When Laila Ali meets Nikki Eplion tonight at Prince George's Stadium, she will not only be putting her perfect 16-0 record and International Boxing Association super middleweight title on the line, she will be risking the chance to fight on the undercard of Mike Tyson's bout with Danny Williams on July 30.
Should Ali lose by technical knockout or knockout tonight in the featured bout of an eight-fight card that also will include Washington 115-pounder Mark Johnson, she would be given a medical suspension that would last at least until the middle of August.
Ali, however, does not sound like she is even considering the possibility.
"When you watch boxing and you know boxing, you assess your opponent's skill level," Ali said at a news conference Wednesday. "And I'm saying it's hard for me to get up for her because I know how easy this fight is going to be for me."
Ali's promoter and husband, Yahya McClain, was a bit more restrained in his analysis and went out of his way to say Eplion should not perceive his scheduling a fight 13 days from today as a slight.
"Nikki Eplion is a very good fighter . . . it's no easy fight," McClain said. "However, Mike Tyson is the biggest pay-per-view draw in boxing . . . Too many things come from this opportunity."
Eplion, for her part, is using Ali's schedule as part of her motivation for tonight's bout. And she matched Ali's bravado Wednesday, calling herself the champ's "worst nightmare."
Eplion, a 25-year-old from South Point, Ohio, is 12-1-2, with her only loss coming via lopsided unanimous decision in her last fight, against unbeaten Leatitia Robinson on Feb. 28. But the left-handed Eplion is big (6 feet) and aggressive.
"I don't think she [Ali] has an answer to someone that's coming directly at her like she is used to coming directly at them," Eplion said. "She's used to someone that's backing up. And that's not what she's going to see Saturday night."
Ali has not fought since last August, when she knocked out Christy Martin (45-2) in the fourth round of their bout. She said she is looking forward to fighting twice in less than two weeks after such an extended layoff and that 13 days recovery time would be plenty between bouts.
Johnson, a three-time world champion and the current WBO 115-pound champion, has won three straight fights. He lost twice to Rafael Marquez at 118 pounds, but he has been impressive since, with his last two victories coming in the 115-pound weight class against previously unbeaten fighters.
Yet Johnson finds himself on the undercard in his home town tonight, fighting Paulino Villalobos (23-24-2) for a sum he would not reveal but that he described as "chump change." It's nothing new to Johnson, long viewed as one of the world's best pound-for-pound boxers who toils in one of the more anonymous -- and lowest-paid -- weight divisions.
"If I was in a heavier weight class, I'd be rich," Johnson said. "I'd be a millionaire. But those are the things that go with the flyweights."
Johnson, however, was in good spirits Wednesday because negotiations had begun, he said, to set up a title unification bout with Luis Perez.
"I think unifying the titles would be a great accomplishment," Johnson said. "I'm 33 years old [he will be in less than a month], and that's considered old as a flyweight."
In the meantime, Johnson said he would put on a "boxing lesson" tonight to prepare for Perez.
"To give my fans the opportunity to see Mark Johnson, I'll take a pay cut any day for that," Johnson said.
Also on the card tonight is up-and-coming Washington middleweight Henry "Sugar Poo" Buchanan, who has won all three of his professional fights by knockout. He should get his toughest test yet against Toledo's Kevin Butts (8-3-1).