- The Washington Times - Friday, June 10, 2005

Like her father, Laila Ali can float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. Unlike Muhammad Ali, her preference tilts more toward the latter than the former.

“I ain’t got no problem getting in the kitchen where it’s hot and taking some chances,” she said. “And that’s the difference between my father and me. I do a little more brawling. I don’t mind getting hit.”

Not that she gets hit often. At 27, less than six years after her first pro fight, Ali (20-0, 17 knockouts) dominates her sport. No one else appears to be close at this point, certainly not Erin Toughill (6-1-1), who is expected to lose big at MCI Center tomorrow night when Ali defends her WIBA super middleweight title and goes for a newly sanctioned WBC crown before the Mike Tyson-Kevin McBride heavyweight fight.

Rock Newman, the agent and manager, called Ali “pretty invincible,” citing her “size and ability, not to mention ferocity.” Her biggest challenge is trying to carve out a presence and persona of her own, which might be impossible. Muhammad Ali, the revered and beloved former heavyweight champ, has been labeled the most recognized athlete, if not person, in the world.

As with many children of the athletically gifted and other rich and famous types, Ali has been blessed by her parentage and cursed with the burden of unreal expectations. In most cases, the burden scores a TKO. However, she seems to be handling it all with patience, skill and a mean right hand.

“I’m following what my heart desires,” she said. “I’m not gonna run away from it because of my father. I didn’t say I’m gonna do this because that’s what he did. I said I’m gonna do it because I want to do it. And what makes me want to do it is it’s in me.”

Then, too, Ali is quick to acknowledge that she was born with certain attributes useful to ring combat and that her name is an invaluable passkey.

“I have a very important, famous last name behind me that has gotten me to the level I’ve gotten now,” she said. “Of course, it’s my skills and me backing it up, but without that name it wouldn’t matter how good of a fighter I was. … I’m at this level because of who my father is. It’s not even something I can take credit for.”

Ali’s husband and manager, former middleweight champ Johnny “Yahya” McClain, said the first thing he notices about her as a boxer is a “will to win you could never imagine.” Which, he noted, “is the same thing her father had.”

On occasion, watching her fight or just spar, “I see what I call flashes of brilliance, flashes of what Muhammad had,” McClain said. “I see her do things that are so Muhammad Ali-like. Those are the things that are in her genes, the things we don’t teach her.”

But Ali is also known as a tireless worker and perfectionist, “truly a student of the game,” said McClain, who met Laila before she turned pro at her father’s 57th birthday party in 1999. “She studies each tape over and over again. She is a very hard critic of herself.”

Ali is hard on others, too. A statuesque 5-foot-10 and a strikingly attractive woman (her mother, Veronica Porche, the third Mrs. Ali, was a model), Laila operates behind a tough shell Muhammad Ali rarely displayed. He could say mean things about opponents like Floyd Patterson and Joe Frazier, but his overall glibness, sense of fun and perpetual twinkle in his eye facilitated the legend. Laila, on the other hand, is all stone-cold business.

“My dad’s a lot nicer than I am,” she conceded. “He’s more of a people person than I am. I really don’t like a lot of people around me. That’s because I grew up watching all the fakers and hangers-on around him. And because I’m a woman, not a man. You can’t be as friendly.”

Ali saw little of her father growing up. The second youngest of Muhammad Ali’s nine children, she lived with her mother in Southern California and was rebellious as a kid — another trait inherited from her dad. She even served some time in a juvenile jail for shoplifting. Eventually, she opened a nail salon and planned an acting career. Then she watched a women’s fight on TV, thought, “I can do that,” and plunged into her new career.

Ali has spoken out about how young black women are portrayed in videos and sees herself as a role model.

“I think all things [come] from having self-respect and confidence in yourself,” she said.

Muhammad Ali, whose Parkinson’s disease might have been caused by repeated blows in the ring, always opposed women boxing. But he supports his daughter now. They always will be linked. In 2001, Laila fought Frazier’s daughter, Jacqui Frazier-Lyde, to a hard-fought decision — a battle reminiscent of the three Ali-Frazier fights.

And like her father, Laila knows how to sell. The difference is she does it reluctantly. As she stood at a podium the other day, taunting Toughill (“I don’t like this girl”) and hyping her attributes, Laila Ali said, “I’m gonna do my talking now because that’s what I do. That’s what’s come to be expected of me. It’s in my blood.”

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