- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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The fourth season of the boxing reality series "The Contender" will feature former world title challengers Darnell "Ding-A-Ling Man" Wilson and Rico Hoye among an eclectic 16-man tournament field, and Tony Danza, a one-time professional fighter before finding stardom as an actor, replaces boxing icon Sugar Ray Leonard as host.
This year's tournament, currently in the midst of five weeks of filming in Singapore, will be in the 200-pound cruiserweight division. The first of 11 episodes, followed by the two-hour live finale on Feb. 26, premiers in December on Versus, the network that picked it up after two seasons on ESPN and one on NBC.
Also new to the series are trainers Tommy Brooks and John Bray, who replace Buddy McGirt and Pepe Correa.
"We've just finished taping the fifth fight and the reports I have been getting back from Singapore are that these are the best fights we've had," co-executive producer and promoter Jeff Wald told ESPN.com. "With five-round fights in a 17-foot ring, these guys don't dance and hold. Mainly, they are toe-to-toe with nowhere to run. One fight in particular, I had three different people down there call me and tell me it was as exciting as Sakio Bika-Jaidon Codrington," whose third-season finale last November was one of the most exciting bouts of 2007.
Besides the fight action, Wald also said he liked the personalities of the cast.
"I was in the interviews with all 16 of the guys and I think this is our best season yet personality-wise," he said. "I think the viewers are really going to be taken with these guys."
Like in previous seasons, the boxers will live and train together, with each episode culminating with a scheduled five-round fight in which the loser is ousted from the tournament. The final two will meet at a site to be determined for a grand prize that also has not been set. In previous seasons, the grand prize has ranged from $500,000 to $1 million.
Here's the rundown of the 16 fighters in the field (in alphabetical order with age, hometown and pro record):
• Mike Alexander (34, Columbus, Ohio, 12-2, 8 KOs).
• Felix Cora Jr. (28, Galveston, Texas, 18-2-2, 9 KOs).
• Ryan Coyne (26, St. Louis, 9-0, 3 KOs).
• Ehinomen "Hino" Ehikhamenor (28, Queens, N.Y., 12-3-0, 7 KOs).
• Deon Elam (28, Van Nuys, Calif., 9-0-0, 5 KOs).
• Alfredo Escalera Jr. (28, San Juan, Puerto Rico, 15-1-1, 11 KOs).
• Tim Flamos (41, Brockton, Mass., 20-4-1, 8 KOs).
• Richard Gingras (27, Claremont, N.H., 9-1-0, 5 KOs).
• Joell Godfrey (27, East St. Louis, Ill., 9-0-1, 5 KOs).
• Hoye (33, Detroit, 20-2, 15 KOs).
• Akinyemi "AK" Laleye (27, Las Vegas, 10-1, 5 KOs).
• Troy Ross (33, Toronto, 17-1, 12 KOs).
• Jon Schneider (29, Yonkers, N.Y., 7-2-1, 5 KOs).
• Lawrence Tauasa (29, Sydney, Australia, 30-5-1, 17 KOs).
• Erick Vega (29, Phoenix, 8-2-1, 6 KOs).
• Wilson (33, Takoma Park, Md., 23-7-3, 20 KOs).
Hoye and Wilson are the only two cast members with world title experience. Hoye was stopped in the fifth round by Clinton Woods in England in 2005 when they met for a vacant light heavyweight belt. Wilson went to Firat Arslan's home country of Germany to challenge for a cruiserweight belt in May and lost a unanimous decision.
Two of the other more notable cast members are Ross and Escalera. Ross was a two-time Canadian Olympian. Escalera is the son of former junior lightweight world champion Alfredo Escalera Sr.
Many of the rest of the cast are relative unknowns, which is not a bad thing, Wald said.
"One of the ideas of 'The Contender' was to take guys who didn't have access to the big promoters or managers, or who had to have a day job, and give them an opportunity to get on TV, get the public to know them and show that they can fight. Who was [first-season winner and later the show's first world champion] Sergio Mora? Nobody knew him until 'The Contender.' Who was Alfonso Gomez? Nobody knew Gomez. Same with Peter Manfredo.
"Now these new guys will have their chance. There are some guys this season who have phenomenal stories. Because this is our fourth season, the guys have been watching the show since the beginning and they have a sense of what it can do for their careers, which makes them even hungrier."
Leonard hosted the first three seasons of the show, but was replaced by Danza because of scheduling conflicts.
Danza is no stranger to boxing. He compiled a record of 9-3 with 3 knockouts during his 1976 to 1979 pro career before gaining worldwide fame for starring roles on popular TV comedies "Taxi" and "Who's The Boss?"
"I couldn't be more excited to be hosting 'The Contender' this season," Danza said. "Not only is it one of the best shows on television but one of the wildest shows ever dreamed up. I feel right back at home in this great boxing environment and I am looking forward to seeing this great group of fighters contend for the title."
One of the chief complaints from boxing fans about the series in its first two seasons was that the bouts that culminate each episode were heavily edited down to just a couple of minutes of action. But last season, ESPN, in addition to the episodes, also aired the complete fights as a separate series. Wald said Versus is planning to do the same thing.
"Versus has shown that they intend to be a factor in the boxing business and we are looking forward to a long and successful relationship," Wald said.
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.
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