After three seasons and two networks, The Contender is back, and this time on the VERSUS network. This season, the boxing 12-episode reality series follows 16 cruiserweights from around the world as they battle to become the next champ.
In the past, we've seen boxing legends, such as Oscar De La Hoya and Sugar Ray Leonard show the amateurs the ropes, but this season it's Tony Danza who will be leading the way. While most know him as Tony Micelli, the nanny on the sitcom Who's the Boss, and Tony Banta on Taxi, Danza compiled a 10-3 record as a professional boxer before Hollywood beckoned.
Danza took some time away from the gym and the cameras to speak with SI.com about his new gig, which premieres Dec. 3 at 10 p.m. ET and will air every Wednesday before its live two-hour finale on Feb. 25.
SI.com: Why did you decide to become host of The Contender?
Tony Danza: I was originally connected to The Contender from the beginning, but when they finally got me, they chose to jettison me and make Sylvester Stallone be the host. We all know how that turned out. I've been watching this thing because I was originally involved with it and I'm a boxing fan and ex-fighter myself. And Jeff Wald, one of my dear friends and one of the producers, called me and told me Sugar Ray wasn't doing it this year and would I like to. I decided to do it, and I'm glad I did. I guess I missed boxing and didn't realize how much I missed it.
SI.com: Tell us about your boxing background.
Danza: I was in a few fights. I was a fighter here in New York. It's funny because I was watching TV this morning and I saw an ad for a wedding hall, called the Grand Prospect Hall, which is really the Prospect Hall in Brooklyn. It was opera house, then it was a fight arena and now people can get married there. I knocked out Billy Perez there.
I was 10-3 before I went to do Taxi. I wasn't bad, I wasn't great. But I have a pedigree for this, and I'm a Brooklyn kid so I grew up fighting because that's what we did in Brooklyn.
SI.com: What surprised you the most about hosting?
Danza: What surprised me was how quickly I was totally addicted to the sport again. Boxing is a very addicting thing. When I was a kid I did a lot of street fighting, and the first time I actually boxed, when I got out of college, my friend entered me in the Golden Gloves here in New York, and I did pretty well. I fought at light heavyweight, so I fought a lot of big guys, and I could punch a lot, too. There's just nothing like it. You punch a guy in the chin and the crowd roars and they hold your hand up and -- holy mackerel! I got into it in a big way.
This was just a chance to rekindle that love. And it was so natural, though I didn't expect it to be. One of the great things about boxing is the camaraderie at the gym, and you think about [The Contender] and everyone in the gym is fighting each other. Usually, there may be one or two guys in the gym you may have to fight, but not everyone. It really is an interesting show.
SI.com: Was it odd being back in the boxing scene, but from the outside looking in?
Danza: Oh, I'm way too old to be fighting anymore. I boxed a little bit while on the show -- and though I didn't need anyone to prove my age to me, that did. I enjoyed being in the corner, I enjoyed working with the sparring partners because I was showing them some stuff. And [trainers] Tommy Brooks and John Bray, I actually got them to show me some stuff. I just had a fun time doing it.
I replaced Sugar Ray, and Ray is arguably one of the greatest fighters of all time -- a six-time world champion -- and also a great guy. But a lot of the guys, when you walk in and see Sugar Ray, it's like, holy crap. What do you say to him? Whereas with me, I am a club fighter so I can identify with them, and I think they identified with me a little more. I tried to get them to open up about what it is that makes people want to do this. I know why I wanted to do it. We had guys that are working two jobs to support their boxing career. I had a job to support my boxing career. And for the non-boxing fans, I think that is an interesting thing that we really haven't seen on TV, guys at this level explaining why they do it. What it feels like to win, what it feels like to lose, and what it feels like to climb up those four steps in your underwear, climb through the ropes and put yourself on the line like that. It's really crazy, and yet so beautiful.
SI.com: What was the toughest part about hosting for you?
Danza: We [filmed it] in Singapore, so it was tough to watch America implode form Singapore. That was kind of wacky, a weird juxtaposition. On one side you had the crisis, the bailout, the $700 billion, and on the other side you had Chinese astronauts.
I don't think there was anything that was really hard about hosting though. I enjoyed being there. There were a lot of good fights, a couple of guys get knockouts, which add to the excitement. But I'm a gym rat anyway, so I was able to hang out in the gym and train, talk boxing, eat and live boxing. You know how those guys go to those fantasy camps for baseball? How those old guys go and play baseball with the Mets or the Yankees in Florida or something? That's what it was like. It was like I went to a fantasy camp, and it was really a lot of fun in that respect.
SI.com: Have you kept up with the sport since your last pro bout?
Danza: No, I sort of got away from it, like a lot of people. It's not on free TV anymore for the most part. There really isn't that transcendent personality around that everyone is interested in, except for Oscar and I'm not a big Oscar fan. So, I lost interest like most people. But that's what's funny about it; it's like a junkie -- you get a shot of it and you're messed up all over again. Peripherally I've kept up with it. Now I'm reading the blogs and I'm trying to keep up with who's fighting whom. The Contender final is Feb. 25 at the MGM Grand at Foxwoods, we're down to two guys and I'm dying to see who ends up winning this thing.
SI.com: Have you followed mixed martial arts much?
Danza: It's one of those things when you're switching channels and you stop and watch for a little while. I haven't bought into the big fights. Don't get me wrong, I know it's very difficult and I was a street fighter, so I get it. I know there's a lot more technique to it than that. But the sweet science, the glove-fist, it's a little different. But then again, notice what's on free TV.
I think one of these days, boxing is going to have to come to terms with the fact that they have had a lot of short-term thinking and it's hurt the sport. When I was a kid, you'd see Muhammad Ali and Roberto Duran, some of the greatest fighters, on TV on the weekends. But now boxing has priced itself out of the ballpark because it wants to rack up $50 million in one night. Greed!
SI.com: If you were still competing, who would you like to face?
Danza: I'll tell you who I wouldn't want to face: I wouldn't want to face Paul Williams because he's in my weight class and, boy, that kid is tough. Six-foot-1, a big puncher. Relentless. Although I think the guy he fought has seen better days, Verno Phillips. He's a tough guy, don't get me wrong, but he's also past his prime and ol' man river, he don't care how old you are. He just keeps rollin' along.
But the reason you do it, for most people, is because you think there's a chance you could be the best at it, that you could win the championship of the world. That's why I did it. I know guys that do it for a job because they love it so much and then they become journeymen. But for the most part, guys just want to be champs. The Contender may be the only game in town as a way to get that opportunity for most boxers. Think about it, for a fighter to get 12 hours of TV time nowadays, you'd have to have 100 fights, for gosh sake, and be a top-notch guy. Over the years, we've seen guys like Sergio Mora [The Contender Season 1 champion] fighting in the upper echelon, and even the guys that have lost on show have put their names down posters as "formally of The Contender."
It's a good thing for boxing, that's for sure.