Inside the new 'American Ninja Warrior' spin-off -- 'Ninja vs. Ninja'

Eddy Chen/USA Network

Meagan Martin is one of 108 ninjas competing in the new "ANW" spin-off.

"American Ninja Warrior" is back, only this time the television franchise is pitting the best ninjas against each other. In a revamp of the spin-off "Team Ninja Warrior," top ninjas will race side by side in "American Ninja Warrior: Ninja vs. Ninja," which premieres on Thursday at 9 p.m. EST on USA Network.

"Ninja vs. Ninja" mirrors the feel of traditional "ANW," except for the obstacles being bigger and badder. There are 36 teams, comprised of three competitors each (two men, one woman) that will race against each other for a total of three points. If no one sweeps all the points, then there is a relay to decide who moves on to the finals. This tweak from seasons past places equal value on each of the runs and teammate contributions. And in the "Ninja vs. Ninja" finals, each athlete will run the full nine obstacles, something that has never happened.

"The endurance, the speed, the fatigue, the perseverance you see in these athletes is otherworldly," show co-host Matt Iseman says. "The ninjas get to really showcase their skills in this new version."

What makes "Ninja vs. Ninja" exciting is the stark difference in pace from "ANW." Aside from the few ninjas who try and take the qualifying courses as fast as possible, the focus for the flagship show is perfection. One slip-up can end a season. "Ninja vs. Ninja" is built to encourage the competitors to race as fast as possible. The course is built with the intent that it will be finished, which is very different from a regular season of "ANW" in which hitting buzzers, which signifies a successful completion of a run, seem to be getting fewer and fewer.

"You're trying to be efficient, but you're also going a lot harder," "ANW" alum and "Ninja vs. Ninja" contestant Meagan Martin says. "You're not worried about little things. If your foot hits the water, you can still keep going."

Not that wet feet are helpful, but in "ANW," touching the water would be a disqualification.

"It's not about the difficulty," Iseman says. "We wanted to design a course that challenged the [ninjas], but at the same time, these athletes can go fast on it."

For competitors like Martin, "Ninja vs. Ninja" offers the opportunity to compete against the very best ninjas -- such as Jesse Labreck, Michelle Warnky and Barclay Stockett, among others -- in showdowns that otherwise would not be seen. Because "ANW" is an individual competition, "Ninja vs. Ninja" offers a rare opportunity to answer the fantasy question: What would a race between Martin and Labreck look like? "Ninja vs. Ninja" creates circumstances where such a matchup could happen.

"All the disciplines that make up a ninja warrior athlete will be on full display," show co-host and former NFL player Akbar Gbajabiamila says. "It is no holds barred."

For athletes such as Martin, who are placed in an elite category, there is just a bit of added pressure. She is one of the few women to have ever finished a qualifying course in "ANW" history, and the only one to have ever done so in her rookie season. Martin is aware that people see running against her as a tougher challenge, but she isn't infallible.

"Everybody is capable of messing up," Martin says. "Just because I've done well doesn't mean no one can beat me."

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