The Yahya Sistahood,
or How My Sister Fought Laila Ali
by
Sebastian Mahfood

 

Valerie Mahfood

 

Valerie
"Big Bad Wolf"
Mahfood

Click here for the rest of her promotional pictures.

My sister got into a fight with another woman last Friday in the parking lot of the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada.  The other woman had been bragging about how she was the best fighter in the world whom no one could beat, and my sister felt that this woman was wrong.  My sister, in fact, had been in a number of fights before and considered herself the best fighter in the world.  So, when the two of them met in the parking lot, there wasn’t much else either could do with the other but start throwing punches.  The fight lasted just over fifteen minutes, and someone stepped in and broke them up before it was over.  The fight, of course, was between Valerie “Big Bad Wolfe” Mahfood and Laila “She Bee Stingin’” Ali.  This fight, though, made me realize that the twelve other fighters who went against Ali probably didn’t go against her alone and that much of the fighting isn’t with Ali but with the environment that her manager and husband Johnnie “Yahya” McClain has created. 

Yahya, as he likes to be called, owns Absoloot Boxing, which promoted the fight between Laila and Valerie.  Absoloot Boxing was responsible for the marketing of the fight and the promotion of the fighters.  That means that it is up to Absoloot Boxing to ensure that programs are printed, television crews, announcers, referees, etc., are hired, a medium for broadcasting is found, that sort of thing.  When a fighter goes into another fighter’s territory to fight, of course, there is a reasonable expectation that the crowd will be largely supportive of the hometown fighter, but there is no reasonable expectation that the promoter of the fight will have taken every measure possible to ensure a bias against one fighter in favor of another.  My sister, in fact, brought with her to the fight two belts and placed both of them against Laila’s one belt.  If anything, the bias would have been in favor of the champion with better stats.  That’s not the way it played out in Las Vegas.

My dad bought three programs from a kid at the gate selling them for three dollars apiece.  In the dozen or so pages of that program, Valerie merited a page buried near the end that copied her fight history from the Women’s Boxing website.  Laila, on the other hand, dominated the rest of the pages outside the night’s card.  The centerfold was my favorite part, a two-page pin-up of Laila.  The first page that introduced the fighters called Laila “spectacular” and Valerie a “bad-mouth.”  Absoloot Boxing, that is, Yahya, produced this program for an audience that was already pro-Laila for its being in Las Vegas, which is Laila’s home turf.  Had the program been sold in Houston, Valerie’s home turf, it wouldn’t have had the same impact.  Of course, even people in Houston like Laila because she’s beautiful and because she’s the daughter of Muhammad Ali and because she’s won since Friday 13 fights and lost none.  She’s really easy to like in that light.

Now, Valerie had made some bold comments before the fight about how Laila had been dodging a fight with her.  A lot of these comments were strategic, designed to draw Laila into a competition.  The reason behind that strategy was that Valerie couldn’t believe Laila was getting so much easy attention because of who her father was, and on top of that, Laila herself was saying after only a few fights that there was no one out there who could fight her because she was so good.  Laila, by refusing to match herself against real champions while talking like she was one really upset a lot of women boxers who were trying to legitimize the sport.  When Laila first came to the sport a month after Valerie KO’d Kathy Rivers into giving up two light-heavyweight world champion belts in Panama, there was a general good feeling about her, that she could only be good for the sport.  Valerie, who was a female boxer before female boxing was cool, was thrilled that Laila had the name to give female boxing the legitimacy and attention that it needed.  Sadly, in Valerie’s opinion, Laila had not lived up to the hype because she had failed to fight the big names in women’s boxing. 

Now, having studied this a little, I’m of the opinion that this wasn’t Laila’s fault.  It was Yahya who kept her record good by promoting fights with women against whom Laila could season herself.  (Take a look at the stats of her competition up to her eighth fight and judge for yourself.) And it wasn’t just Valerie who noticed this but most of the female boxing world.  If Laila was going to take all the limelight, they reasoned, then she should share it with those who had earned it by seasoning herself against champions like Valerie did in her very first fight.  But one doesn’t build hype by losing—only by creating an image of strength and invincibility.  Laila, whose website advertises her as a paradox—both glamorous and powerful—has bought into the image that Yahya has created for her.

photo by Roger Williams A little on Yahya—he reminds me of a professional wrestling manager.  He’s a stock character—the kind of man who plays one role, that of the big, bad manager who will stop at nothing to win.  I like that role, actually, and he fits the part quite well from his gangster-style top hat to his matching yellowish-brown suit, pacing ringside like a tiger impatient for his meal.  Now, I wouldn’t have noticed him at all had it not been for his extravagance—the man likes to be noticed—and not the extravagance of his dress or his manner or his speech, but the extravagance of the world he was able to create for his wife and champion fighter. 

Before I even walked into Vegas, I stopped for a visit at his website www.absolootboxing.com and saw a promotional image of Laila standing proud and beautiful with her arms folded across her chest next to my sister Valerie standing with her fists raised ready to fight.  The part that troubled me, though, was that Valerie’s picture was taken from a photo of her sweaty and worn out after a match wearing the belt she’d won against Mary Ann Almager or Trina Ortegon.  Moreover, the picture was grainy—Valerie didn’t look fully the champ that she is in that picture—at least, she would have chosen a more professional photo.  She told me that the promoter of the fight wasn’t able to find a better picture with greater resolution—she told me this as I was scanning in half a dozen of her promotional photos for her website at www.thewolfebreed.com.  I don’t think the promoter asked for a better picture of her while the picture of Laila has her standing tall with her belt, make-up on her face, and a killer smile.  That was my first impression of Yahya—the man knows how to promote his fighter.

Then, it occurred to me—Yahya, the promoter of the fight, is Laila’s husband.  Laila, whose last name is Ali, was being promoted by her husband whose last name is McClain.  I did a quick Internet search (after all, I saw the movie about Ali), and I found that there’s something called the Muhammad Ali rule.  No fighter can be his or her own promoter because there’s a conflict of interest in the promotion of any given fight.  Makes a lot of sense to me.  Yahya excused himself for promoting his wife by saying that his wife is her own manager and that he has no personal interest in the outcome of her fights.  Therefore, there is no breach of the rule Laila’s father helped develop.  Yeah, right.  Now, I’ve been married for a few years, and it never once dawned on me that what my wife does has no bearing on my personal interests.  Laila has even said that she’ll fight whomever her husband tells her to and only when he tells her to fight.  Her husband is the man upon whom she leans, not her father.  In fact, Laila says, she’s not riding on her father’s name at all.  My first question is, why then isn’t her last name McClain?  Why does her website at www.lailaali.net bill her as having the bloodlines of a champ?  Why is her nickname “She bee stingin’”?  Why does her fight song ring in symphonic rhapsody, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee?” 

Laila’s been propped up by two men in her life—not that she doesn’t deserve her victories, she’s earned them—but there’s an image here that doesn’t jive with the image she projects.  And that can only mean one thing—her image is a constructed image, and she’s not yet comfortable enough with the construct to get that image straight.  At the press interview following the fight, Yahya interrupted his wife’s answer when she was asked when her next fight would be and whether it would be against Ann Wolfe whom Valerie KO’d two years ago in Houston.  Yahya said, “Why you asking her who she’s going to fight next?  I decide who she fights and when she fights, not her.”  So much for the Muhammad Ali rule.  Maybe Laila’s right when she says she’s not trading on her father’s image.

How powerful is this image?  Well, it’s powerful enough that my sister is now being called by Laila’s fans a mutt instead of a wolf.  Moreover, Laila has posted on her website that her fight with Valerie was a cakewalk.  Of course, the only other woman who went eight rounds with Laila was Jacqui Frazier—were the fight such a cakewalk, Laila should have finished it in the first or second round.  Eight rounds of ten is not a cakewalk even if Laila ate the cake afterwards.  Moreover, Valerie had lost only four fights before Laila and all to world champion fighters, and she’d knocked out seven of her opponents in the thirteen fights she’d won.  Laila, who was a world champion by the time she stepped into the ring with Valerie, beat a woman who took two belts away from a 6’0” Kathy Rivers in Panama City three years before Laila won her first belt and was inducted into the Sports Hall of Fame a year before the two met in Vegas.  Laila beat a champion not a mutt, and that doesn’t make Valerie any less of a champion though it does finally give Laila her legitimacy as one.  It is for that reason that Laila needed to win this fight; moreover, Yahya needed her to win this fight. 

  Were Laila to lose her one belt, it might have cost her some endorsements, and that would have hurt Yahya though he claims to have no interest in his wife’s winning.  Were Laila to miss out on taking Valerie’s belts, it would have cost her a great deal of political capital in the world of women’s boxing, and it would have meant that Yahya would have had to travel to Houston to promote the rematch, which would have cost him the home-hive advantage and the opportunity to control the environment in which his wife fought against a champion boxer after so many fights he had arranged against non-champions.

Valerie is not only a champion, she’s also a pretty gracious one.  Laila’s hype and refusal for two years to step into the ring against her made her rather ungracious, though—ungracious enough to write that “Laila Ali is a no-fighting bum [who] refuses to accept legitimate fights in order to inflate her record and her ego.”  Ungracious enough to add that Laila “has very little skill and absolutely no chin,” and that “what bores [her] the most is how [Laila] plays off the media hype of her being 'world champion material.'”  And Valerie capped off her challenge by concluding,

Ali can't fight.  If she could, she would be stepping up her level of competition by now.  Instead, she continues to let her handlers feed her bums.  One of her last opponents was a 48-year-old grandmother who'd been knocked out her last four times in the ring.  How's that ever going to prepare her to fight someone like me?  Does she think she's really that damn good to go from fighting these types of women to fighting a three time world champion?  Let me assure her, she's not.  The only reason I'd give her a second thought is just to shut her up.  She is degrading the sport of women's boxing.  She has no power in her punches.  Hell, she shuts her eyes when she throws a jab!  What is that?  That's a mutt being paraded around like she's some kind of a show dog. I tell you what, if Ali ever does gather the guts to crawl up in the ring with me, she'll get a first round knock out all right.  I don't have the time or the patience to tolerate her little juvenile delinquent attitude.  Normally, I let my opponents go a few rounds so I don't hurt their pride too much.  But Ali, I don't have anything for her.  I’m going to drop her in the first with a body shot so hard her daddy’s going to feel it.

After Friday’s fight, after Laila showed that she really had developed into a good fighter, Valerie walked up to her and apologized for that.   That’s real grace—to have the dignity and humility afterwards to sincerely apologize for such harsh goading.  Of course, she would have apologized, too, had she won—Laila did, in fact, step into the ring with her.  On the softer side, my sister wrote of Ali a year before she’d posted that challenge to shake Ali into the ring, “I'm not saying she isn't a worthy opponent.  In fact, as an honest opinion, she's really not all that bad.  She's made measurable progress over the past year.  And given more time, I'm sure she would be able to rise to the challenge. But for now, I simply don't believe she can handle the emotional loss and still get back in the ring like Kathy Rivers, Ann Wolfe, Mary Ann Almager, or even myself.  Anybody can win a fight and receive a title belt.  It takes a champion to lose a fight and keep on standing.”  That’s what Valerie was trying to say all along—that if Laila is going to talk the talk, she should walk the walk.  If not, then there must be a reason why.  After all, that’s what Valerie did by stepping into the ring with Laila.  She put her body into the ring to back up what her mouth had been saying.  And right now, my sister is doing just what she said she would do if she lost—she’s keeping on standing.

Keeping on standing is harder to do outside the ring than inside of it for a variety of reasons, not the least of which includes having to return home and answer the question of “how did it go?”  After a fighter spends weeks preparing herself for an upcoming bout, she leaves for the fight with an army of support behind her, and that’s hard to let down.  Valerie’s friends back home, moreover, and her fans around the country tuned into ESPN2 to see her performance against a woman around whom as much animosity as hype has developed.  They tuned in to see if there was any truth to the hype of Laila Ali, and they found that Laila had actually developed into a good fighter and that Valerie for some reason or another was unable to knock her down.  Had they been paying as much attention to the environment Yahya had created as they were to the punches Laila was throwing, they might have noticed something else, too. 

Valerie was brought into the ring first even though she had the better stats (13-4 against 12-0) and held two super-middleweight belts in addition to her two light-heavyweight belts.  Her music “I Wanna Talk about Me” by Toby Keith played for only 40 seconds while Laila’s “Float Like a Butterfly” played for a full two minutes.  (Yes, indeed!—Yahya had someone write a rap song about Laila that goes, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, Ali, Ali!” and because he’s the promoter with no vested interest in his wife or capitalization on her father’s name made certain it played a significant length of time.) Because Las Vegas is Laila’s home turf, most of the people in the audience were indifferent to Valerie or booed her on her way in while they clapped and cheered for Laila.  Both during the fight and between rounds, most of the camera angles favored Laila.  Most of the televised shots focused on Laila’s corner and rarely did they meet Valerie in her corner.  The announcers who were favorable to Valerie in the first round—in Valerie’s best round—became increasingly pro-Ali in subsequent rounds as Valerie began to take more hits than she was giving.  Yahya had even purchased air time during the commercial breaks to promote Laila’s image. 

By the end of the fight, the television audience was prepared for Laila’s victory.  They had watched her in her corner and gained sympathy for her through the announcer’s comments over eight rounds of intentional communication between the camera and the viewers.  Something the cameras didn’t manage to avoid, though, was the final moment of the contest when, inexplicably, a minute and fourteen seconds into the eighth round as Laila suddenly developed a second wind and punched Valerie back into the ropes, the referee called the fight in Laila’s favor against Valerie’s clear and distinct televised voice saying, “I’m alright.  I want to continue.”  Of course, another five minutes might have made a difference for her--they did in the fight in Panama City in her bout against Kathy Rivers.  Had it gone to a decision, though, Laila would have won.  According to one Internet source, "Ali landed 180 of 563 total punches, including 105 of 298 power shots and 75 of 265 jabs, as she raised her record to 13-0 with her 10th knockout. Mahfood connected on only 75 of 375 total punches, including 49 of 253 jabs and just 26 of 122 power shots."  Val's voice declaring her fitness to continue was a fleeting voice, however.  By then, the audience of 500 was on its feet shouting, “Ali, Ali, Ali,” while the referee was raising Laila’s arm in the air declaring her the winner of all three belts and Laila’s fight music resounded through the speakers. 

In the words of Michael Corleone, I can’t blame Yahya for what he’s been able to accomplish here.  In fact, I respect what he’s done—the new takes out the old one way or another.  I also respect Laila immeasurably more than I used to—even without putting too much distance between me and my sister’s loss, I can agree with the prevailing opinion that Laila has become a good fighter and deserves those belts until someone better than she comes along and takes them from her.  My sister has also reconciled herself to the loss and expects to get the belts back sooner or later if not from Laila then from the woman who beats Laila.  After all, that’s what my sister says a champion is—not only someone you can admire when she’s winning, but also someone you can admire when she’s lost. 

I just wonder what will happen to Yahya when he gets too cocky (like he did when he announced that his wife fights only when he tells her in almost the same breath it took to say that Laila is her own manager and he has no vested interest in her) and loses his license as a promoter because of it or what will happen to Laila when she’s no longer a commodity Yahya can construct an environment around.  My advice for anyone planning to step into the ring against Laila, as both Valerie and Kendra Lenhart might also attest, is to know that she is not up against a woman but against the image of one, that she is not fighting in a ring but in a constructed environment that envelopes it, that she is no longer a fighter but an implement, a tool, brought into the ring for the purpose of being beaten.  As long as Yahya can control the environment in which Laila fights, then Laila will win.  To beat Laila, one need only beat the environment, and to do that, one must be aware that it exists without being affected by its existence.  In the meantime, hats off to Yahya.  My sister may one day retire, but she won’t bee retired, and the bee that did all this stinging should be careful he doesn’t get stung.

11/13/02