May 14, 1979 12:00 PM

His first main event at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum will not make the annals of the ring along with, say, Louis v. Schmeling. But for Tony Danza of TV’s Taxi, the explosive end was about as satisfying. A year ago Danza was a so-so New York club fighter when he stumbled into an audition for the new ABC series. Despite what he calls “the worst screen test anyone has ever seen,” Danza won the part of Tony Banta, a pug moonlighting as a hack driver. The show took off—and, in a way, so has Tony’s boxing career. Though Danza, 26, had never earned more than $400 for a fight before, this time he collected $10,000 for what turned out to be two minutes’ work.

It was not just the ordinary Friday evening fight crowd cheering him on. Though Danza’s pal John Travolta pulled a no-show, ringside paparazzi and autograph hounds were kept aboil by the presence of Rob Reiner and his wife, Penny Marshall, and all but one of Tony’s Taxi co-stars. (Marilu Henner was recovering from oral surgery.) With an 8-3 lifetime record, Danza was rated by Jimmy the Greek as a 2-1 favorite over his outweighed (166 to 157) opponent, Max “Sonny” Hord, a Florida schoolteacher who had won 13 of 20 outings.

Tony had barely danced into the ring, shed his robe of green, white and red (Italy’s national colors) and touched gloves for the scheduled eight-rounder before he had Hord in trouble. Danza quickly landed a left-right combo that sent him reeling through the ropes. Then, halfway through the first round, Danza delivered a right uppercut that was the coup de grace. The official end was at 2:00. “They could’ve counted 500 over the guy,” said a worried Danza, who was palpably relieved when his opponent was helped to his pins several minutes later.

Barely winded, Danza crowed, “I’m ready! Give me another guy right now!” But in his dressing room, Tony was settled down by friends, flowers, champagne (sent by Henry Winkler) and a singing telegram from his “fans in Philly.” (The female messenger crooned on, asking him for a date.) Reiner gave a one-word appraisal of the fight: “Short.” Then Danza’s Taxi cohorts piled into their favorite form of transportation and headed downtown to the Electric Circus for a victory celebration. Danza careened to a stop at 6:30 a.m.

Danza, the son of Italian immigrants, learned life’s ropes in Brooklyn. “I was a mischievous kid,” he admits. “I was always coming home with a black eye or a bloody nose.” After wrestling in high school, he entered Iowa’s University of Dubuque. There he boxed, not varsity but on the streets, he says, and did great because “they weren’t used to New York rules.” He was also married briefly. (His ex-wife and 7-year-old son now live in Albuquerque. “What a left hook!” says the proud father—referring to his son.)

After graduation Danza drifted back to Long Island and odd jobs like bartending and furniture moving. He considered driving a cab but thought again when his mother responded by “screaming, yelling and throwing pots and pans all over the place.” She wasn’t overjoyed either when Tony decided “to get off my bar stool and go into Golden Gloves.” Danza won his first five amateur fights by KOs, “but then I ran into a guy who knew how to box,” he remembers with a grimace, “and woke up in the shower.”

His Schwab’s Drugstore turned out to be Gleason’s Gym in Manhattan. A TV producer spotted Danza training early last year and persuaded him to screen-test for a pilot. Nothing came of it, but he was picked for the gang movie The Warriors, only to turn it down for the prospect of steadier work on the series. The trouble was that the script called for “an Irish heavyweight.” “Everybody at the audition had curly blond hair and weighed 200 pounds,” recalls Tony. In the end, the role was rewritten to accommodate Danza’s Mediterranean good looks.

Even while shooting Taxi in L.A., Tony does regular road and gym work. He recently sparred with Robert De Niro to help him prepare for his Jake LaMotta movie, and he sees a natural link between acting and boxing. “They both involve hard work, good times, camaraderie…agents and managers,” he notes. But while he had to train “24 hours a day for three weeks” to prepare for his last fight, Danza finds that acting comes naturally, “especially if you’re from Brooklyn.”

Currently visiting his mother on Long Island, Tony will return to his one-bedroom Hollywood apartment in July for his first movie, The Hollywood Knights, and for Taxi’s second season. Though both his mom and L.A. girlfriend Robin Chambers, a Paramount producer’s assistant, are adamantly opposed, Danza has scheduled another middleweight bout in Phoenix next week. “I want to be champion of the world,” he proclaims, “and win an Oscar.”

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