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Laila Ali Talks Business
(An interview in which the Daughter of a Living Legend discusses the way the world works)

By Katherine Dunn

Promoter Johnny "Yah-Yah" McClain has announced that his wife, Laila Ali will be fighting in the main event of a card scheduled for the day before the June 8 Lennox Lewis-Mike Tyson heavyweight title match. McClain's show will take place in a suburb of Memphis, Tennessee where the Lewis-Tyson bout is set. It will be a full year since her last fight-- the publicity bonanza against Jacqui Frazier on June 8 of 2001. Although Jacqui Frazier has had a couple of fights in the intervening time, Ali went through shoulder surgery and will be making a comeback. Her most prominently rumored opponent is Freda George Foreman.

Last year the sports press sneered at the Ali-Frazier Daughters box-off, while the main stream media gobbled it up big time. It was, arguably, the best publicized non-Tyson bout in many years. Bronco McKart, who fought on the women's undercard, put it this way, "When was the last time you saw a boxer on the cover of TV Guide?" Laila and Jacqui were paired on that best-selling magazine the week of their pay-per-view fight. The remarkable thing about that event, and about the careers of both of these Daughters, is that they are not, like Mia St John, the dainty S&M porn creations of a cynical promoter. (Though, to give St. John credit, she did her best to undercut Arum's slime strategy by actually trying to learn to box.)

The Daughters are not under contract to any major promoter. They do not have promotional contracts with any television network. They are doing it themselves. Their husbands are their promoters. Many a scorching blast from a sports writer has used this fact as an indicator that the Daughters are of no worth. Their lack of boxing cred is proven by the fact that no promoter of substance; not Don King, Bob Arum, the Duvas, Cedric Kushner, America Presents, or anyone else is involved with them. But there is another way to look at it.

Boxing is a sport that focuses on and romanticizes the individual. Whatever is left of the loner spirit of independence is wired into the whole notion of one-on-one combat. That's what the boxer believes. That's what the half-savvy fan in the cheap seats sees. Between the nose-bleed bleachers and the half-naked fighter under the white light, there is an arc of understanding a shared perception. Or mis-perception. They think what's going on in the ring is art. But it's really business-- Tycoons and TV networks peddling show acts advertising vehicles. Nothing wrong with that. It keeps the ring lights on. But it's crucial to the success of the business that the illusion of a meritocracy be maintained, though the fighters themselves rarely have any control over their own careers. Admittedly, the tycoon web fluctuates and drifts and even rips. Every once in a while somebody comes along who won't play that part of the game. Marvin Hagler stuck with the Petronelli's and refused to sign promotional contracts. Cranky Bernard Hopkins went his own way. And both middleweights waited many long years for title shots and profitable attention.

The Daughters of Living Legends - DOLLs, as they're often called - may have the advantage of their father's names, but that and their own brains and energy are all they've got. Both women have pointed out that TV networks and promoters and plenty of sports writers have made huge money and whole careers off the efforts of the Fathers. Why, they argue, shouldn't they benefit from their own family name? I've never run across a rational reply.

Family name aside, promoting yourself is a lot of work. While most fighters with any clout refuse to do more than the weigh-in press conference the week of a fight, the Daughters were putting in 18-hour days right up to the first bell rang. They were doing radio, TV and print interviews, signing autographs in shopping malls, visiting schools, kissing babies--the whole megillah. And it worked pretty well. There were around 100,000 pay-per-view buys, and some 7,000 people in the casino tent for the show. That's not bad without benefit of Don King or HBO. The bout itself was exciting, if crude, with plenty of heart and ferocity substituting for smooth skills between opponents who had fewer than ten pro bouts each. Not good boxing, but a hell of a fight.

About a week later, still in June of 2001, this reporter talked with Laila Ali by phone. In the course of the conversation, Ali revealed a lot more business moxie than is customary for fighters of either gender. What follows is an edited transcript of that interview.

KD:You were on a grueling promotional schedule before the fight.

LA:Oh yes. It wore me out. I definitely wasn't 100% for that fight because I was so drained from all the things before the fight. Well, I made it through, so..it's all good.

KD:You are acutely aware of what women's boxing is going through at this time. Could you describe your view?

LA:Well, basically I feel that, as with anything that's new, it's going to take time to grow. Because of the level many women boxers are on sometimes you see fights and the women look like they just came in off the street, in comparison to men boxers. So sometimes people see that and they think it's just a cat fight and they don't take it seriously.

Other times, when females have amateur background and a lot of experience, they get in there and a lot of people can appreciate their skill. But I think that just like with men's boxing, there's thousands of male boxers and out of the thousands of them only a few are really good. It's the same with women's boxing except that there are so few, as a whole, in women's boxing that you just don't see the good ones because there are so few of them. That, I think, is important because it would grow so much faster if every time people saw it they liked it. But if only two out of the ten times they see it they're going to enjoy it, the sport won't grow as well.

Our fight (Ali vs Jacqui Frazier) brought a lot of exposure to the game because a lot of people who didn't watch women's boxing, didn't know women box, or weren't interested wanted to watch it for a lot of different reasons and they enjoyed it. It was a good fight with a lot of I think it was just a very exciting fight. There was a lot of tension before the fight as far as the families and the feelings that Jacqui and I have toward each other. Everybody was hyped up and everybody just wanted to see us get it on. And when we got in there we both weren't backing down. I'm not happy with my performance, myself. I'm happy that I won.

But people aren't really into the skills and all that. They're just into the big picture of liking what they see, and I think that people who saw it liked it. I can't say that they're suddenly gonna be going, 'hey I'm a women's boxing fan, I'm gonna go to all the matches now.' Because we still have that situation now where these women are not being promoted.

With male fighters, a lot of money and time and effort goes into building them up and putting them out there for the public to see. And creating these characters, like Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis and Holyfield, Oscar De La Hoya, Sugar Shane Moseley. They have commercials, they paint them up to be a certain way, and people start following the character of the fighter.

That's what we need in women's boxing. I'm hoping that not only will people like what they saw and have a positive idea of women's boxing, but promoters see that it can be made that big. You can make women the main event and you can put your money behind women and make it grow and make money off it. Because that's what promoters are concerned about. That's why they haven't done that because they didn't think the market was there and that it wasn't possible.

Even for this fight it was the same. All you hear was negative comments from other promoters because they didn't think it was gonna happen. And then when they saw it happening they were still making negative comments because they were just mad because they don't have anything to do with it. So hopefully it opened up a lot of peoples' eyes - not just fans, but the promoters who need to get behind these women.

KD:I think a lot more people are now aware that women box.

LA:Right and they enjoyed what they saw. Oh my god, I can't even go to the mall. Everywhere I've gone since I've been home, people recognize me, 'Oh I loved that fight.' You can kind of tell by people's reactions. Before this a lot of people saw me in interviews or in magazines but they never actually saw me fight. So that was another thing. 'Well we want to see what this pretty girl is gonna do when she gets in there.' Not to be mean but people saw Jacqui as the mean, rough, ugly one and I'm the pretty soft one and what was I gonna do. The difference was there in the characters, you see what I'm saying? I remember before the fight it was, 'She's rough and she's gonna do this and she's gonna do that , and you just be careful.' And I know what I'm gonna do because I know what I trained to do, but there's so much hype around it that people want to see what's going to happen when we get in there together. And that's what the sport needs.

Until it has people behind women, supporting them, it's not gonna happen. No matter how good you are. I mean there are a lot of women out there who are way more experienced than me, who have been boxing for a long time, who would have more skills fighting than we had. But none of that matters if nobody's interested in watching it.

A lot of girls who wanted to fight me early, and of course I didn't do it because the time wasn't right, but they don't realize if they fight me now, whether they were to win or lose nobody would care. Timing is important too.

KD:After the fight you said you were going to go back into the gym, but at the press conference you commented specifically on some of the other fighters in your division that you would like to face. I think you specifically mentioned Veronica Simmons.

LA:Well, I mentioned Veronica Simmons because Veronica Simmons was there. And I remember reading an article where she did an interview and she was saying that I was afraid of her and that she's so much better and that I don't know how to throw this punch and that punch. Basically speaking about me negatively, But that's not anything new to me. But I knew that she was there, which is smart of her. Because the whole thing is, if you want attention you've got to make your presence known. So she was gonna show up and try to get some attention. Which I don't have a problem with.

A lot of these girls don't realize that I'm in their corner. They can think what they want to think and be mad because I get all the attention, but I'm trying to help. But I have more of a business mind than they do. So I just said I'm glad that you showed up and I mentioned her purposely because maybe somebody would write about what I was saying.

She was just sitting back there, not saying anything. I told her talk to the press, make your presence known. Tell them what your record is. Make yourself somebody that they want me to be afraid of and want me to be ducking, because that's how you build a fight up. She has the talent and she was an amateur, she only had 2 professional fights - amateur boxing is very different than professional boxing so ...

That's somebody I could face down the line but as of now she only has two professional fights. She has no belt. She has nothing. If it is going to be a tough fight, why would I fight you and risk losing when I have nothing to gain? She has to build herself up to the point where it's worth it for both of us. Don't get me wrong, I don't plan on losing. But if we did fight each other and she lost, OK, she wouldn't make any money, because the fight wouldn't be able to make as much money because she didn't get promoted. She would lose, and that would be it. Her chance would be gone. Or, even if she won, it would be like,' Oh Laila Ali lost.'

Most likely people aren't going to follow her unless the hype around her has already been created. People have to like what they see. They're not necessarily just going to love you just because you beat me, or whatever. You gotta have some character. You've gotta have something.

KD:An established identity.

LA: Exactly. And I can't do that for her. I know my husband got her card and everything. I know we're going to try to help people promote themselves.

KD:tell me about that. Obviously you're going to continue to fight.

LA:Oh yes.

KD:And is Mr McClain going to continue to promote? Does he have an active involvement in all of your bouts?

LA:He has promoted three of my fights so far. He is my promoter. It wasn't just this fight. He is my promoter and he's the one who built me up to the level where I am right now. It's all been him. He was in the business. He was on the other side of the gate. He was a fighter who had no name and always was the underdog and always got called at the last minute to be the opponent and didn't get paid. He fought for a world title and only got $7,500. He was always fighting guys who were heavier than him because he needed the money. He knows what it's like so it's not like he grew up and was given everything like I have been, you know. So he's the one that keeps my mind right. He knows what it takes for me to be a champion and he knows what it takes to build somebody up. Now he's a promoter and he has a commodity so I don't need any other promoter. He's definitely going to continue and he's going to continue to promote all of my fight cards that I'm on.

KD:Where do you go from here? How do you find a name opponent that 

LA:My thing isn't about me just fighting an opponent. I'm a fighter. I fight. There are certain girls out there that are considered good and people respect, and there are people who have belts. I have to fight girls for those belts. There's no way to get around that. My husband can put a fight card together and get somebody he knows I can beat. That's not going to do anything for me, especially if later down the line I want to fight for a belt I'm gonna have to face these girls anyway. So step by step we've been getting the people who I can work on the things I need to work on with and they will be competitive.

I fought a girl named Kendra Lenhardt who had a lot more experience than me. Her record wasn't that great. She had a lot of losses and a lot of that came from the beginning of her career because she was put in over her head and she didn't have anybody that knew what they were doing around her. We fought and I beat her in a six round unanimous decision. She was the first person that ever went the distance with me. Everyone else I knocked out.

She went the distance. I won. And after she fought me she fought a girl who was a world champion and she won and she got the belt. So she now holds the WIBF belt in the super middleweight class, and we're going to have a re-match. I'm going to fight her and that most likely will be my first belt.

Kendra Lenhardt is now signed to a promotional contract with my husband. So she knows that fight's going to happen. I know that fight's going to happen. And now the name of the game is to build her up. People need to know that we fought each other before, that she was a tough opponent. It was a tough fight. She went six rounds with me. She thinks that she would have won but they gave me the decision because of my name. You can create all this hype behind it. People can see that and wonder, what's she gonna do with this big old 6'2" strong girl?

And in the meanwhile Kendra gets built up. You know what I'm saying. Even after she fights me if she loses her belt she has a name. This brings up her value. So that's what we have to do. I can't just fight for a belt. Nobody knows these girls. They don't care about a belt. You've got to build them up.

KD:That seems like an intelligent approach.

LA:Well, what else can you do? I get so much criticism from female fighters and their managers. 'Oh Laila Ali won't fight anybody.' First of all, I had no amateur background. I'm gonna get in there and take my time and learn. Most of the people I've fought have had more experience than me. It's not my fault if I get in there and they look like idiots, because their training and their seriousness and the level that their trainers expect them to fight at is just not the same, so I get in there and I outshine them.

KD:Olympic medallists turn pro and fight ten or 12 absolute nobodies.

LA:Right. And part of the reason for that is that you're just learning. Even being an Olympic gold medallist and having an amateur background, professional boxing is different. When you have high hopes and you have people behind you they're going to protect their investment and make sure that you get all the training you need. Like Oscar De La Hoya and Sugar Shane Moseley, they never fought each other. They grew up together in the same town. They never fought each other because they knew that somewhere down the line they were going to have a big money fight. Now if they were stupid they would have fought each other and it would have been over with. But there's a certain way you have to do things.

That's the same way I feel about these girls that are worthy opponents. I'm not going to fight them yet. And they don't realize now because people don't see the big picture. But it's better if we wait. You know a lot of people who saw me for the first time and liked what they saw, they're going to follow me more too, and they're going to want to see my next fight.

KD:And whoever you're fighting will get more attention because of that?

LA:Exactly. And we're definitely going to build that person up too. Do the same as we did with Jacqui . It won't be exactly the same because the history isn't there, the families. But the same type of thing.

KD:Do you think Kendra Lenhardt is your next fight?

LA:No. I'll probably have one or two more fights. They won't be as loud as this last fight. They won't be as promoted. We'll probably fight on the same card with Kendra so people will be able to see both of us and compare both of us. Then we'll fight each other. That's the way that will probably happen.

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