By JOHN ROMANO
© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 3, 2001
The reporter called, hoping for a funny line. The daughter of one former heavyweight champion was turning pro, and the reporter was friendly with the daughter of another former heavyweight champion.
This is how it all began. As a joke.
Two years later, has anything changed?
The most famed boxing rivalry of the last half-century is about to be revived. Except the original participants might not be there.
Thirty years after Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier met in the first of a remarkable trilogy of bouts, their daughters will fight at a casino in upstate New York. The fight is scheduled for Friday. A little more than a week before Father's Day.
Laila Ali, 23, owned a nail salon in Los Angeles before her professional boxing debut less than two years ago. She is 9-0. Jacqui Frazier-Lyde, 39, is a Philadelphia attorney and a mother of three. Her first fight was less than 16 months ago. She is 7-0.
It is the most high-profile bout in the short history of women's boxing. The first women's fight to be featured as the main event on a pay-per-view card. Promoters have not disclosed the finances, but the speculation is the women will split a $1-million purse.
So, like their fathers, the daughters will make money.
But can they also make history?
"If this fight is just an Ali-Frazier piggyback event, then they are insulting their parents," said Hector Figueroa, CEO of Sport International, which holds the television rights. "But I believe what people will see is the same heart, the same pride, and a great boxing capacity from both girls.
"What's going to be great about this is, it's another generation, another gender, but at the same level in quality and heart and inspiration, in terms of going at each other. I will wait until after the fight to make the historical judgment. But it may be the opposite of what people are saying. I think it will enhance the legend."
That would be a difficult feat.
This was more than a boxing match, more than a celebrity event. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War in 1971, it drew a dividing line through America. Ali was the hero of college campuses. A black man who dared to question white authority and refused to be inducted into the armed forces. Frazier, unwittingly, became the symbol of middle America.
Ali was stripped of his title in 1967 and banned from boxing for more than three years for refusing induction into the Army. It was Frazier who spoke out on behalf of Ali and offered him money during this exile. Yet in the months before the fight, Ali cast Frazier in the role of America's black stooge. He said Frazier was "too ugly" to be a champion and, worse yet, called him an Uncle Tom.
The fight at Madison Square Garden was every bit as raw as the buildup. Underestimating Frazier's strength and endurance, Ali tried to wear his opponent down by absorbing punishment. But Frazier was relentless. He knocked Ali down in the 15th round and won a unanimous decision. Frazier spent the next week in a hospital.
Aside from her famous family name, Jacqui Frazier-Lyde seems an unlikely candidate to be swapping snide remarks and punches with another person.
A talented athlete two decades ago, she attended American University on an athletic scholarship and remains on the school's top 10 scoring list in basketball. She received her law degree from Villanova and settled into a comfortable family life with husband Peter and their three children.
Bright, witty and passionate, she was a popular figure in Philadelphia where her law office was one floor above Joe Frazier's Gym.
That is where she sat when the phone call came from a reporter, informing her that Laila Ali had turned pro. By the end of the conversation, Frazier-Lyde was predicting she would whip Ali's butt.
"I've never really tried to figure out why," said Frazier-Lyde, in explanation of her sudden career change.
"But I don't think it's any accident that the greatest rivalry in sports is being furthered by women. I think it's God's way of letting people know that gender is not a hinderance to performance. To me, it's diversity. My life has always been whatever I've wanted it to be."
Frazier-Lyde began calling clients and telling them her colleagues would temporarily take over her cases. She headed to the gym and, within months, had trimmed down from 210 pounds to 168.
The trial lawyer in her shines brightly when she begins a lengthy explanation about the human spirit pushing us all to expand our horizons. But there is something else lingering beneath the surface in her desire to fight Laila Ali. Frazier-Lyde was there when her father had his historic confrontations with Ali. She lived through his pain when Ali ridiculed his name. She said she harbors no animosity toward the Ali family, but there clearly is the sense of a debt that has gone unpaid.
"Joe Frazier's crime was he delivered a mighty butt-whipping to Muhammad Ali, so Ali had to destroy his character," Frazier-Lyde said. "I lived through the marketing machine of Ali. I saw the propaganda and how the media made so much money off him. I watched it, I lived it, so I know the reality. I know the whole story, not just what they wanted you to see.
"What motivates me is that what was lost in the greatest rivalry in history was good sportsmanship. I just want to have my father and Muhammad Ali laugh and shake hands and be playful again."
Frazier was undefeated and the undisputed champion of the world in their first meeting. Ali was undefeated and the former champion of the world. When they met again, three years later at Madison Square Garden, neither was undefeated and neither was the champion.
Ali had lost to Frazier in '71 and Frazier subsequently lost his title to George Foreman in Jamaica in '73. The second of the Ali-Frazier showdowns was less dramatic and far less remembered than its predecessor. This time, it was Ali who exacted some measure of revenge with a 12-round decision.
Unlike her opponent, Laila Ali has little emotional involvement in the wars fought by her father.
By the time she was born, the last of the Ali-Frazier bouts had been fought and her father's career was in decline. The second youngest of Ali's nine children, her parents divorced when she was 8 and she lived with her mother in California.
Laila has shown little of the playful attitude or outgoing nature of her father, although she has the striking good looks that befit the Ali name. She also has inherited her father's penchant for prefight jabs at opponents.
In recent news conferences, she has referred to Frazier-Lyde as "ugly" and "a fool." She also acknowledges she is not as enamored with the media, nor as skillful in manipulating the media, as her father.
"I'm Muhammad Ali's daughter, but my father and I are very different in that area," Ali said at a Philadelphia news conference. "I don't necessarily put on a show. That's what my father's thing was, and he was great at it. Everything I say is because I feel it, and it comes out of my mouth. It's not scripted."
A graduate of Santa Monica Community College, Ali was operating her nail salon and was headed for business school at the University of Southern California when she saw a fight featuring top women's boxer Christy Martin.
She trained in virtual secrecy for a year, with her husband, former fighter Johnny McClain, acting as manager. She made her pro debut in October 1999, and knocked her opponent out in 31 seconds. Ali ran off eight more victories, although some were hardly convincing and others were against outclassed opponents.
Frazier-Lyde has suggested Ali is using boxing as a springboard to an acting career. Ali, in fact, was in central Florida in April to film a guest role in the television show Sheena.
"She has a hatred toward Jacqui because Jacqui's been stealing the limelight," said Peter Lyde, Jacqui's husband. "Jacqui speaks five languages. She's a lawyer. I think Laila's a little upset with that. In the 'hood you'd say she was playa-hating. But you can't fight yourself. Your name is Ali and you expect to be on TV. But you can't be great by yourself. You need someone else up there with you."
This was the pinnacle of Ali's career, and the beginning of the end of Frazier's. Four years after their first fight and one year after the second, Ali continued to torment Frazier publicly. Ali had beaten Foreman to regain the title and was giving Frazier a final shot to win it back in Manila.
Once again, Ali could not help skewering Frazier in a poem: "It's going to be a thrilla, and a chilla, when I get that gorilla in Manila."
Longtime boxing experts say it was one of the most vicious fights in heavyweight history, with each man enduring a beating and refusing to go down. With both fighters slumped on stools before the start of the 15th round, Frazier's trainer, Eddie Futch, told the referee to stop the fight. Frazier's right eye had completely closed and he could no longer see Ali's left hook, leaving him virtually defenseless to head shots.
The Ali-Frazier feud continued to simmer through the years. Frazier blaming Ali for portraying him as a fool and Ali laughing off their old rivalry.
The tension grew uncomfortable in 1996 when Ali, suffering from Parkinson's syndrome and moving with the shuffle of an 80-year-old, was invited to light the Olympic flame in Atlanta. Frazier ridiculed Ali's condition and suggested he would like to have pushed his former foe into the flames.
Frazier later expressed regret and seemed to be making conciliatory gestures toward Ali this year on the 30th anniversary of their first fight. Ali, for his part, told a reporter he was sorry for calling Frazier an Uncle Tom, saying he meant no harm. Frazier, at first, embraced Ali's words. He has since sniffed that Ali's apology was made to a reporter and not to Frazier.
The chances of a face-to-face meeting at their daughter's fight on Friday appear slim. Frazier is expected to attend, but Ali apparently will skip the fight because of a previous engagement at a NASCAR event.
As for the significance of their daughters' meeting, others in boxing do not hold out much hope.
Neither Ali nor Frazier-Lyde is considered in the upper echelon of the women's ranks and the idea that this could be the most-anticipated women's event could cause an unhealthy backlash.
"It's not a fight. It's a spectacle. It is an insult to call it Ali-Frazier IV," boxing historian Bert Sugar said. "I think it could be the end of women's boxing because if this is what they're going to offer as a showcase, they have a lot of problems.
"But they're entitled to do what they want. And I'm entitled not to care."
As for what lies beyond Friday's fight, no one is certain.
Frazier-Lyde originally got into the sport specifically to fight Ali, but now says she will continue boxing beyond this fight.
There are other challenges that lie ahead.
For instance, George Foreman's daughter.
- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.
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