Ali at the Garden has familiar ring, but not on HBO
Thirty-five years and change after "The Fight of the Century," a fighter named Ali will be appearing on a heavyweight championship card at Madison Square Garden this Saturday.
But although the eyes of the nation -- and indeed the world -- were fixated on Muhammad Ali's epic clash with Joe Frazier on March 8, 1971, this week's meeting between Wladimir Klitschko and Calvin Brock is being conducted in relative anonymity. It's the second so-called world heavyweight championship bout in as many weekends, and it's being fought for the belt of a sanctioning body -- the International Boxing Federation -- that didn't exist 3½ decades ago.
In another sign of the times, the Ali who is fighting Saturday is Muhammad's daughter, Laila; and although she is being featured heavily in advertising by the venue and the card's promoters, good luck finding her bout on television in the United States. Ali might be the most famous female boxer in the world, but HBO won't be showing her fight.
"It's frustrating because I've been on every other network and here I am, in my prime, on an HBO card and they don't want to show the fight because HBO refuses to show women fighting, for no other reason except that it's women," Ali said.
"I'm the one selling the fight, you know what I mean? Wladimir's a great fighter, I don't want to take anything away from him, but people don't know him the way they know me -- and of course, you know why, because the name Ali is a powerful name. But my dad's coming to the fight, he's going to be in the audience, the viewers would love to be able to see that. But they'd rather replay Floyd Mayweather's boring fight that he had last weekend."
But so it goes for a boxer who, after initially being perceived as a curiosity trading on her famous last name, has grown into one of the few beacons in a still-struggling sport.
"She has definitely proven herself," said Sue TL Fox of womenboxing.com. "She's quite an athlete, she's very talented, she's brought a lot to the sport. It's unfortunate that she's in a weight class [168 lbs.] which is too big for many women and where possible good opponents are fewer."
Indeed, although Fox insists that the quality of women's boxing as a whole "is definitely increasing," its image remains sullied by the shallowness of the talent pool and the fact that mismatches are prevalent.
"We do have lopsided matches, promoters who don't want their fighters to risk losing. And we have fighters and teams who pull out of fights for who knows what reason. Sometimes, it seems like a broken toenail is enough reason to pull out of a fight," Fox said.
Ali contends that such has been the case with the few women frequently touted as meaningful opponents for her, all of whom have, she says, been offered the opportunity to fight her at various times only to then back out.
"A lot of times, people have this false idea they're going to make a lot of money," she explained. "But it's just not there. Even if they're making 10 times more money than they're used to making, if they have this idea they're going to make $500,000 and they're only making $100,000, that's not good enough. So they say, 'Let's hold out,' and what happens is, I move on without them because I'm not going to wait around and beg somebody to fight."
One person who did take the opportunity was her opponent Saturday night, Shelley Burton.
"Shelley Burton, I respect her because she took this fight without any hassles," Ali said. "It wasn't about the money, it wasn't about the contract, it was just about the opportunity. I think that's one of the most important things. That shows me she's a real fighter. She believes she can win, and it's a real opportunity for her."
It's certainly a long way from the Montana Toughman circuit, where 30-year-old Burton first pulled on a pair of gloves in February 2002.
"A friend of mine was going to do it, and I thought, 'Hey, I can do that,'" recalled Burton of that initial foray into the ring.
"It was only a minute, and I really had no idea what I was doing. And I was always pretty athletic -- I wanted to be a pro basketball player, but I had knee problems -- but at the end of that minute, I was gasping for breath. I couldn't believe how hard it was. I beat a woman who was undefeated at that point, and somebody said to me they thought I had some style, but I felt I was just flailing away up there."
Having experienced enough of gloved combat to know she wanted to learn how to do more than just flail away, Burton continued to contest Toughman bouts, joined the semipro club boxing circuit where she went 17-0, then moved briefly to Las Vegas to turn professional. In July 2003, she won her pro debut against former kickboxing champion Rita Turrisi.
Her record as a professional stands at 8-2-1, against Ali's ledger of 22-0. Burton is 5 inches shorter, and normally competes one weight division lower than her more celebrated opponent. On paper, Saturday's bout doesn't appear competitive, but Ali insists she is taking nothing for granted.
"Every time you get into the ring, anything could happen," she said. "Anytime, no matter who I'm fighting, before you get into the ring, you don't know exactly what's going to happen. You could get a head butt, you could get cut; somebody's swinging at you, they have nothing to lose, they train 10 times harder. Trust me, Shelley Burton has trained 10 times harder than she has ever trained before."
Certainly, Burton gives every impression of wanting to make the most of her appearance in the spotlight.
"I've only been a pro for three years. But when I signed with Butch [Gottlieb, her manager], he asked me my dream, and I said, 'To fight Laila Ali.' And here I am. I'm going in there to win, and I really believe I can beat her, and I really think I will, because I'm tough and, frankly, I think I want it more than she does. But I have so much respect for her -- when I met her, I wanted to ask for her autograph, to be honest with you. But to be fighting Laila, on a heavyweight title card, at Madison Square Garden -- it gives me goose bumps, it really does. It's an opportunity of a lifetime."
Kieran Mulvaney is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He covers boxing for ESPN.com, Reuters and TigerBoxing.com.
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