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Greatest Loss

Laila Ali is still unbeaten and sharpening her skills in the ring, but she can't share it as much with her father as she would like

October 26, 2005|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

He spoke barely above a whisper, almost mumbling. But the message, delivered before a fight several years ago, was clear, the pride evident.

Muhammad Ali looked over at his daughter, Laila, young and cocky just as he had been, then said with a bit of the old fire, "She floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. But she will never, ever be as pretty as me."

Laila never asked her father's permission to box and didn't learn her craft from him. But his presence at ringside, his support and encouragement gave her comfort and confidence. That's why Laila's corner seems so empty now. After turning herself from just another flailing female with little concept of defense into a quality boxer, arguably the best of her gender, Laila, 27, finds herself at a crossroads.

Still eager to step between the ropes, she will do so without Johnny "Yahya," McClain, her former husband and promoter, the man who guided her to an unbeaten record, which now stands at 21-0 with 18 knockouts.

"Things just didn't work out," she said, without going into detail.

Even more distressing to Laila, who lives in Los Angeles, she says she's losing her father as well.

The three-time former heavyweight champion has long suffered from Parkinson's disease but now, at 63, he seems to be getting worse, according to Laila.

"I feel like the disease is progressing," she said. "Different things start happening as you get older. I have noticed a change in him, something that goes along with Parkinson's.

"It's painful for me because I would love to sit down and talk to my dad about the way he used to be when he was my age, when he was in his prime, because we are so much alike. I can't really do that. I can't share a lot of things with him."

Back when Muhammad Ali was the center of the boxing universe, the most recognizable man on the planet, Laila was too young to share those moments

"I was never around him all that much when I was young," she said. "I was never exposed to all that. When I was old enough to understand boxing, he was already retired." The younger of the two daughters Muhammad had with the third of his four wives, Veronica Porche, Laila, 8 when her parents divorced, lived with her mother. Laila went on to attend Santa Monica College, then bought a beauty parlor.

It was at that stage of her life, far removed from the sport that had been her father's life, that she was reeled back by the telecasts of fighting females.

After learning the basics of the sport, she had her first professional match in 1999 at the Turning Stone Casino in Verona, N.Y. Fighting April Fowler in a four-round match, Laila ended it in one.

Now, established in the sport, with so much to talk about with her father, there is only silence.

"We don't talk about boxing," she said. "He might come to a fight and say, 'You're bad.' But he was never one to talk much about boxing with us. That was not him. And he doesn't talk much these days anyway. It takes him too much energy to talk.

"He has his good days and his bad days. He's taking a lot of different medications. Sometimes, his speech is so slurred, you can't hardly understand him. But he definitely knows what's going on. That's for sure. He sees everything.

"It's his motor skills that Parkinson's affects. So it's like he's trapped inside his body. He can think. He has things he wants to say, but his lips sometimes just don't move to get it out.

"He's just taking life easy. He likes doing simple things. He loves to draw, he likes to color, he likes to clip pictures out of magazines. And he likes to do magic tricks. It doesn't take a whole lot to keep him entertained. But his attention span is very short when the subject is something more than that."

"He doesn't feel sorry for himself, so it's hard to feel sorry for him."

Every once in a while, Laila will see the old spark in her father's face.

"He'll start talking about making a comeback," she said. We'll just say, 'OK, Dad.' And once in a while, you might ask him, 'Daddy, who hit the hardest?' and he will answer your question."

What Laila savors the most are his reactions to her boxing. "We have gotten in a ring at his house and acted like we were sparring," she said. "His eyes light up when I throw a combination or when I turn my shoulder the right way. It's as if he's saying, 'Wow, she really does know how to do this.' My dad was kind of chauvinistic. He didn't believe a woman's place was in the ring. But he can appreciate it when he sees we can do it, same way men can do it. He has to appreciate that."

Laila saw that appreciation at one of her recent fights.

"I've never seen him like that," she said. "He saw this girl in front of me, big and strong. She looked like she was going to be tough. And then he saw how easily I got in there and handled her.

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