Cheryl Burke and Drew Lachey, <EM>Dancing with the Stars</EM> Cheryl Burke and Drew Lachey, Dancing with the Stars

Surprise! Tuesday night was the first time that a former Dancing with the Stars champion returned to the parquet floor. When Drew Lachey suddenly leaped off the stage in the midst of the pro's country-western dance number, the crowd went crazy. There he was, picking up his freestyle routine and throwing Cheryl Burke around as if they'd never stopped the kind of shake-your-tail-feather moves that won them the Season 2 crown.

Insiders say it's tough to get past winners like Kelly Monaco or Emmitt Smith back in their dance shoes because once a few weeks have passed — to say nothing of a few months or years — the flexibility, coordination and strength required to do these complicated dance routines is all but gone. The difference with Lachey is that he just came off the Dancing with the Stars national tour, so his conditioning hadn't slipped.

But Lachey aside, all the talk this night was about the women and how they're dropping like flies. Talk-show host Leeza Gibbons was the third straight woman to be shown the door — and it was fascinating to note that the only two females left standing are the fighters: boxing champ Laila Ali and the disabled activist with an iron will, Heather Mills.

Mills is going to have to be one tough cookie to keep up her astonishing routines. If she makes it past next week's samba, she's scheduled to start commuting from Los Angeles to London every week for as long as she survives the elimination rounds. "I'll fly back to London on Tuesday night and fly back the following Saturday," says Mills, "because my daughter (Beatrice, 3) is in England and back at school."  

And Ali is going to have to overcome exhaustion to stay in the game. Her routine this week had a muted quality that really struck judge Carrie Ann Inaba. "She didn't make a lot of eye contact," says Inaba. "Her eyes were down a lot." Still, Ali's potent sex appeal is the talk of the studio audience — and a shock to her fiancé, former NFL wide receiver Curtis Conway. "My mouth dropped when I saw her do the mambo," says Conway, who sits ringside every night. "I just didn't know she could move like that. She's so conservative at home. We're both really conservative."

Conway says the power couple met at his home a couple of years ago when he hosted a fight party. "But it was men fighting," he stresses, "not women. I'm not a fan of women's boxing at all." Good lord. Does his fiancée know that? "Oh, yeah," he laughs. "And I really don't like when she boxes. When I met her, she was so gentle, so nurturing and so caring. And I was like, ‘You're a big old softie.' And she said, ‘No, I'm not.' And the relationship just took off from there. We were friends first."

Which begs the question, how does a romantic relationship work between two people who are both professional bruisers? Conway says, "Laila's all woman. And my thing is, you don't have to go around acting tough to be a man. Our sports are very aggressive, but at home, we just love hanging out together. We run our house like this: I let her do whatever she wants. She's the CEO but I'm the general manager."

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