'American Ninja Warrior': 'USA vs. Japan': Matt Iseman calls Japanese 'heavy favorites'

American-Ninja-Warrior-USA-vs-Japan.JPGOn Monday, Jan. 13, NBC's obstacle-course competition series "American Ninja Warrior" presents a two-hour special, "USA vs. Japan," in which five top competitors from "Ninja" go up against five competitors from the Japanese show that inspired it, "Sasuke."

While Japanese competitors have finished the final course at the original Mt. Midoriyama, America's contenders have so far failed to take it all on the Las Vegas version of the giant course. Now, the Americans and the Japanese, rather than tackling the course on their own with only the clock ad direct competition, will now go head-to head.

Competing for America are Brian Arnold (who went out on stage three in Las Vegas), Paul Kasemir, James McGrath, Travis Rosen and Brent Steffenson. Up for Japan are Kazuma Asa, Hitoshi Kanno, Ryo Matachi, Shingo Yamamoto and two-time champion Yuji Urushihara.

Hosts are Matt Iseman, former NFL player Akbar Gbajai-Biamila and Jenn Brown.

Iseman took out a few minutes to offer his thoughts by email on what this competition means for the world of "American Ninja Warrior":

Zap2it: Do the U.S. competitors have a realistic chance against the Japanese, especially Yuji Urushihara?

Matt Iseman: They invented the sport and they have more than a decade of experience beyond ours, so they have to be the heavy favorites. But this show came about because the Japanese competitors were so impressed with the success the Americans have had in such a short time. Of course, no American has ever completed Mt. Midoriyama, and Yuji has done it twice, so Vegas has long odds against the USA.

How are fans dealing with the course ultimately beating the Americans each season?

I thought that was the biggest issue our show faced: We have never had a winner. But our fans caught on quickly and appreciate the struggle that these athletes go through just to get on the course. And we all want to know -- who will be the first American to do it? But with this international format, there will be a winner. And they will be the best team in the world.

Does this competition represent a chance for redemption for the Americans, especially Brent Steffensen?

Absolutely. Even the best stumble occasionally, and when they do, they just seem to get more hungry. This competition is a chance for them to get back on the course and prove that they are still among the best in the world at what they do. And you do that by beating the best, and that is the Japanese.

How will the head-to-head aspect affect the competitors, who are used to beating the clock, not another racer?

I think it just adds to the pressure. The course is hard enough surviving without worrying about setting a pace your competitors can't match. And, not only are you tackling the world's most difficult obstacle course, you're now doing it while representing your country. The stakes have never been higher on "American Ninja Warrior."

What is the one thing the Americans should try to learn from the Japanese?

Well, one thing they can't learn is size. The smallest American competitor is still significantly larger than the biggest Japanese athlete. Their strength-to-weight ratio is phenomenal, and that's something that the USA guys can work towards: building strength while leaning out.

And, what should the Japanese watch for with the Americans?

The passion that these Americans bring to their training: branching out their athletic pursuits to make them better competitors, adding rock climbing to gymnastics and parkour while building simulated courses in their backyards.

What has meeting all these competitors taught you?

That I need to hit the gym more often. They are an amazing collection of athletes, literally from all across the country and all walks of life. The thing they share is their passion for "American Ninja Warrior" and an incredible determination to better themselves. That passion and determination is infectious and it's the best part of getting to know these guys (and girls).

Did you ever flub your co-host's name?

Once. But he's 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds, so I never made that mistake again.

Zap2it has your exlcusive first look at Brian Arnold's run from Monday's special:

Photo/Video credit: NBC