Laila Ali needs more than her father's fast talking

Sunday, July 6, 2003

She definitely has the old man's gift of gab.

But this is one time Laila Ali better bring her father's jab, too.

And not just because her Aug. 23 fight against trailblazer Christy Martin is personal -- and was even before that nasty little exchange onstage at a news conference Tuesday to promote the bout. The success of women's boxing could hang in the balance.

In a game with precious few marquee names, the two biggest have finally agreed to mix it up. They've been circling each other since February, when Ali complained women's boxing would never grow so long as "these girls keep ducking each other" and then laughed off a possible matchup against Martin this way:

"She's slow, short and any weight that she would put on would be fat."

From the sound of that bite, some people would argue Ali already knows all she needs to about how to hurt a girl.

A chance for validation

Boxing insiders aren't so sure. Most agree this could be the fight that validates her credentials, even more than her entertaining and ultimately successful slugfest against Joe Frazier's daughter, Jacqui Frazier-Lyde.

"I said when Laila got into the business, her name alone would lift the profile of the whole sport," said promoter Rick Kulis, who runs the International Female Boxers Association.

"Unfortunately, with that kind of recognition, came high expectations. Fortunately, the people who handled her did a good job training her and picking their spots. But this will be a fight -- a real fight.

"Anybody who's seen Christy knows that. I can't say if the animosity at the news conference was staged, but believe me, Christy is going to be a genuinely disagreeable opponent," Kulis continued. "She is not going to give up her place as the No. 1 female boxer in the world without putting up a very good fight."

Say what you will about women's boxing, and whether trash-talking and pre-fight fights represent a new low for an enterprise some would argue couldn't go any lower. The only thing fans are arguing about is whether this fight happened soon enough.

At 25, Ali will step into the ring at a Gulfport, Miss., casino some nine years younger, 6 inches taller and 30 pounds heavier. At 15-0 with 12 knockouts, she's also endured barely a third of the punishment Martin has in pounding out a 45-2-2 record.

"There's no question Christy is near the end of her career and Ali much closer to the beginning, but that's the standard formula for men's boxing, too," Kulis said.

"And I'd remind people, from a physical perspective, it's not much different from Lennox Lewis fighting Mike Tyson."

But that's not the only way the comparison is apt.

Same problem as the men

Like the men's heavyweight division, the entire sport of women's boxing suffers from a lack of credible opponents. Roy Jones, who began as a middleweight, has been the hottest name on the men's side because of his willingness to step in against heavyweights in search of a good fight. Because every weight class in women's boxing is thin, the best fighters face similar dilemmas all the time.

Martin, whose nickname is "The Coal Miner's Daughter," comes into her fights weighing between 135-140 pounds. Her last bout in December was against Mia St. John, who, despite being unable to break an egg, was 12-0 against hand-picked opponents at one point in her career and splashed across the cover of Playboy magazine.

Ali's last bout, meanwhile, was a rematch against Valerie Mahfood on the undercard of the Lewis-Vitali Klitschko fight two weeks ago. The best thing about it was how Laila managed to sound like Muhammad Ali in the days leading up to that bout -- "I'm not carrying her this time the way I did in the first fight, she is getting knocked out this time" -- and then delivered like the old man with a sixth-round knockout.

There is precious little about women's boxing that could be called "poignant," but this bout meets even that standard.

Ali was running a nail salon in southern California a few years ago when she saw her first women's boxing match. She had no master plan, nothing more than a bit of curiosity when she tuned into a Tyson pay-per-view bout and found herself fascinated by the undercard.

As she watched Martin dispatch one in a string of faceless opponents, Ali knew in a heartbeat what she wanted to do next with her life. She sold her business soon after. Since then, there has been the photos and stories in Vogue and Cosmopolitan, the appearances on the "Today Show" and "Good Morning America."

Ali has become the face of her sport, not a bad thing for someone who could segue smoothly into a modeling career. But this is one instance where good looks and a sharp tongue won't count for much unless she's got a punch to back it all up.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.

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