The daughter of one of this century's biggest superstars is throwing punches inside a makeshift dressing room at a horse track in the northern tip of this coal state. Gangsta rap thumps from a boombox inside muslin sheets hung from a false ceiling. Laila Ali--a daughter from Muhammad Ali's third marriage--is preparing to box another woman.
"Ain't nuthin' but a chump!" yells Ali's cut man, Cassius Greene, who traveled with her father to Africa and the Philippines. He is talking about Ali's opponent for the night, Shadina Pennybaker, a 28-year-old Pittsburgh school bus driver and accounting student who stands a whole head shorter than the nearly six-foot, 21-year-old Ali.
Ali punches sparring pads. Smack! Smack! The blows sound crisp and surprisingly powerful. The rap booms.
"Talk is cheap!" invokes the rapper.
Laila Ali's dad inspired rappers with his "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" patter. For him, talk was definitely not cheap--it was half of his game. Now his daughter, 21, revs up for fights by listening to throbbing rap.
Outside the dressing room Wednesday night are slot machines and a bar. The atmosphere here is thick with cigarette smoke and the peculiar mix of reverie and desperation indigenous to casinos. West Virginia, a poor state with a declining, elderly population, has linked much of its future to gambling. This track and the attendant slot machine parlors have been booming in this tiny town since 1991. Naturally, just up the road are a couple of pawnshops. Down the road is a strip joint.
For most of the regional boxers on this low-rent, seven-fight card, this is a chance to make some coin. To put some food on the table. A little girl rushes up to a muscular, shaved-dome boxer, still in his trunks after his bout.
"How much money did you make, Daddy?" she asks. Daddy disposed of a tomato can in Round 1 of his fight and will drive home tonight with $600 and a happy daughter.
Muhammad Ali fought on the world's biggest stages. But his daughter is just starting to follow his trade--this is her second fight--so she tangles at a horse track in the Rust Belt, situated next to a trailer park and a gasworks that shrieks like a jetliner warming up.
Finally, it's time. Upstairs, a sellout crowd waits. She emerges from the dressing room in an immaculate white robe, with the hood drooping over her expressionless face. On the back is the magical name: ALI.
Where does the mythology of Muhammad Ali begin? When he won Olympic gold in 1960? When he unexpectedly knocked out Sonny Liston in 1964? When he converted to Islam and refused to fight in the Vietnam War? ("I ain't got no quarrel with the Viet Cong.") When he teased Howard Cosell? The "Thrilla in Manila?" The "Rumble in the Jungle?"
Ali inhabits the firmament of living superstars. Michael Jordan barely touches Ali's legendary status. Jordan was the best basketball player ever, certainly, but his strengths and interests lie in product marketing. Ali became a cultural icon, his shadow spilling out of sports and crossing into politics, pop culture and international relations.
Now comes Laila Ali.
She was a street fighter as a kid in Los Angeles, and got arrested for shoplifting in 1995, spending three months in juvenile hall. After her release she began working at a nail salon--something she'd wanted to do since she was 12, her mother says. Three years ago, she saw female boxer Christy Martin on TV. "I can do that," Ali thought.
She went to a gym to learn the basics, and met Johnny "Yahya" McClain, a former cruiserweight champion, who is now her trainer and fiance. By then, she owned the salon, but sold it a month ago to focus on boxing full time.
And, of course, she had dad. Her parents divorced when she was 7. Ali lived with her mother, Veronica Anderson, in Marina del Rey, Calif., but kept in constant and close contact with her father.
As Laila Ali, nail salon owner, the world couldn't care less about her. But as Laila Ali, boxer, the world flocked to her. A month before her first bout, in October, she was visiting her mother while a photo crew from a glossy fashion magazine waited in the living room. Laila was on the phone in her sister's room. Her mother went in to see what was keeping her. Her daughter was crying.
"Who are you talking to?" Anderson asked.
"Dad," Ali replied. The elder Ali was passing on his boxing secrets, which moved his daughter to tears. Early in Laila's life, there was friction with her father, her mother reports. Her father, a Muslim, sometimes took exception to his daughter's short skirts. Now, they bond through boxing.
She has an endorsement deal with B.U.M. athletic wear. There are Laila Ali photos, posters, hats and T-shirts for sale. Pennybaker made $1,000 for the fight. Ali wouldn't say what her cut was, but put it this way: After her fight was over, a third of the crowd headed for the exits, even though the main event was still to come. Ali's the attraction, and is surely paid like it.
At the weigh-in the day before the fight (Ali and Pennybaker both weighed 169 1/2), Ali spoke about her decision to get into boxing. She has a voice like a late-night deejay, smooth as caramel.
"I went to the gym to see if I had any type of talent for it," she says. Turns out she does. She is tall and lithe, and has good hand speed. A sporadic exerciser and frequent junk food consumer before she took up boxing, she now has endurance and visible muscles in her stomach.
Is this Laila Ali's chance, then, to elevate her life? To reach some fame and, perhaps, fortune?
Yes, she says. But with a caveat. She won't box forever; she wants kids. And she, like many people, thinks Muhammad Ali's Parkinson's disease may have been exacerbated by the beatings he took in the ring.
"I could model or be an actress if I just wanted to work off my name," she says. "I've been offered movie deals and roles in sitcoms. If you think about it, boxing is a hard way to work off my name."
More punishing, yes, but the doors are opened in boxing for Laila Ali, in ways that they are not for Shadina Pennybaker. Ali won't be fighting at horse track casinos for long.
Calvin Moore fought his way out of Germany. As a U.S. Army soldier and young welterweight stationed there during Vietnam, Moore boxed well enough to earn an early ticket back to the States to fight in the Army's circuit. Freddie Petite came up in Philadelphia, and became infused with that city's "boxing mystique." Both grew up in awe of Muhammad Ali.
Now they're both retired, and they've come from Pittsburgh to see Ali fight, because she's the daughter of royalty.
"I want to see if she has any of her father's style in her," says Moore, 59.
"Just the Ali name is something to think about," says Petite, 54. "You wonder if she has the charisma. It stirs your imagination."
What is interesting is how completely, how easily these men have accepted the concept of women's boxing. Historically, women's fights have been sloppy slap matches designed solely to titillate knuckle-dragging males. But these guys know boxing. Moore saw Pennybaker fight in Pittsburgh and was impressed.
"I think it's starting to be taken seriously," Petite says.
It would be nice if the same could be said for male prizefighting. Boxing, like horse racing, was once a major sport. But, also like horse racing, boxing has experienced a 25-year decline, its popularity usurped by football, basketball and hockey. Used to be, boxing and horse racing dominated the sports pages. Now they're relegated to the tiny print in the back.
Over the past year, though, things have gone from bad to worse. The sport has seen: (1) a fight between heavyweights Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis being scored a draw even though Lewis clearly dominated; (2) a Mike Tyson fight end in a no-contest ruling after his opponent mysteriously fell down, unpunched; and (3) the president of the International Boxing Federation indicted on counts that he accepted bribes to fix the rankings. Always as credible as a sidewalk game of three-card monte (see: Don King), boxing has gone from merely obsolete to seemingly irreversibly corrupt, and a national joke.
Laila Ali, on the other hand, is about to get very serious with Shadina Pennybaker.
The 18-foot-square boxing ring has been erected on a stage in the racetrack's grandstand, before three-story windows looking out on the one-mile track. The plan is for Pennybaker to enter the ring first, then to play rap and let the drama build. At the right moment, Ali--the "Queen Bee," as she bills herself--will enter.
Ali and her cornermen stalk up the stairs to the ring, and the rare-for-a-Wednesday sellout crowd of 2,000 cheers. Ali bounces on her toes in her corner, bobbing her head from side to side. Just like her father.
The fight begins.
Both women charge to the middle. Instantly, unlike in many women's fights, it's apparent that these two women know how to box. Ali towers over Pennybaker, who knows how to take a punch. But she has a hopeless reach disadvantage--she can't get near Ali, whose smart jabs keep her at a distance.
Ali talks some trash: "Your punches aren't hurting me." Last month, Ali knocked out her first opponent in 31 seconds. No such luck with Pennybaker, who looks tough enough to take a brick in the face. They spar for three rounds.
Finally, the fourth and final round comes. Ali had predicted a knockout, which hasn't happened. Pennybaker knows she needs a KO, she says, because there's no way the judges will award her a fight on points against Muhammad Ali's daughter. The punches come hard and fast from both fighters.
But Pennybaker begins to tire; her arms droop. Ali sees it and swoops in. A right to the jaw sends drops of blood arcing out of Pennybaker's mouth and into the second row of ringside seats. The referee stops the fight with a standing eight-count. It resumes, and Ali pummels Pennybaker with a flurry of punches. The ref stops the fight again, this time for good. Laila Ali: TKO, 12 seconds left in the final round.
Muhammad Ali's daughter is 2-0, with only a thumb-size pink bruise on her right cheek to show for it. Pennybaker droops in her corner. Ali poses for photos in the middle of the ring, looking no more exerted than one might after a brisk jog.
After the fight, Ali sits at a table for a good two hours, signing every autograph request, as her cornermen peddle hats and T-shirts to gushing fans. Retired steelworker Ernest Copeland, 57, drove two hours from Akron, Ohio, to see Ali and was glad to stand in line for 30 minutes to get her autograph. Back in the day when Ali and Foreman and Frazier and Norton were all fighting (imagine!), Copeland says, people "longed" for upcoming prizefights. "You thirsted for them," he says. Tomorrow night Holyfield and Lewis have their rematch. So what?
But Ali is different, Copeland says. She matters.
"The game will go a long way with people like her," he says. And if he's right, then it will be a woman who saves the Manly Art.
CAPTION: Laila Ali celebrates her victory over Shadina Pennybaker; below, the fighter between rounds.
CAPTION: Laila Ali takes a right from Shadina Pennybaker.