In The Game Of The Father In her debut, Laila Ali, the daughter of the Greatest, was a chip off the old champ

October 17, 1999

In a prizefight that was less sporting event than coming-out
party, more coronation than competition, the youngest of
Muhammad Ali's seven daughters made her professional boxing
debut last Friday night in a casino ballroom on an upstate New
York Indian reservation. Laila Ali needed just 31 seconds to
dispose of a pushover named April Fowler. After a left-right to
the jaw knocked April clear back to last February, the
21-year-old Ali cocked her fists and glowered over her opponent,
screaming, "Get up! Get up!" just as her old man hollered over
Sonny Liston 34 years ago.

Madame Butterfly is brash, brazen and almost as pretty as her
pop. At 5'10" and 168 pounds, she can mimic the Greatest's
routines--biting her lips as if seething in anger, feigning
outrage with widened unblinking eyes--and she certainly shares
his playfulness. Asked if she feared being punched on the nose,
Laila said, "I have a cute nose already. If it's moved a little
to the left or a little to the right, it will still be cute."

Her mother, the former Veronica Porche, was the third of Ali's
four wives. In 1974, after winning a contest to become a poster
model for Ali's Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman,
Porche was invited by the Greatest to join him in Zaire. Their
subsequent tumble in the jungle caused the breakup of Ali's
second marriage. Wed in '77, they divorced in '86, when Laila
was eight.

Living with her mother in Los Angeles, Laila grew up privileged,
unathletic and rebellious. "Everyone else was trying to get out
of the ghetto," she says. "I was trying to get in. I wanted to
experience the other side." She was busted for shoplifting in
1995 and spent three months in a juvenile detention center.
Since then, she has graduated from Santa Monica Community
College and run a nail salon in Marina del Rey.

She took up boxing to lose weight. Ali has been in training for
about a year, sometimes sparring with her boyfriend, Johnny
(Ya-Ya) McClain, a former World Boxing Union cruiserweight
champ. Sight unseen, she was touted as the Great Black Hope of
women's boxing. Her estimated $20,000 purse for Friday's fight
was a testament to Great Black Hype.

Among the sellout crowd of 2,600 at the Turning Stone Casino was
Laila's chanting entourage of 75; dozens of reporters from
Germany, England and Japan; and her famous father. "Laila looked
like Muhammad when she boxed," said her mom, who sat on the
opposite side of the ring from Muhammad. "She looked like a
boxer, not a woman."

Of course, the 57-year-old Muhammad hardly looks like a boxer
anymore. Racked by Parkinson's syndrome, he's now a figure of
sympathy whose shuffling gait, clouded expression and swallowed
whisper bear poignant testimony to the sport's dangers. "My
father stayed in the ring a lot longer than I intend to," Laila
says. "He fought for years, and his strategy was to let fighters
beat on him to wear themselves out, so he took a lot more
beating than I plan on taking. I'm going to make some money, win
a world title and move on."

She laid out her plans to her father last January. "Daddy," she
remembers saying, "I want to tell you I'm going into
professional boxing. I love you, and I want your support, but
whether you give it or not, I'm going to do this." Dad tried to
dissuade her. "Have you been hit?" he said. "Have you been
knocked down?"

"I'm not going to get hurt," she said. "I'm going to fight
women, not men. And I have your genetics."

Perhaps realizing Laila could not be swayed, the elder Ali rose
and started mixing it up with her. "You're good," she says he
told her. "I don't have to give you any pointers."

Laila took that as the blessing she wanted. "I think my dad is
pleased I'm an independent thinker," she says, "but if he could
program my brain not to be a fighter, he would."

The brain of the lumpy, dumpy Fowler seemed to have been
preprogrammed. A 27-year-old waitress at Ye Olde Benny's steak
house in Michigan City, Ind., her lone ring credential was
another one-round knockout suffered 18 months ago. "I got
counted out," she recalled. "I was getting paid the same whether
I got up or stayed down, so I stayed down."

Much of Fowler's recent sparring had been with her ex-husband.
"It was verbal," she said. "The divorce was, whatchacall,

Her boxing style is, whatchacall, abominable. At the bell Fowler
made a timid rush at Ali, flailing feebly with her head turned
and eyes shut. Ali backed her up with straight jabs, then
unloaded a combination that left her quivering like tapioca in a
high wind. "Being a waitress is more fun than being a fighter,"
Fowler said. "Once I got a $117 tip."

Here's a better one: Get out of boxing.

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN At 21, Madame Butterfly is brash, brazen and almost as pretty as her pop.