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From boxing to acting: 5 stars with legit boxing backgrounds

Plenty of actors have dabbled in the ring, but these five put in real work and found success in competition

Tony Danza and His Parents
Tony Danza and his parents celebrate a boxing win.

Everyone knows that Sylvester Stallone put in some hard ring work to get ready for Rocky. Just as Robert De Niro did for Raging Bull. In fact, many actors over the years have proved they have what it takes to at least train like a pro, when it comes to getting the right role. But, there are a few actors out there who actually spent some real time in the ring, and we’re not just talking about Mickey Rourke.

That said, here are five famous actors who had legit boxing backgrounds...

1.) Kris Kristofferson - The songwriter and actor won a Golden Globe for A Star is Born (1976), he was also a Golden Glove boxer. After becoming a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, Kristofferson continued boxing, while also competing in a variety of other sports. However, it was for boxing that he won his “Blue.” The highest honor for athletics at Oxford and Cambridge, a “Blue” is awarded for performing at an elite level in varsity competition. Few people have lived as an eclectic and accomplished life as Kristofferson, but his time as a pugilist made a deep impression. In an interview with Rolling Stone at age 80 he said, “I feel like an old boxer.”

Kris Kristofferson Concert In Drammen
Kris Kristofferson, 83, performs at a concert in Norway. June 2, 2019.
Photo by Per Ole Hagen/Redferns

2.) Jack Palance - Prior to WWII Palance was a professional boxer, fighting under the name Jack Brazzo. The Ukrainian was born Volodymir Palahniuk, and he felt Brazzo sounded like the name of a prizefighter. At 6’3” and 200 pounds, he had dropped out of the University of North Carolina to pursue fighting, and primarily fought in Pennsylvania coal towns. He considered going to the University of Louisville in order to box for the school, but ultimately went to New York, where he lost a decision to contender Joe Baksi. He later recounted thinking to himself, “You must be nuts to get your head beat in for $200. The theater seemed a lot more appealing.” Palance reinvented himself as an actor, creating a career as a big screen villain, with a second act as host of Ripley’s Believe it or Not, before finally finding latter-career fame as a comedic actor in City Slickers. Even into his 80’s Palance possessed the tough guy swagger he earned in the ring.

Actor Jack Palance Surrounded by Masks
Jack Palance in his Hollywood heyday.
Photo by �� John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

3.) Bob Hope - Born with the name Leslie Townes Hope, the famous comedian fought under the name Packy East during his boxing career. The man who would eventually become Bob Hope trained at Charlie Marotta’s famed Cleveland gym and successfully competed in novice tournaments. His best finish was advancing to the finals of the Ohio State Novice Championship in 1919. While Hope never made it to the pros, his used his identity as a former boxer to comedic advantage—engaging in charity bouts with legends like Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Jack Dempsey. The fight with Marciano was attended by 19,000 at Madison Square Garden. It was declared a no contest and turned into a dance party. Although Hope mined his boxing days for self-deprecating humor, he did come away with a decent record and three KOs.

Fight Night for the USO
Bob Hope vs. Rocky Marciano

4.) Ryan O’Neal - Growing up in Los Angeles, O’Neal attended University High School, where he first began boxing. Dedicated to the sport, he competed in two Golden Gloves championships and racked up an impressive amateur record of 18-4, with 13 KO’s. Many years after he turned to acting, O’Neal played a boxer in Main Event (1979)—a romantic comedy with Barbra Streisand. O’Neal is still invested in boxing, emotionally and financially. He opened a gym with Farrah Fawcett back in 1988. He eventually let go of his stake, but when the gym closed earlier this year he and his son Patrick decided to save PRO Gym. (PRO stands for Patrick Ryan O’Neal, O’Neal’s full name.) The gym has been a community hang out for over 30 years, and still has its boxing ring.

Ryan O’Neal In ‘The Main Event’
Ryan O’Neal practicing his boxing moves in a scene from the film ‘The Main Event’, 1979.
Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images

5.) Tony Danza - Thanks to his role on Taxi, Tony Danza is more associated with his former career as a boxer than perhaps any other actor. The character Tony was a hopeless case, losing fight after fight until the boxing commission took away his license. In real life, Danza was far more successful. A professional boxer, Danza retired with a 9-3 record, with all of his wins coming by knockout, seven in the first round. Born Antonio Ladanza, he first used the name Tony Danza for the 1975 Golden Gloves—a competition his friends signed him up for as a joke. He scored six straight knockouts before losing by knockout in the finals. He turned pro shortly thereafter. When Danza was three fights deep into a winning streak he found himself on Taxi. Still hoping for a title fight, he returned to the ring for two more wins before his acting career took over.

Tony Danza Boxing
Back in his fighting days - Tony Danza trains at the gym
Photo By: Anthony Casale/NY Daily News via Getty Images