A Girl Named Suicide

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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.

There was another incentive to fight, of course. She wanted to shut Mahfood up. Before the fight, Ali told reporters that her disdain for Jacqui Frazier didn't compare to how much she despises Mahfood.

"There's different levels of ass-whupping that you can get," Ali said, "and she's going to get the highest level that I've ever issued out."

The Vegas crowd is still chanting "Ali! Ali! Ali!" when Mahfood and the star meet at center ring. Ali glares like a hit man. At 5-foot-10, she looms over the 5-foot-8 Mahfood and stares at her purple head, waiting for The Wolfe to make eye contact. Mahfood keeps her eyes glued to the canvas, raising them only to touch Ali's gloves before retreating to her corner.

The bell rings, and the women meet at center ring again. Mahfood brings on the fight, moving in on Ali with a straight left to the body that misses. Ali answers with a whiff of her own, and the two boxers step back, circling each other like hungry barracudas. Mahfood moves in again, this time connecting a right to Ali's ribs. Unfazed, Ali unfurls a left-right-left combo that keeps The Wolfe at bay.

It's a tentative start given all the pre-bout noise, but Ali forces the issue. With less than a minute left in the opening round, Ali lands a solid right on Mahfood's face that sends her purple top snapping back violently. Mahfood bounces up and moves back in on Ali, dropping down to deliver that promised body shot. But Ali anticipates the move and lands a right hook square across Mahfood's head just as the bell rings.

A week after the Ali fight, Mahfood is sitting in a booth at the Outback Steakhouse in Beaumont when she catches the waiter with his guard down. He wants to know how she wants her steak cooked. Mahfood looks him in the eye and says "raw."

He thinks she's kidding, and half the time she is. But this time she's serious--her Lebanese heritage has given her a taste for uncooked beef.

"Extra, extra raw. I'll cry if it's not cooked right--tears, snot, the whole nine yards," Mahfood says. "I want it as raw as you can make it."

The waiter has difficulty breaking eye contact with Mahfood. That's probably because of her eyes. She wears purple contacts, which accentuate the purple half-moons--gifts from Laila Ali--that appear over and under each eye. Or it could be Mahfood's girlish voice; it tends to startle people, because Mahfood looks like a man.

"Everybody thinks I'm a guy. I'm used to it. I have a shaved head, a Mohawk. Don't wear makeup. I'm big. For a girl I'm big," says Mahfood, who weighs 164 pounds, all of it muscle and bone. "I suppose I could do more to look feminine, but I'm not doing anything to look more masculine, either."

Mahfood says this situation doesn't bother her. Usually. "If somebody does it deliberately, if they call me a man just to aggravate me, yeah, it's gonna aggravate me," Mahfood says. "I have a girl's voice. The minute I start talking, everybody knows I'm a girl. At that point, if you're still calling me sir, either you've drank too much or I haven't drank enough."

Outside the ring, Mahfood swears she hates conflict, avoids it at all costs. Rather often, though, conflict finds her. As she slices into her steak, a fist-sized cut dripping with blood, Mahfood explains how in March she got busted for disorderly conduct outside a local watering hole. It was ladies' night, and Mahfood had to pee.

"I went into the bathroom. I knew better than to go to the rest room in a redneck bar," Mahfood says. She was in the stall when she heard a voice say, "There's a man in the ladies' rest room."

A bouncer greeted Mahfood outside the door. He tossed her out of the bar, telling her, "We don't like homosexuals in the bar, and neither does God." Mahfood got up, dusted herself off and went back in. This time when the bouncers hauled her out--four of them, with each grabbing a limb--Mahfood says they dropped her on her head, ripped off her clothes and beat her to a pulp.

"I was laying there with my blue jeans and my bra on," Mahfood says. "I don't know why they took off my clothes, except to prove that I'm not a girl."

When the cops arrived, they arrested Mahfood for disorderly conduct. (She stood accused of "being loud" in the bar.) The charges were later dismissed, and Mahfood says she's since contacted a lawyer to begin the process of suing the place. It's the principle that motivates her. "If there was any doubt," about her sex, Mahfood says, "they could've asked."

There are other things that get under Mahfood's skin. At the top of the list are people who ask her why a woman would box.

"I just want to slap them. It's for the same reason men do," she says. "They'll never ask a man that question."

In high school, Mahfood tried every sport there was. She played hoops or, rather, kept the bench warm during games. She liked bicycle racing well enough, but her poor sense of direction caused her to get lost. Same thing with cross-country. But boxing was a different story.

"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?'"

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.

"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."

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.

One has to see Phillip to appreciate the pronouncement.

Not exactly a thin man, he is wider than the actor is tall. He's also got so much body hair that when Valerie was a kid, she actually believed it when he told her that he is, in fact, a bear, taken from the woods by his first wife, who shaved him and taught him how to speak English. (When Phillip went to pick up Valerie after her first day of school, her entire classroom turned out to see if it was true.)

The Wolfe pulls her baseball cap over her eyes and slides into her chair, shrinking as her father commences to give her crap in front of me, a nosy reporter. I see the Schwarzenegger story as my chance to ask Mahfood about his daughter's sexual identity.

"And then she turned out to be gay," I say.

"Pardon?" Phillip says. "Gay?"

He looks at Valerie. "Are you gay?"

The Wolfe grows quiet. She looks over at me, deadly serious, and says, "He didn't know."

Then the two start cackling uproariously. It's no wonder Mahfood is such a smart-ass. She got it straight from Dad.

Actually, Phillip figured his daughter was gay before Valerie knew it herself.

It happened when Valerie was about 16. This redhead came over to the house, hoping to be friends. As soon as Phillip laid eyes on her, he knew what she was all about. He let the two hang out, but when the girl was gone he forbade Valerie from seeing her again. Valerie, a loner, couldn't understand why he didn't want her to have a friend. She stomped off to her bedroom, slammed the door and yelled, "Damn! I could've had a life." He yelled back, "It could've been worse. You could've had a wife."

At the time, Phillip explained his reasoning to Valerie. "I said, 'You know I don't have a problem with gay people, but the rest of the world has a problem with gay people,'" Phillip recalls, adding wryly, "I thought it was damn decent that I went through the explanation phase of it."

Even today, Phillip advises his daughter not to go on the record about being gay. As far as he's concerned, the information can only be used against her.

"Valerie has always marched to a different drummer," he says. "The bottom line is, it is nobody's business what she is."

Phillip is still protecting his baby daughter, never mind her hobby. Or her job. The Wolfe decides that she doesn't care if she's identified as gay. It's not exactly a secret. Everybody knows. Still, she has come to understand the wisdom of her dad's words. Especially when she's driving through redneck country.

It's Round 8. There are two rounds left, but the story of the night is Laila Ali. The beauty is out-throwing and out-hitting the brawler from Beaumont. During the break, referee Joe Cortez warns Mahfood that he'll stop the fight if she doesn't protect herself.

At center ring, Ali and Mahfood circle. Mahfood moves in, drops beneath Ali's reach and delivers a left to the body. Ali moves back, her left hook connecting with Mahfood's cheek. The fighters separate and circle. Ali takes one step, two and delivers a left to the head, then a right, then another left. Bam-bam-bam. Mahfood counters, her left finding Ali's head. The fighters step back, circling.

One minute left. Ali moves in with a right that sends Mahfood ducking. She counters with a left, but it glances off Ali's face. Now Ali has Mahfood on the run. She throws a dandy that slams Mahfood's head down and counters with a lightning-quick left to the nose that sends Mahfood reeling. Mahfood recovers, puts her guard up and zeros in on Ali.

But what's this? Cortez moves in. He's calling the fight. Mahfood steps around Cortez, but he pins her against the ropes. This fight is over.

"Come on!" Mahfood screams. "Come on!"

Ali, circling behind, can't believe Cortez has stopped this fight. "No!" she screams. "Nooooo!"

Back in Tyler, father and daughter are in the process of ordering dinner at a Mexican joint. After taking Phillip Mahfood's order, the waitress turns to his daughter and says, "What'll you have, sir?"

Phillip tugs at the waitress' arm.

"You know, underneath all this hair I'm really a woman," he says.

The waitress, a teen-ager, has no idea what he's talking about.

The Wolfe asks her father if he thinks the "pork chop theory" will fly as an excuse for her loss. When Valerie was young, her father had asked a fortuneteller when he would die. The seer couldn't say, but she did say his last meal would be a pork chop. Ever since then, Valerie has refused to eat pork chops and won't let her dad eat them either. At the weigh-in dinner the night before the fight, a guest at The Wolfe's table ordered a pork chop.

Her father shakes his head.

"A true mark of a champion is how you prevail over adversity," he tells her.

Instead of excuses, Phillip wants to know what The Wolfe is going to do now. He, like Valerie's coaches, thinks the fight was called too soon and, as a result, his daughter was robbed. There is no doubt that Ali was beating Mahfood in points. Nobody, not even The Wolfe, disputes that. But Mahfood is an endurance fighter, and she's one of the few female boxers strong enough to knock out an opponent with a single punch. If the fight had been allowed to continue, who knows?

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."

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