By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
When the tuxedo-clad announcer, in his best let's-get-ready-to-rumble voice, bellows the name Valerie "The Wolfe" Mahfood, a chorus of boos fills the desert air outside the Stratosphere casino and hotel in Las Vegas. There's no question which fighter this sold-out crowd is here to see: Laila "She Bee Stingin'" Ali--the hip-hop offspring of The Greatest, Muhammad Ali.
Until now, the 28-year-old Mahfood has never attracted a prime-time crowd. Maybe it's her nickname, "The Wolfe," which--never mind the typo--stands for wolf. You see, when Mahfood was 8 years old and growing up in Tyler, she says a wolf bit her. The little girl had cornered the creature in an abandoned, backwoods shack, and it lashed back, sinking its fangs into Mahfood's left forearm. There in the ring, the raised scar is still visible, but Mahfood is no Little Red Riding Hood.
Maybe it's her looks. Ali, a long-legged model who pushes Ford Explorers and Soft Sheen cosmetics, is a pretty girl, a media darling, a fan favorite. Mahfood is anything but. She's a punk. Beneath the glare of ESPN's camera lights, she paces in her corner. She's wearing purple fatigues and a dog collar with metal spikes. There are paw prints carved into her short-cropped hair, and her Mohawk is dyed a lurid purple. If it weren't for her black sports bra, stretched across a flat, muscled chest, the audience might think Sid Vicious had come back from the dead.
When the announcer introduces tonight's star, the crowd begins to chant "Ali! Ali! Ali!" Her fans hold up T-shirts for the cameras, letting the nationwide television audience know why they're rooting for her: "The legend continues."
It is 8 p.m. on November 8, and ESPN's Friday Night Fights is on the air. Tonight is no ordinary night. It is the first time two women have been booked as the main event in the show's 20-year history. This particular bout, scheduled to go 10 rounds in an outdoor ring, has been three years in the making--not because it's hard to find female boxers, but because that's how long Mahfood has been trash-talking Ali. Ali, Mahfood had said, might look pretty in her boxing shorts, but she can't fight. She's a fraud.
The Wolfe's mission was to expose her.
Like the rest of the boxing world, Mahfood was intrigued when Ali turned pro in 1999. By then, professional women's boxing had been around for years, its fighters toiling away in obscurity. But this was different: Muhammad Ali's kid--a woman, and a pretty one at that--was following in her daddy's footsteps. Now that was a story. Then Ali fought Jacqui Frazier, Joe Frazier's kid, in a much-hyped pay-per-view extravaganza that aired last summer and threatened to forever damn women's pro boxing as a sideshow. The bout was dismissed as a joke--hot chicks in gloves shamelessly pimping their daddies' names, not to mention their gender--for male promoters looking to reel in male viewers.
It wasn't. Not really. Neither Frazier nor Ali had much experience boxing, but they beat each other senseless and, in the process, silenced many of their critics. Ali walked away with an eighth-round decision, and a new sports celebrity was born. Ebony magazine came fawning, along with Jet, Vogue and Cosmopolitan,all of them wondering why a babe like Ali would choose the path of a brute. They transformed Ali, a juvenile delinquent turned beauty salon owner, into a cover girl. Then came the corporate sponsors, who wanted Ali to sell their products. When Ali married former boxer Johnny McClain, People covered the event, vow by breathless vow.
Back in Texas, Valerie Mahfood fumed. When the Beaumont woman turned pro in 1997, the reporters didn't give a damn. She got the same response when she became a world champion in 1999. They still didn't give a damn when she went on to capture more belts and the right to call herself the super middleweight champion of women's professional boxing. They were too busy chasing Laila Ali.
There inside the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Richard P. LeBlanc Unit, a minimum-security prison where Mahfood works as an inmate grievance counselor, The Wolfe started to howl. She compiled a list of the nation's top 500 media outlets and sent every one of them a letter demanding that she, not Ali, be recognized as the face of women's boxing. The letters were ignored. So Mahfood turned to the Internet and wrote an open challenge to Ali, which was later posted on a popular women's boxing Web site, www.womenboxing.com. The challenge was an indictment, really, in which Mahfood accused Ali's handlers of feeding her "bums"--washed-up waitresses and wrinkled grandmothers--just to inflate her win record and cash in on the family name.
"That's a mutt being paraded around like she's some kind of show dog," The Wolfe wrote. "If Ali ever gets the guts to crawl up in the ring with me...I'm going to drop her in the first with a body shot so hard her daddy's going to feel it."
The sports writers, many of whom shared Mahfood's views, weren't listening. But Ali was. Earlier this year, after stopping a worn-out Suzy Taylor to capture her first title belt, the undefeated Ali--12-0 with nine knockouts--announced she was ready for Mahfood, whose record was 13-5 with seven knockouts. Ali grabbed the fame; now she wanted respect. The only way to get it was to steal Mahfood's belts.