She may not speak in rhyme like her father, but Laila Ali does posses arrogant confidence, charisma and a healthy dose of showmanship. At a pre-fight weigh-in and press conference held on Tuesday afternoon it was all Ali, as she overshadowed all the male fighters featuring on her undercard on Saturday night at Emperor's Palace in Kempton Park.
Ali faces Gwendolyn O' Neil in the first professional women's boxing match ever to take place in South Africa and will be defending her WBC super middleweight crown. If the much anticipated event is anything like the press conference then the fight is going to be all one way traffic with O'Neil on the receiving end. Ali asked O' Neil what she would be bringing to the fight this time round (Ali stopped her in 3 rounds in their first encounter), and said, “Jesus will beat you.” O'Neil responded. “God loves us both,” Ali said. “So that won't be a factor. In our first fight she (O'Neil) said I was the devil and what happened I gave her a beating. I knocked her down—what was it?— three or four times.”
O'Neil, who doesn't look the athlete and in fact looks a bit old to be fighting and is clearly not a talker said, “The world will be shocked.” Ali tried to goad her into putting on a show with the media but O'Neil was having nothing of it. “Is that all you've got?” asked Ali. “The world will be shocked. Come on, I'm looking for some motivation here. I'm going to give you a beating anyway, but I really would like a little more motivation. It looks like I'll just have to psyche myself up again.”
“She's going to beat you!” shouted O'Neil's husband from the gallery. “It's going to be a spectacular demolition.” An amused smile crossed Ali's face which now lit up. She directed her attention to O'Neil and said, “I'm going to whip your ass.” Ali then turned to O'Neil's husband: “And then I'm going to whip your ass too. Hell, you'd have a better chance than your wife will, but I'd whip your ass too!”
O'Neil's husband tried to continue the banter but Ali quickly cut him short. “Hey, don't let me come all out at you. I'm trying to be a lady over here," she said. "Don't mind him, I've crossed paths with him before and I know what kind of man he is. I hope Gwen does give me a hard fight. I hope that she does go 7 or 8 rounds, make me work a bit. But, hey, I think it'll be over in 2. These girls all think they're so tough and then they get beaten by a beautiful girl and they're never the same again. ”
Prior to the weigh-in and press conference, Ali paid a visit to former South African president Nelson Mandela. Mandela, a former boxer himself, praised Ali and said he had tremendous respect for her dedication to the sport. Asked if he had any tips for her, Mandela responded that it was too long ago that he laced up a pair of gloves and couldn't remember, so couldn't help her.
To the disappointment of all of those in attendance Ali jumped on the scales at the weigh-in in the same black dress she had worn to visit Mandela. O'Neil wore a full tracksuit on the scales so neither fighter's physique was displayed for the cameras. There were some concerns raised about the fact that Ali had arrived in South Africa a week ago and O'Neil only arrived this past Saturday. “That's when we were told to come by the organizers,” said O'Neil's trainer Seon Miller “All we can do is work with what we're given, but I ensure you it won't have any effect on Gwen. She's in great shape and ready to win.” The final pre-fight weigh-in takes place on Friday.
The main supporting bout on the historic Ali – O'Neil bill is an IBO super featherweight world title bout between Cassius Baloyi and Argentinean Nazareno Ruiz. Ruiz's trainer, who has often brought fighters to South Africa, promised that his man would beat Baloyi, but to date none of his boxers have been successful in SA. Ruiz looks fit and well conditioned and bears the markings of a man who's seen a few battles.
Baloyi was to have faced the man who dethroned him of his IBF and IBO super featherweight world titles, Gairy St. Claire, but the rematch fell through with claims that St. Claire overpriced himself. The Baloyi – St Claire bout for some obscure reason was awarded with the fight of the year trophy at the SA boxing awards held this past Friday night. “After Ruiz we want (Malcolm) Klassen”, says Baloyi's manager Nic Durant, and then added mockingly, “That's if Klassen gets past Mzonke Fana in his mandatory defense.” Klassen defeated St. Claire to claim the IBF super featherweight title and picked up the boxer of the year award for his efforts. The IBO title wasn't on the line in the St Claire – Klassen bout as Klassen wasn't rated by the IBO at the time. If successful on fight night, Baloyi will become the first South African to win 5 world titles.
Ali's presence in South Africa has attracted huge media interest from journalists, publications and programming which ordinarily would not give the sport of boxing a second glance. Not since the visit of Lennox Lewis has there been so much coverage locally. On one side that's good, but on the other it’s not. Their interest is not in the sport, but merely in the lovely Laila's celebrity. When she leaves the country, they'll all disappear again and only come out of the woodwork when another “celebrity” fighter arrives. This makes it virtually impossible for local fighters to develop their own celebrity status. Then again, Charlize Theron was only hailed as a local celebrity after she won the best actress academy award, even though she had been doing great movies for years. Guess our fighters need to achieve their fame abroad to be recognized.