By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
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"I used the men's room," Mahfood says. "I should've known not to use the rest room in a redneck town."
Mahfood is getting better at learning how to avoid fights, but there are times when she seeks them out. Like the time she fired off the 500 letters to the editor, demanding recognition. Mahfood says anyone who's ever worked hard for something only to have someone else take credit will understand why she did it.
To prepare for the national Toughman bout back in 1996, Mahfood walked into a local gym looking for a coach. At the time, Harry Murdock, who co-owned the place with Austin Green, was teaching little boys to box. He ignored Mahfood, never guessing that she'd be the fighter who'd give him and Green their first prime-time bout. Mahfood says Murdock and Green were just waiting for her to quit.
"In a sense we were. We figured this was just a phase she was going through, something she was doing to lose weight," says Murdock, who works with Green at a Beaumont-area ship-building company. "We didn't want to waste time with her, taking away from these kids."
Mahfood felt unwelcome, but she kept coming back. After a while, Murdock realized she was different from the boys. "She'd consistently come every day. She was never late, and she listened," he says. "After a few months, we realized she was starting to look pretty good on the bag. She had talent."
In September 1999, a month before Ali's pro debut, Mahfood traveled to Panama City to avenge a previous loss to Kathy Rivers. The fight took place in an old bullfighting ring and was aired on national television in Panama. By the opening bell, the temperature in the ring had risen to more than 100 degrees, but that was OK with Mahfood: She'd trained with space heaters on. The bout was close and nasty, but Mahfood's power and endurance gave her the edge. The fight was called in the 10th round, giving Mahfood a technical knockout and two title belts. (In women's boxing, as in men's, there are a handful of sanctioning bodies, each with its own title belt. There can be multiple world champions at any given time, a confusing scenario that makes it difficult for boxing audiences to identify a single world champion.)
After two years of trading blows with no-name women inside tiny arenas and backwoods casinos, Mahfood was finally a world champion.
Then along came the pretty girl, Laila Ali.
While the nation's boxing beat writers, most of them men, dismissed the Laila Ali-Jacqui Frazier bout as an affront to the sport, Mahfood wasn't put off by the event's circus-like atmosphere. When it was over, Mahfood says she was impressed with both fighters. What bothered her was how the media immediately anointed Ali the new champion of women's boxing, even though she hadn't won a single title.
"I was pissed. I had busted my ass to get everything that I had. I wasn't given shit," Mahfood says. "Because she's Ali's kid, she walks in and takes it all."
Mahfood admits to being upset, but "jealous" is the more accurate term. It's no wonder: The media, especially magazines that target female readers, embraced Ali. The story about the champ's daughter made for great copy even though, as Laila Ali has repeatedly pointed out, she was raised solely by her mother and was far removed from her father's legendary career.
The fact that Ali, like her father, is strikingly attractive only ramped up the hype. Ali got something most professional women athletes can only dream about: endorsements. Dr Pepper signed Ali, and so did L'Oreal, which thought Ali would be the ideal person to market its line of Soft Sheen cosmetics to black women. The income allows Ali to box full-time.
Except for one local sponsor who pays for her T-shirts, Mahfood has never had a corporate sponsor. If one ever did show up, Mahfood would jump at the chance to fight full-time. (Mahfood does make money for her fights, including the $15,000 payday for the Ali fight, but says she spends more money on boxing than she earns.) Instead, she tries to keep her cool when strangers ask why, why, why.
"They ask three questions: Why are you, a woman, boxing? Are you gay? Were you sexually abused as a child? They assume that all three of those things must be true if you're boxing," Mahfood says. The Wolfe shakes her head and laughs. "Even if any one of those three things is true, it doesn't mean I'm weird."
The reaction to Ali's decision to turn pro was, Mahfood says, all too predictable: The female athletes who get endorsements usually get them because of their looks, rather than their athletic accomplishments.
"It's more of a gender issue as a whole than a sports issue. What they're saying is women have no societal value except as sex objects," Mahfood says. "I'm thinking, you'll find that anywhere."
Including in Laila Ali's corner.
"She made women's boxing socially acceptable because she was pretty; she was feminine. It didn't matter that she couldn't box," Mahfood says. "It pissed me off."