‘The Contender’ Host Tony Danza Explains Why He’s Better Than Sylvester Stallone

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Photo: Courtesy of Mark Burnett Productions

Tony Danza is beloved by fans for his portrayals of Tony Banta on Taxi and Tony Micelli on Who's the Boss?, but before he took on those iconic TV roles, the Brooklyn native was a professional boxer. In fact, a producer for Taxi discovered him at a New York gym. Now he's returning to his roots as host of the fourth season of The Contender, premiering tonight on Versus. Vulture spoke to Danza about filming in Singapore, his own days as a fighter, and what happens when things get emotional in the ring.

How did you get involved in the show?
Well, you know, I’m a fighter myself, I was a club fighter here in New York in the mid-seventies, late seventies, and I thought I was going to be the champion of the world, but then I got an audition for a show called Taxi, and that changed my life. And then, cut to years later, Jeff Wald, one of the producers of the show, was pitching a boxing tournament around Hollywood but just couldn’t get it in the end zone. Then Jeffrey Katzenberg and Mark Burnett got involved in it, and that put it in the end zone. And then Mark Burnett came up with the great layer of making the fighters live together, and then fight, which is really bizarre, if you’re a fighter, right? And then what happened is that they decided to go with Sylvester Stallone as the host. It was a big mistake, and I told them as much, but then I went on my happy way. Now, three years or four years later, they came back to me. So I signed on, went to Singapore, it was great. You know, boxing is very addictive, and it’s so funny because I got away from it, but the minute I was in that gym, I was hooked again. Oh man, I gotta box. I boxed guys 40 pounds heavier and 30 years younger.

Why wasn't Sylvester Stallone was a good choice?
What makes me a better host is the fact that I really was a club fighter. If I was going to change the Constitution about the presidency, I would put as one of the requirements that he has to be broke once in his life, so they can get what the other people are going through. And I’m not sure Sly understood what it meant to be a club fighter.

You boxed with the contestants?
Oh yeah, I had to. I had to! You get in a gym and you can’t really help it. I’m way past the point where I should be in the ring, 'cause I’m old, but it was really, really fun. At the tournament, they have a lot of the families there, which has never been my favorite part of the show. I’m not a big fan of kids watching their fathers get beat up or wives watching their husbands get beat up, you know? But what I think draws in the non-fans is trying to explain why people do the things they do. Why would someone want to do this? You know, you have guys who have two jobs to support their boxing career. So I tried to get these guys to talk about what it is that makes them want to fight, why they do it, what it feels like to win, what it feels like to lose, what it feels like to hit a guy in the chin and hear the crowd roar. And for one minute, for one second, you’re as good as Muhammad Ali in the middle of the ring, good as Sugar Ray Leonard, as anybody else.

In a lot of reality shows, like, say, America’s Next Top Model, the host is a mentor as well, giving advice to contestants. But these are tough guys — are they getting emotional after a fight, where you have to comfort them or talk them through things?
I have a sort of paternalistic gene or something, I can’t help it. And I was a club fighter, so I know what these guys are going through. These guys are hoping for their chance. This is it! And boxing is on life support; The Contender and the Versus TV network are about the only game in town, other than Pay-Per-View or Pay TV, you know? I will tell you, it’s not in the show, but there was one particular fight and I thought that this particular guy was one of my favorites, and I thought he got a bad decision. I thought he won the fight and they took it away from him, and I went in my dressing room and I cried!

Did you ever have regrets about leaving your boxing career?
Yeah … I guess so. And I tried after Taxi to come back and fight. I thought, Maybe if I’m lucky, I’ll hit somebody in the chin, and then I’ll have a series of fights and I’ll be champion of the world! Big dreamer. But I came back and I wasn’t the same guy. I was worried about getting hit in the nose! And you can’t worry about stuff like that. And I have to say, maybe because of going back and doing this show, sometimes I’d be thinking here and there myself — you know, I really did think I could have done it, I really think I could have been champion of the world. And I’ll be honest with you — this is hubris probably, and we all become better fighters once we quit — but I was watching the guys, and I was watching a lot of fights, and now I’m back into it. And yeah, I think I could beat a lot of guys!

What was it like filming in Singapore?
You step out of the plane, you look at the airport, and you think, Holy mackerel, who’s the Third World country? When you see the infrastructure, and the building and the wealth and the architecture … And the interesting thing was to be there when the meltdown was happening here, and I’m one of the last people who still reads the newspaper, and it was an interesting juxtaposition. First of all, it’s a little bit like 9/11, only no one’s feeling sorry for you, and I got the paper one day, and I saw on the left side, above the fold, it said "America Meltdown, Crisis, $700 Billion Bailout," all of that, but on the right side of the paper were Chinese astronauts!

For the record, who is actually the boss: Tony or Angela?
I have been asked that many times. And she’s the boss. I’m no dummy. She’s one of my favorite people in the world — one of the greatest girls of all time.