A Girl Named Suicide

Texas' Valerie Mahfood--last seen getting clobbered by Laila Ali--could change the pretty face of women's boxing

"Boxing was easy for me, because boxing was find your opponent, she's somewhere inside this little 16-foot area, go find her and hit her. How simple can that be? If she hits you back, hit her harder," Mahfood says. "I love those instructions. I could do that, so I did."

Of course, there was no women's boxing in high school, with the exception of the street fights Mahfood got into, usually to defend her older brothers from bullies. In fact, Mahfood didn't discover women boxed until years later. In the meantime, she found her professional calling. A year after graduation, while Mahfood was working at McDonald's, her mom told her Texas was looking for correctional officers. Mom thought she was being funny. Turns out the joke was on her: At age 19, Mahfood applied for the job. Funny part is, she passed all the exams but one: the physical.

"They said I didn't weigh enough. I said, 'What do you mean I don't weigh enough?' They said, 'Well, for your bone structure and your height, you don't weigh enough, sir,'" Mahfood recalls. "Huh? I said, 'Sir, what part of me looks like a man to you?'"

Valerie Mahfood was a world champion before Laila Ali entered the ring. The rabies tag belongs to her dog.
Mark Graham
Valerie Mahfood was a world champion before Laila Ali entered the ring. The rabies tag belongs to her dog.
Harry Murdock, below, was training little boys when Mahfood showed up. Little did he know the tough girl would lead him to his prime-time debut as a boxing trainer.
Mark Graham
Harry Murdock, below, was training little boys when Mahfood showed up. Little did he know the tough girl would lead him to his prime-time debut as a boxing trainer.

In 1993, Mahfood got the job and was assigned to the Mark W. Stiles Unit, a maximum-security prison that is home to some of the state's most violent male offenders. At the time, Mahfood was a guard, and the job required face-to-face contact with the inmates. Before then, Mahfood says she was a relatively normal individual. The job changed all that.

"I worked at McDonald's. All I could do was ask, 'Do you want fries with that?' But you put a 19-year-old in there who doesn't know shit from Shinola," Mahfood says, shaking her head. "I went from being a real laid-back person to being this super-aggressive, hyper-paranoid person."

Mahfood had no idea how to react to the prisoners, who were always looking to pick a fight. Mahfood got into so many fights her colleagues nicknamed her "Suicide." During her first year, Mahfood took on an inmate who was off his medications. He'd already knocked out two guards when Mahfood jumped on his back. He threw her on the ground and beat her, then kicked her upside the head. In hindsight, Mahfood says she should have gone to the hospital. Instead, she crawled to her feet and finished her shift.

"You don't want to lose a fight in prison. You'll lose grace," Mahfood says, adding that she had an image to keep up. "There's something I had to prove, because I'm a girl."

That was exactly the attitude that got her boxing. It happened in late 1995 when Mahfood and some colleagues were hanging in a bar, "smoking and hooting and hollering and staying up late." A television commercial for a local Toughman contest came on. They were looking for tough men and women to fight three one-minute rounds in nearby Louisiana.

"I'm drunk. Sitting around in a room full of guys, who are all tough anyway, because they're all prison guards and I'm the only girl in the group. You know, I've gotta be tough, too. So the commercial comes on, and I feel it's my need to assert my feminine side here, so I say, 'Y'all aren't tough.' I said, 'You want to know tough? Women. Menstrual cramps and childbirth. We're tough. You people aren't shit,'" Mahfood recalls. "They loaded my drunk ass up in the car. Carried me down there. I registered. I woke up the next morning and said, 'Oh, my God. What did I do?'"

Mahfood made it all the way to the national finals. She lost the championship bout, but the sport won her over. She turned pro within a year.

With 18 seconds left in the second round, Ali moves in on Mahfood, leading with her right. Mahfood, ducking, counters with a straight left that catches Ali on the nose. But Mahfood lets her guard down and Ali walks through the front door, uncorking a left hook that smashes Mahfood on the nose. Blood is dripping out of her crooked beak.

On a Saturday morning, Mahfood pulls her white Pontiac convertible onto state Highway 69, heading north. In lieu of a front license plate, hers features a wolf and the caption "Girls kick ass."

Mahfood's destination is Tyler, where she's meeting her dad, Phillip Mahfood, for lunch. The trip home requires Mahfood to navigate parts of Texas that are not especially friendly, at least not if you're a girl who looks like a guy. People, Mahfood says, tend to think she's a dyke.

"We won't be driving through Jasper," she says.

One time, Mahfood was driving through Cut and Shoot, a little town that lies just east of Conroe and south of Huntsville, when she stopped at a gas station to relieve herself. When she asked for the rest room key, the attendant gave her the key to the men's room. Before Mahfood corrected him, she asked why the town was named Cut and Shoot. The guy explained that it referred to what people in the town might do if a black man ever stopped there.

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