USA Network series returns March 1 with a big-event feel as 36 three-person teams battle it out through physically demanding obstacles over 16 episodes.

There to call the action and watch the drama unfold is Matt Iseman, who will be joined once again by former NFL player Akbar Gbajabiamila and FOX Sports sideline reporter Alex Curry. The longtime host promises this new iteration of Team Ninja Warrior will take the competition to the next level.

“USA has stepped it up,” he said. “We’re shooting at night. We’ve got a gorgeous course. The races are so intense. It’s amazing when you take the lid off the course and tell the ninjas not to worry about being perfect. Don’t worry about the million dollars. Just go out there and go fast. The races have been incredible.

“…It’s amazing seeing how competition brings out a different side to these athletes and how American Ninja Warrior has promoted a community. It has become something bigger than a show. We go around and see these people who have been doing it for 10 years and people who just started. Our veterans treat these newcomers as peers, equals. There is so much respect.”

Iseman likens the atmosphere of the franchise to the Olympics, a big reason he jumped at the chance to be an Olympics correspondent for Megyn Kelly Today. He and his cohost Gbajabiamila are also taking that patriotic pride past the closing ceremonies in Pyeongchang when NBC broadcasts the annual special American Ninja Warrior: USA vs. the World on March 11.

“Much like the Olympics, for the majority of these athletes, this is the peak,” Iseman said. “They are not likely to make millions of dollars off this. This is something they dedicated their entire lives to. This is their moment…”

Adding to the excitement of Ninja vs. Ninja is the increased production value and upgraded challenges and obstacles. That and the fact the participants have to not only worry about themselves but their opponent running next to them.

“They are used to focusing on the grip or foot placement,” Iseman said. “Now all of a sudden you have another ninja right there with you. You can’t panic. It changes the dynamic. I feel there is always this invisible rubber band where I feel no matter how far ahead one ninja gets, somehow that other ninja is going to close the gap. The finishes are incredible. This is the ninja’s playground.”

Of course, a key to American Ninja Warrior’s longevity has been the inspiring stories told. Often times its regular people doing extraordinary things has resonated with audiences. Even though the 47-year-old has helped provide the soundtrack to competition, the impact of the show and difference it makes in viewers’ lives is never lost on him.

“A lot of times the obstacles these ninjas overcome on the course really pale in comparison to what they overcome in life…,” he said.

“…We see the difference the show makes in sharing stories. Jimmy Choi who had Parkinson’s. I know someone with Parkinson’s and Akbar’s father. … [And] I think it’s a show not always about the traditional athlete. Not always a guy who looks like Akbar who is 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds, but someone like Mighty Kacy [Catanzaro], who is 95 pounds, 5-feet-tall or Jonathan Horton. Just people where they say I don’t have to be the biggest, tallest or the fastest in American Ninja Warrior. It’s about who works the hardest.”

Iseman regularly interacts with fans during the broadcasts on social media. Through all the negativity in the world, he finds the show brings needed positive messages and hope, especially to the younger generation. Spectators have become so touched by what they see, they’ve become ninjas themselves.

“Daniela Bright is tweeting me during the show saying she is bed-ridden from chemotherapy with stage three breast cancer,” Iseman said. “She says if she survives this, she hopes to compete on Ninja Warrior. The next year she is on the course. She goes out on the first obstacle but came out of the water with a smile on her face. She won because she was alive. It didn’t matter how she did on the course. She realized this dream. She kicked cancer’s ass. So, there was no obstacle or falling in the water that was going to tell her she wasn’t a champion.”

One of Ninja Warrior’s biggest enthusiasts is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. He cites the show as an inspiration for his upcoming NBC physical competition series The Titan Games.

“The idea of The Rock, the biggest entertainer on the planet, knowing he sits down and watches Ninja Warrior,” Iseman said. “It’s so humbling and gratifying. You can bet I’ll be watching Titan and seeing him. There is a guy I just respect everything he does and the hustle that man brings to what he does. There is room for both American Ninja Warrior and The Titan Games, which is under the same production company as our show. So, don’t come after us, Rock.”

Speaking of reality show competition, Iseman couldn’t be prouder to hold the Celebrity Apprentice title. It’s right below medical school and among the hardest experiences he has had in Hollywood thus far. A year later after being named the champion he reflects on the memorable and rewarding time he had. There was talk about Iseman trying his hand at adding Celebrity Big Brother winner to the resume. The Big Brother super fan was even in the studio for the announcement of the inaugural season of the spinoff. That is when he remembers the rumors began to circulate.

“They did invite me to come on, but because of the Today Show I couldn’t do it,” he said.

“At the same time, I also don’t know if I would have done it because Apprentice was such an awesome challenge, but it was for charity. There were tasks involved. Big Brother, the reason I enjoy it is because I think it’s one of the great psychological experiments to lock people inside this house. Isolate them completely from the world, shake it up and let it go. And as much as I enjoy watching it, I’m not sure how I would play it.

“I’m really enjoying watching these people. I’m good friends with Ross Mathews. He was my pick early on. But the thought of competing again in reality TV, I kind of feel like I won. I’m a champion. Ride off into the sunset, but never say never.”

American Ninja Warrior: Ninja vs. Ninja premieres on March 1 at 9/8c on USA Network

American Ninja Warrior: USA vs. the World airs on March 11 at 7/6c on NBC