By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Round 4 is just under way, and so far it's been all Ali. Blood is still streaming out of Mahfood's left nostril, but Mahfood looks strong. She's on her toes, weaving, still looking to get inside. Ali throws a jab to her jaw, followed by a right to the head that makes Mahfood back off. But Ali looks tired. She circles Mahfood, flat-footed. Ali drops her guard. The champ's kid has left herself wide-open. But where's Mahfood?
Mahfood says she got over being mad at Ali long before the ESPN gig. Despite the show's hype, Mahfood says she stopped trashing Ali when the pretty girl started defeating credible boxers. One of them was Kendra Lenhart, who Ali beat in October 2000. Lenhart has punished Mahfood twice. In their second fight, which took place in Beaumont in April 2001, Lenhart hit Mahfood so hard in the opening round that her legs buckled. In the second round, Lenhart knocked Mahfood unconscious.
Until that fight, Mahfood realized she had bought into everything the media was saying about Laila Ali, according to an unusual message she posted on her Web site.
"Ali was being billed as the daughter of 'the legendary Muhammad Ali, the greatest athlete of all time,' and as such, she herself must then inherently be the greatest female boxer in the world," Mahfood wrote. "Now, in some strange twist of my mind, I translated that into the following: If I could beat Laila Ali, then I would be the greatest daughter in the world and as such, I would finally be deserving of my father's attention."
The message goes on to explain how Mahfood thought she'd lost her father's respect back in high school, when he made her enroll in advanced honors classes. One day, she came home with a report card that showed she'd aced every course but one, in which she scored 98. Instead of congratulating her, Mahfood's father asked what happened to the other two points.
After the Lenhart knockout, when Mahfood finally came to, she thought she'd failed her father again. But when he came into the dressing room, he told Mahfood he was proud of her. This isn't exactly the stuff of Hollywood dramas, but The Wolfe was moved.
At the time, Phillip Mahfood hadn't the slightest idea what his daughter was thinking. He still didn't until today, when his daughter plunked down in his office and filled him in on her Web site musings.
"You're fighting because I made you take honors courses?" he asks.
"I realized I didn't have to be a world champion to get your approval," The Wolfe says.
Her dad shakes his head and lights a cigar. "I didn't know that had affected you so profoundly."
Mahfood's academic record was the last thing on her father's mind when Kendra Lenhart knocked out The Wolfe. When Phillip saw his daughter go down, he tried to push his way into the ring but was stopped by security. "It was all I could do to not pull out a gun and shoot that bitch when she was hitting my daughter."
Despite her grades and her quickness in the ring, Mahfood can be a little slow to pick up on things. Here at her dad's office, where he runs a marketing research company, Phillip has turned the hallway into a shrine to his baby girl. The few local news stories that have been written about Mahfood's boxing career have been framed and hang on the wall, alongside snapshots taken of him beaming at his sweaty daughter's side. Over the course of the afternoon, he introduces Valerie to some new employees. They haven't had a chance to meet The Wolfe yet, but they've heard all about her.
"Valerie is the only child I have that if she weren't my child, I would still want to meet her," Phillip says. "My other children will say to me, 'Dad, why don't you have my picture up there?' I say, 'Do something.'"
Suzanne Baldon, Valerie's mom, is similarly impressed by her daughter's accomplishments. In fact, she's so proud that she plays tapes of The Wolfe's fights for her sociology students at the University of Texas at Arlington. The lesson, Baldon says, is that a person can overcome adversity.
"She shows them that it can be done, that they can do it. She's a serious person. [Boxing] is not just a Mickey Mouse little thing. It is a professional discipline that she does well in. It's inspiring," Baldon says, adding, "She's got a following."
Valerie has three older brothers, and her father confirms that, as a kid, she used to protect them from bullies. She was, of course, a tomboy, and naturally she despised dresses. Her father discovered this when he tried to slip a dress on Valerie so she'd look the part during a school field trip to a concert. "She was squirming like we were pouring hot oil on her," he says.
If Phillip has anyone to thank for his relationship with his daughter, it might as well be Arnold Schwarzenegger. One day, while watching one of his movies, Valerie announced that when she grew up she was going to marry a man who looked like the towering film star, because he was tall and handsome, just like her father.