Laila Ali's biggest fight didn't happen in an arena or on a canvas -- it was the product of computer wizardry and marketing genius. The marriage of the two put Ali in the ring with her legendary father, Muhammad Ali, who is shown in grainy film from his prime.
The television spot, released earlier this year for the shoe and apparel company Adidas, shows not only the seemingly never-ending marketability of the Ali name, but also the daughter's considerable skill and polish in the ring. The daughter, 16-0 with 13 knockouts, can hold her own; whether she can hold up a sport is another matter.
She comes to Prince George's Stadium in Bowie as the headliner Saturday night to fight Nikki Eplion. Ali, 26, will be defending her International Boxing Association super middleweight title, a fact that will surely be lost on most in attendance. Most will be looking at her with hopes of seeing just a little bit of what made her dad -- viewed by many as perhaps the most influential athlete of the last century -- so special.
She fights nothing like him. She dances less, is more brawling. But she wins and she does it with some of her dad's looks and strut. Ali, however, knows her last name is the key to her appeal, and she makes no apologies for it. "The most important thing I have is my last name," she said at a news conference Wednesday.
She was not groomed to be a boxer. At age 18, she was seemingly as far from the sport as she could get, as the owner of a beauty salon and a full-time student. But after watching one of women's boxing's pioneers, Christy Martin, on the undercard of a 1996 Mike Tyson fight, Ali felt drawn to the sport.
She started working out in a gym, decided soon after to make boxing her profession and was successful almost instantly. But with her success came skepticism, due to her striking looks and lightning-rod last name.
"When I first started boxing, I didn't have any experience . . . but I had so much attention on me," Ali said. "A lot of people thought . . . that I was trying to do it just for publicity. Which to me never made any sense because boxing isn't something you do to try to get an acting career or a modeling career. It's a dangerous sport, and if I'm trying to make money off my looks, I wouldn't want to damage my looks by boxing."
Still, her name -- and the fact that she can actually fight -- have given her marketing strength rare even for those on top of the men's game. In addition to Adidas, Ali has endorsement deals with, among others, Dr Pepper and Ford.
"There are always two factors in becoming an endorser," said Jeff Chown, the managing director of The Marketing Arm, an entertainment and sports consultancy. "What you do on the field, on the court, in the ring and also your attributes off the field, off the court, out of the ring. She definitely has a lot of those and the Ali name is first and foremost of what she has."
She wears white trunks, like her father, and her nickname -- "She be Stingin' " -- plays off her dad's famous "Float like a butterfly/Sting like a bee" couplet. Her brash self-assurance, though it appears sincere, also is reminiscent of her father.
Name recognition, while most important, does not singularly explain her marketing value, however. Nor do her looks or boxing talent.
"There have been attractive female boxers -- Mia St. John," said Washington attorney Jeff Fried, who handles several boxers, referring to the former Playboy model turned pugilist. "There have been female boxers with good last names -- Jackie Frazier, [George] Foreman's daughter [Freeda]. There have been female boxers who are extremely talented, like Christy Martin. We've had, in the past, women boxers that possess one or sometimes two of those three [qualities]. But here you have someone that possesses all three."
In addition to helping her become a face for several products, those qualities have made Laila Ali the face of women's boxing, taking over the mantel from Martin well before she pounded her in their meeting last year.
"From the standpoint of public image and anything that might be described as public appeal, Laila Ali is women's boxing," said longtime boxing commentator Jim Lampley.
And though Ali said she feels no obligation to lift the sport by herself, she believes she has done just that.
"My presence in the game has made so much of a difference that people probably don't even recognize," she said. "The growth takes a long time, but since I've been boxing, I've seen women boxing on music videos, in ads for anti-perspirant. It's not so much thought of to be for gay women or rough women or ugly women, it's more of an empowerment thing. People see it differently all together."
Perhaps the most interesting question regarding Ali is whether she, like her father, will be able to lift the entire sport of boxing -- women's and men's. It is a time when the sport's image is tarnished and its popularity is dwindling. A time when there are four heavyweight champions, none of whom are named Tyson, yet he remains a top draw. A time, in other words, screaming for a star.
"When people see her, they don't think boxing, they think women's boxing, but what that's doing is keeping boxing on people's minds," said her promoter and husband Yahya McClain, a former two-time world cruiserweight champ. "I'm not saying she's the cure-all, but exposure is exposure and press is press, and she's keeping it out there and alive."
Others aren't so sure. Her father had rivals in Foreman and Frazier, among others. Laila's biggest problem might be the absence of such a foe.
"It takes two to tango," Lampley said. "Without Tommy Hearns, Ray Leonard is not Ray Leonard. Without Max Schmeling, Joe Louis doesn't become Joe Louis. She needs somebody in the sport who is active, who is a quality opponent and with whom she can develop some sort of rivalry."
Others believe the sport is beyond saving, rivalry or no rivalry.
"It's a sideshow, basically," HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant said of the women's game. "It's a niche sport on a niche sport. . . . Laila Ali has been good for Laila Ali, but her impact on boxing or women's boxing has been zip."
While boxing insiders are torn on what Ali can do for her sport, they respect what she has done in the ring.
"Can she capitalize on being Muhammad Ali's daughter? Sure, you'd expect that," said Tom Houser, who wrote what many feel is the definitive biography of Muhammad Ali. "But I think she has shown respect for boxing in the way she's tried to learn her craft. You can't blame her for the fact she's Muhammad Ali's daughter."