In a prizefight that was less sporting event than coming-out party, more coronation than competition, the youngest of Muhammad Ali's seven daughters made her professional boxing debut last Friday night in a casino ballroom on an upstate New York Indian reservation. Laila Ah needed just 31 seconds to dispose of a pushover named April Fowler. After a left-right to the jaw knocked April clear back to last February, the 21-year-old Ali cocked her fists and glowered over her opponent, screaming, "Get up! Get up!" just as her old man hollered over Sonny Liston 34 years ago.
Madame Butterfly is brash, brazen and almost as pretty as her pop. At 5'10" and 168 pounds, she can mimic the Greatest's routines—biting her lips as if seething in anger, feigning outrage with widened unblinking eyes—and she certainly shares his playfulness. Asked if she feared being punched on the nose, Laila said, "I have a cute nose already. If it's moved a little to the left or a little to the right, it will still be cute."
Her mother, the former Veronica Porche, was the third of Ali's four wives. In 1974, after winning a contest to become a poster model for Ali's Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman, Porche was invited by the Greatest to join him in Zaire. Their subsequent tumble in the jungle caused the breakup of Ali's second marriage. Wed in '77, they divorced in '86, when Laila was eight.
Living with her mother in Los Angeles, Laila grew up privileged, unathletic and rebellious. "Everyone else was trying to get out of the ghetto," she says. "I was trying to get in. I wanted to experience the other side." She was busted for shoplifting in 1995 and spent three months in a juvenile detention center. Since then, she has graduated from Santa Monica Community College and run a nail salon in Marina del Rey.
She took up boxing to lose weight. Ali has been in training for about a year, sometimes sparring with her boyfriend, Johnny (Ya-Ya) McClain, a former World Boxing Union cruiserweight champ. Sight unseen, she was touted as the Great Black Hope of women's boxing. Her estimated $20,000 purse for Friday's fight was a testament to Great Black Hype.
Among the sellout crowd of 2,600 at the Turning Stone Casino was Laila's chanting entourage of 75; dozens of reporters from Germany, England and Japan; and her famous father. "Laila looked like Muhammad when she boxed," said her mom, who sat on the opposite side of the ring from Muhammad. "She looked like a boxer, not a woman."
Of course, the 57-year-old Muhammad hardly looks like a boxer anymore. Racked by Parkinson's syndrome, he's now a figure of sympathy whose shuffling gait, clouded expression and swallowed whisper bear poignant testimony to the sport's dangers. "My father stayed in the ring a lot longer than I intend to," Laila says. "He fought for years, and his strategy was to let fighters beat on him to wear themselves out, so he took a lot more beating than I plan on taking. I'm going to make some money, win a world title and move on."
She laid out her plans to her father last January. "Daddy," she remembers saying, "I want to tell you I'm going into professional boxing. I love you, and I want your support, but whether you give it or not, I'm going to do this." Dad tried to dissuade her. "Have you been hit?" he said. "Have you been knocked down?"
"I'm not going to get hurt," she said. "I'm going to fight women, not men. And I have your genetics."
Perhaps realizing Laila could not be swayed, the elder Ali rose and started mixing it up with her. "You're good," she says he told her. "I don't have to give you any pointers."