By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Phillip advises The Wolfe to start howling.
"You should be all over this," he tells her.
"I just don't want to come off sounding like a whiner," she says.
"You just want a fair fight. I would be ragging to everybody who would listen. You're not in a gentleman's sport. You were in a rough-and-tumble fight, and you got screwed. Actually, you got fucked. That fight shouldn't have been stopped."
Valerie crosses her arms on the table and rests her head, gazing intently into her father's eyes. The Wolfe is down, but Dad has arrived in her corner.
"Listen," he says, "Richard Nixon lost the 1960 election because Mayor Richard Daley fixed the election in Chicago. Your head should be clear now. Your Web site should have banners across it saying, 'Laila stole the fight.'"
The words are starting to get through.
"I wasn't hurt," The Wolfe says. "I was taking punches, but I wasn't hurt."
"Look," Phillip says, "you're the victim of a bad decision. Fight it."
"Oh, I want a rematch," The Wolfe says.
Then again, she's not sure how to ask for one. "I don't want people to think I can't accept it," she whimpers.
"Since when did you start caring what people think?"
"I'm trying to lose gracefully."
"I'm telling you the art of controversy is noise," he says.
Phillip lights up another cigar. Beneath the table, The Wolfe's left foot anxiously bounces up and down. Dad lowers his voice.
"I know you're worried about how you're going to look, but worry about who you are," he says. "You are the world champion."
By now, there's not a whole lot The Wolfe can do, except complain. There's no rule that says Ali must grant a rematch. The next day, back in Beaumont, Mahfood plunks down on her living room carpet and sticks a tape of the Ali fight into the VCR. As she relives the fight, she becomes more certain it shouldn't have been called. She's absolutely positive when she listens to the interview Ali gave to ESPN commentators directly after the fight. They'd asked her if she wanted the fight to continue.
"I just felt like he stopped it too soon, not just because I want to beat her. If I was her, I would have felt like they stopped it too soon," said Ali, who quickly added, "but I was whupping that ass."
Johnny McClain, Ali's husband, promoter and spokesman, agrees that the fight was called too soon--but for different reasons.
"It was called too soon," McClain says. "Ali was gonna knock her out cold."
McClain says the bout was his wife's easiest fight to date and suggests that Mahfood should tuck a napkin under her chin and start eating crow.
"It's OK for her to say that the other fighter was better than me and that I was out-classed and out-gunned," McClain says. When told Mahfood is looking for a rematch, McClain's voice rises in outrage.
"Valerie has talked so bad about Laila for all these years, and she has the nerve to ask for a rematch? Not gonna happen," McClain says. "Mahfood didn't win a round. Who wants to see that again?"
It's true. The bout was a shutout. Mahfood knows it.
"Until that fight," she says, "I considered myself to be the mark of excellence. If you wanted to say you were a championship fighter, you had to step into the ring with me. I was the legitimate, honest-to-God champion."
Is it possible, then, that Ali is better than Mahfood?
"No," she snaps.
So why did she lose? The Wolfe grows quiet.
"To get in the ring and freeze like I did? Not very championship-like, but I figure everybody has to have a bad day. I hated that I had to have my bad day on national television in front of a half a million people," Mahfood says.
"I'll come back from it, but it certainly did give Laila some legitimacy. She beat a true champion."