Ian Ziering and Cheryl Burke, <EM>Dancing with the Stars</EM> Ian Ziering and Cheryl Burke, Dancing with the Stars

We started with 11 couples. Now there are three. And the head judge is jazzed about the finals. "It's going to be magic," Len Goodman said immediately after Tuesday night's results show, which sent Ian Ziering packing. Ziering gave the competition everything he had and wanted to stay in the worst way. But, says Ziering, "It really wasn't so unexpected. There are better dancers out there."

Goodman agrees. It may have been a tight, four-way race to the finish, but Goodman thinks the right three couples made it into the finals. "As much as I loved Ian's performances last night, I think it was justified that he was the one sent home as the weakest dancer. If he had been in Season 1, 2 or 3, he would've been in the finals. But he's come up against three incredible couples."

Goodman has presided over four seasons of Dancing with the Stars in the United States — and an equal number of seasons of the show's predecessor, Strictly Come Dancing, in the United Kingdom. "This season in America," says Goodman, "is without a doubt the best I've ever seen. Quite often, here or in England, you get that one couple who is fantastic. But the standard set by the top three couples here (Joey Fatone and Kym Johnson, Apolo Anton Ohno and Julianne Hough, Laila Ali and Maksim Chmerkovskiy) is the highest I've ever seen. I've certainly never seen anything like it in the U.K." 

Goodman believes that the dance that will ultimately separate the men (and one woman) from the boys is the freestyle, which all three couples will perform next Monday night. "That becomes the lynchpin of the whole thing," says Goodman. How would he break down each couple's chances? "I think Apolo just has to carry on the way he's been going," says Goodman. "He's such a talented dancer. And the way Julianne has been choreographing his routines, I would imagine he's going to be an absolute knockout."

Does he think Hough will tone down what Goodman considered "raunchiness" in their last performance? Goodman laughs. "No!" he says. "I'm sure they won't, especially in the finals. We've critiqued them for weeks and if they did something absolutely terrible, I'd have to say something. But the final is really a celebration."    

What about Joey and Kym? "Joey is a natural-born performer with a magnificent personality," says Goodman. "Who knows what he'll do next?"  

And Laila and Maks? "My only concern is that in the freestyle," says Goodman, "they usually put in a few lifts. I know Maks is a big strong guy, but he's got his work cut out for him to do spectacular lifts with Laila."

For the record, Ali is 5'11" and weighs 175 pounds. Maks is only slightly larger, at 6'2" and 195 pounds. Alec Mazo, the professional dancer who made it all the way to the finish line with Kelly Monaco in Season 1, thinks Maks has the toughest job of the three remaining professionals. "I don't know how much more he can do," says Mazo. "Kelly was tiny, so it was easy to do the lifts. But Laila? Laila could probably lift Maks." 

Size isn't the only issue facing the formidable Ali. The undefeated boxing champ has been putting enormous strain on her already battered knees. She doesn't complain about it, but she came into the competition with bad knees and has been dancing through a lot of pain. She doesn't even whine about it at home. "We don't talk about it, because that's just how we are," says her fiancé, former NFL star Curtis Conway, who's been in the audience week in and week out to support her. Conway knows a thing or two about overcoming pain, having spent 12 years getting tackled as a wide receiver. "If you concentrate on what hurts, it hurts more. But Laila's tough."  

She's going to have to be. Because if she can't out-perform everyone else with her lifts, she's going to have to dazzle us with her footwork. "I came here to win this," says Ali, signing autographs, still every inch the fighter. Consider it game on.

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