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Laila Ali Set to Enter IWBHF
by Bernie McCoy

IWBHF Press Release

PORTLAND, OR - (March 3, 2015) Laila Ali, who in the early and middle years of the new century, was the acknowledged "face" of Women's boxing during what will likely be remembered as the final flourishing time for the sport in the United States, will enter the International Women's Boxing Hall of Fame as part of the 2015 class.   Ali will be joined by other "modern era" boxers, Laura Serrano, Jeannine Garside, Ann Wolfe, Deirdre Gogarty and Terri Moss along with NYSAC referee Sparkle Lee and Phyllis Kugler (posthumous), a pioneer boxer in the 1950s. The induction ceremony will be held on Saturday, July 11 in the Crystal Ballroom of the Hyatt Regency Pier Sixty-Six in Fort Lauderdale, FL (3:00-6:30 PM). Similar to the 2014 ceremony, this year's induction will be conducted in conjunction with the National Women's Golden Gloves tournament.

"I'm honored to be recognized for induction into the Hall of Fame." That's Laila Ali, late last week, on the phone from her California home, speaking about her inclusion in the IWBHF's second class. "I'm especially pleased that this recognition comes from my peers and is indicative of what they think of me, particularly those boxers who worked so hard and long beside me during a time when we took the sport of Women's boxing to the levels we achieved." It was during those "levels we achieved" that the Women's boxing reached peaks of fan interest and media coverage, with Ali as the centerpiece, that would be welcomed, unconditionally, by the sport today but which, however, seem to be consigned to history.

The perception of Laila Ali changed markedly following her tenth professional fight, a June 2001 win over Jacqui Frazier Lyde in upstate New York. The eight round bout far exceeded the expectations of many boxing "experts" who foresaw an over-hyped exhibition by two "boxing daughters." Today, Ali continues to view the bout with some regret, "I had a fever that night, but the furthest thing from my mind was dropping out. Although I won I had been hoping for a KO, but Jacqui fought tough that night. Following the bout I was out for a year rehabbing an injury and there continued to be a great clamor for a return bout. Instead I came back with a decision over Shirvelle Williams (June 2002). Looking back, I should have taken Jacqui again, that was a mistake.

Two months later, Ali won her first title (IBA super middleweight) with a two round TKO of Suzie Taylor. "It was an easier bout than I thought it would be and next was Valerie Mahfood, along with two more belts (WIBA and IWBF super middleweight)". Ali was beginning her ascendance to the top of the sport and she was not just winning each bout, she was outclassing each opponent. "Honestly, and I don't mean this disparagingly because I respected each of my opponents, but they were simply not at my skill level." Beginning with the Taylor fight and ending in February 2007 with a first round TKO of Gwendolyn O'Neil, Lalia Ali completed her 24 bout professional career with 13 straight wins, all KOs. Asked about any difficult opponents over her career, the name that surfaced several times during our talk was that of Kendra Lenhart, "she was as tough as they came; big, strong, with punching power. Lenhart hit me as hard as I was hit in the ring. She could punch, but, fortunately, I had the boxing skills to beat by decision (October 2000).

Given that Ali, in 2007, seemed to be at the peak of her skills while maintaining a dominant position at the top of the middleweight division, if not the entire sport of Women's boxing, why did she retire? "I was at a point where I felt there was little, if anything, left for me to achieve. In my next to last fight (November 2006), I fought in the Garden (Shelley Burton) which was, obviously, very meaningful for me in an number of ways and, yet, I came away from the bout (TKO 4) feeling it was just not competitive. I knew it and probably the fans knew it. I didn't want to keep going through those type of bouts because I trained very hard for every fight and the return on that type of hard work just wasn't there."

What about Ann Wolfe? Ali's reply is quick, direct and forceful, noticeable even over a phone line from a continent away, "So much has been written about that and the fact is that I tried to make that bout, but it was always something from the other side that would come up and make agreement impossible. And then when the bout didn't happen, all the talk would begin about how I was afraid to get in the ring with Wolfe. Does anyone, honestly believe I was ever afraid to get in the ring with a female boxer? After a while, it just wasn't worth going through all the nonsense. But, I'll be honest, it bothered me then, it bothers me now and, at one point, I seriously considered coming out of retirement to make the fight, just to end it for once and for all."

Asked whether she has any interest in a future connection with the sport of boxing, Ali, once more shoots out an answer straight from the shoulder, like a perfect left jab, "I've had quite a few opportunities over the years to manage, train, promote in the sport. But, honestly, I really have a difficult time recommending boxing to young athletes, particularly females. They look at my career and the success I had in the ring and assume I've got some secret formula for how to get to the top. They have no idea just how hard it is in a sport where a fighter is completely on her own. There's no player's association or a union in boxing to protect the fighters and far too many of those a boxer comes into contact with are simply trying to figure how much money they can make off the fighter. I received an education in that end of the sport following my divorce from my first husband and manager when I was forced to get involved with promoters, matchmakers and all the various others associated with putting together my bouts. It was an exhausting process and after all that I still had to go out and fight. If I find a girl who really seems determined to give the sport and honest try, of course, I'll give her some advice. But, believe me, that advice won't be any fairy tale version of what it's like to succeed in a sport where it's particularly hard to make a good living, especially for a woman.

Therein lies the essence of Laila Ali: ask her a question, you get an answer; not a politically correct, nuanced or parsed answer, but a "here's what I think, because it's what I know to be true" answer. It's the way Laila Ali has always done "business" in and out of the ring, straight forward, do the work and what's next.

"To fit into an appropriate place" is the dictionary definition of the word "belong". The word applies comfortably to the eight women who will be inducted into the International Women's Boxing Hall of Fame in July, just as it did to the seven women who were so honored in the initial class last year. But it seems to me that maybe, just maybe, that definition applies with just a slight bit more resonance to Laila Ali. The boxing ring, given her heritage, was a particularly appropriate setting and she not only fit but excelled to a level that has seldom been equaled and may never be surpassed. As for the IWBHF, in a word, Laila Ali belongs.

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