She doesn't pull punches

Boxing: Laila Ali has followed in the footsteps of her legendary father by winning matches and transcending the sport.

July 17, 2004|By Lem Satterfield | Lem Satterfield,SUN STAFF

Laila Ali had trouble getting up for tonight's fight with Nikki Eplion in Bowie until her rival's trash talking at Wednesday's news conference.

"I'm your very worst nightmare," said the statuesque 6-foot-1 woman with blond hair. Looking straight into the eyes of Muhammad Ali's youngest of seven daughters, Eplion promised a knockout victory, its payoff yielding a home and helping send her two children to college.

It was one of the rare times during a 16-0 career that Ali was beaten to the punch, but like her legendary father, she was quick to counter.

"It's really a shame you had to bring your kids into this," said Ali, aligning her chilly glare with Eplion's. "I've fought a lot of mothers, left their kids crying ringside, always consoled them after the fight when they come for an autograph."

Ali then looked at the fans in attendance, most of whom were cheering her every word, and told them what every professional female boxer already knows: "This woman wants everything that I have," she said. "But the most important thing I have is my last name."

Laila Ali, 26, has her father's gift of gab, wears white trunks into the ring, as he did, and, similarly, has transcended her sport with an amalgam of charisma, flash, skill, style and beauty.

"There are other women boxers whose skills are as good as Laila's, but Laila has the name and the personality to separate herself from the pack," said boxing historian Thomas Hauser, who wrote a biography of Muhammad Ali. "But she doesn't just rely on her name. She's taken her craft very seriously, and I give her credit for that. When Laila first started boxing, I was cynical about it. But other than Laila, people don't care about women's boxing."

Laila Ali has gone from laughingstock to standard bearer for women's boxing, demonstrating not only glimpses of her father's inimitable talents, but a mean streak while finishing off opponents.

"People had doubts as to her real motivation for boxing, thought it was some sort of schtick or a joke to make a dollar off of her father's famous name," said Ring Magazine associate editor Joe Santoliquito. "But Laila's turned it around and developed the skills to become the top female fighter in the world."

In her last outing, an Aug. 23, fourth-round knockout of Christy Martin, Ali delivered her 13th knockout in a savage beating of a fighter whose dominance once landed her on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Ali stood over Martin, who had been hammered to both knees and left clinging to the ropes for the 10-count. The victory was a passing of the torch, as Ali proved she's much more than just a pretty face.

"Being an attractive person helps. The pretty teacher gets the apples from the students. People want to open doors for you," said Ali, who recently told a publication, `I'm bigger than boxing.'

"My first priority is being a good fighter - people wouldn't be throwing deals my way if I wasn't," Ali said. "The first person people think of when they think of women's boxing is me. Of course, it helps that my last name is Ali."

Guided by her promoter-husband, Yahya McClain, Ali has endorsement deals with Adidas - whose television spot uses digital imagery to land Muhammad Ali in his prime in the ring opposite Laila - along with Ford, Dr Pepper and others. She has also appeared in a rock video.

In the ring, Ali has earned a women's record of $250,000 for her largest payday. She will make $75,000 tonight, when she returns to the ring after an 11-month layoff to defend her International Boxing Association Super Middleweight title against Eplion (12-1-2, eight KOs), a left-hander from South Point, Ohio, at Prince George's Stadium.

A former business school student and nail salon manager, Ali first considered lacing up the gloves after watching Martin fight Deidre Gogarty in March 1996 on the undercard of Mike Tyson vs. Frank Bruno.

She started working out, and in October 1999, endured world-wide skepticism during her pro debut - a first-round knockout of April Fowler at the Turning Stone Casino in Verona, N.Y.

"Being Muhammad Ali's daughter, there's not going to be any greater pressure on me than what I experienced that night," said Ali, who had no organized athletic experience prior to boxing. "I had no amateur experience. Clearly everyone thought it was a publicity stunt. There were 80-something different countries there with cameras all waiting for me to fail and to report my failure."

Ali had flattened her first seven opponents in four rounds or less when she decisioned Kendra Lenhart on the undercard of Tyson-Andrew Golota in October 2000 in Detroit. Ali was knocked down and "dazed" by Lenhart, "my toughest opponent to that point."

But in her ninth fight eight months later, Ali overcame a torn rotator cuff injury to her left shoulder in a career-defining brawl with Jacqui Frazier-Lyde, daughter of her father's nemesis, Joe Frazier.

If Ali defeats Eplion, she'll have little time to bask in the glory. She's slated for a July 30 rise into the light heavyweight ranks in an attempt to lift from Gwendolyn O'Neal (9-3-1, six KOs) the Women's International Boxing Association crown.

That bout will take place on the undercard of Tyson's return to the ring against Danny Williams in her father's hometown of Louisville, Ky.

"I'm looking forward to going to Louisville," she said. "They love the Ali name there."

Fight facts

Main event: Laila Ali, Los Angeles (16-0, 13 KOs) vs. Nikki Eplion, South Point, Ohio (12-1-2, eight KOs)

Co-feature: Mark "Too Sharp" Johnson, Washington (43-3, 28 KOs) vs. Paulino Villalobos, Vera Cruz (23-24-2, 14 KOs)

When: Tonight at 7

Where: Prince George's Stadium, Bowie

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