“OK, class, the subject of today’s pop quiz is women’s boxing. Stay seated and raise your hand if you think you have the correct answer, or whatever your perception of the correct answer might be. First question: Who is the best female fighter in the world today?
“What, no responses? Not even a guess? You in the back with the perplexed look on your face, go ahead and pipe up. Start the discussion even if you’re not really certain about whom to back. You say it might be Cecilia Braekhus, the undefeated welterweight (23-0, 7 KOs) from Norway? Is that because you’ve actually seen any of her bouts on tape or YouTube? Or is it because her name is at the top of Thomas Gerbasi’s top 10 pound-for-pound list in the latest issue of The Ring?
“Let’s move on. How about identifying the person you believe to be the best female fighter of all time. That’s better. I’m seeing a few more hands go up. A couple of you are shouting out support for Lucia Rijker. She’s certainly a safe choice. Ah, I knew there’d be someone going with Christy Martin, the only woman boxer to appear on the cover of SI. Somebody else thinks it could be big-punching Ann Wolfe. That’s some scary lady. What about you with the gray hair, seated off to the side? You say you’re going very retro with the late JackieTonawanda, who was known as `Lady Ali’ during her career as one of the real pioneers? Definitely an interesting selection.
“Final question: What was the most-hyped women’s boxing match ever? Whoa! That’s a lot of raised hands. Here’s a vote for Laila Ali vs. Jacqui Frazier-Lyde. And another. Still another. One more … wait, all of you think that? Any dissenting opinions? None? Are you telling me there’s something all of you can agree upon?”
Women’s boxing has always had an image of man-bites-dog, of a fish out of water. It’s still something of an oddity, the sporting world’s ultimate example of gender role reversal. Perhaps that’s because it’s very difficult for the average guy to accept the notion of a woman, any woman, who might be able to beat him up in the ring. Even if the woman in question has regal bloodlines and a determination to uphold and the legacy of her world-renowned male forebear.
On Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia, history of sorts again will be made when the Honorable Jacqui Frazier-Lyde, 52, who sits on the Municipal Court bench in her hometown, is officially inducted into the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame. Already part of the first father-daughter combination to win professional boxing championships, Frazier-Lyde is the first woman to be so honored by the PBHOF, joining her late father, former heavyweight champ “Smokin’” Joe Frazier, and her brother, onetime heavyweight contender Marvis Frazier. Ten days earlier, “Sister Smoke” was recognized during a similar ceremony in Philly’s City Hall.
“I always expect the impossible (to happen),” the perpetually effervescent Frazier-Lyde said of the improbable fistic adventure she never expected to undertake until fate and family pride stepped in. “I’m a total optimist. To walk the path of life that I’ve been on, I’m just a very blessed person. I try to share that with everyone, everywhere.”
Frazier-Lyde retired from boxing in the fall of 2004, with a 13-1 record that included nine victories inside the distance. Along the way she captured titles from one sanctioning organization or another as a super middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight. But she always will be known more for the one bout she lost than for all those she won, because of who she and her younger antagonist are. Their surnames were their express tickets to fame and fortune.
It almost had to be that way, didn’t it, when one fighter’s father is Muhammad Ali and the other’s is Joe Frazier? On the date Laila and Jacqui finally squared off, June 8, 2001, at the Turning Stone Casino Resort in Verona, N.Y. – the first female bout to headline a pay-per-view card – a curious crowd of 6,500 showed up for what was billed as “Ali-Frazier IV,” the distaff extension of the epic trilogy involving their celebrated dads. Also in the house was a media throng of 300-plus from around the world.
What everyone saw is still a matter of some debate. Laila Ali, at 23, was cover-girl pretty, relatively fluid of movement and disposed to make the fight at a distance of her choosing. Frazier-Lyde, a former star basketball player at American University, was a 37-year-old mother of three who lacked Smokin’ Joe’s pulverizing left hook but relentlessly bore in on Ali as her father had in his three wars with “The Greatest,” trying and often succeeding in her attempts to turn the fight into a brawl at close quarters.
Through all eight scheduled rounds they hurled themselves at one another, and at the final bell Ali was bleeding from the nose while Frazier-Lyde had a puffy eye. Judge Tommy Hicks saw it as a 76-76 standoff, but Ali came away with a majority decision when Hicks’ cohorts, Frankie Adams and Don Ackerman, submitted scorecards favoring the younger fighter by respective margins of 79-73 and 77-75.
Veteran boxing analyst Al Bernstein, who did the postfight interviews, said Ali vs. Frazier-Lyde had not been the sideshow many had predicted it would be.
“It was fun,” Bernstein assessed afterward. “Both women showed grit and determination. They are in the embryonic stages of their boxing careers, sure, but they gave it everything they had and you can’t ask for much more than that. Are there better women boxers? Yes. Would I just as soon see Christy Martin and Lucia Rijker fight? Yes. But this was fun, and it was hardly a travesty.
“They’re obviously their fathers’ daughters.”
Others were less complimentary of what had taken place, just as the prevailing sentiment going in was that it was much ado about nothing. Jay Larkin, Showtime’s senior vice president of sports and event programming, derided the matchup as “a spectacle that has appealed to the paparazzi mentality. Women’s boxing has a hard enough time gaining credibility. This isn’t going to help.” Added longtime HBO Sports analyst Larry Merchant: “I wouldn’t spend 15 cents to see it. (The PPV subscription fee was $24.95.). To me, it’s like a stupid pet trick.”
Fightnews.com straddled the fence, on the one hand noting that that two of Ali’s defeated opponents were a steakhouse waitress and a 48-year-old former prostitute, while the seven women Frazier-Lyde had blown through on her way to Laila had all of two wins, total. But in its report on what had taken place inside the ropes, the respected web site conceded that the action was “so wild and thrilling that even the staunchest opponent of women’s boxing couldn’t possibly deny the excitement.”
Me? Writing in the Philadelphia Daily News, I allowed that although it wasn’t a reprise of the “Thrilla in Manila,” neither had it been the “Groaner in Verona.”
All that remained was for Laila and Jacqui to do it again, and maybe even a third time as their fathers had. But, alas, their rivalry proved to be a one-and-done. Laila’s then-husband and manager, Johnny “Yah-Yah” McClain, said his wife was going to “go after fresh meat” and there was no need for Laila to mix it up with Jacqui again.
Thirteen years later, Frazier-Lyde said that explanation still doesn’t wash, at least to her way of thinking.
“I broke her left clavicle. She was out of boxing for a whole year,” Frazier-Lyde said of Ali. “I went on to win a world championship and she went to the hospital, OK? While they were trying to put her back together again, I went on to win a championship. I don’t have to try to explain anything. It speaks for itself.
“If somebody had broken my left clavicle, I don’t think I’d be trying to dance with her again. That’s why she went on `Dancing With The Stars’ instead.”
For better or worse, I feel as I have some sort of proprietary attachment to Ali-Frazier IV. I was there with 25 or so other inquiring media minds at the Turning Stone when Laila, who was only eight years old when her father and the third of his four wives, Veronica, divorced, turned pro on Oct. 8, 1989. In possibly the biggest mismatch in the checkered history of women’s boxing, Ali needed just 31 seconds to take out a nervous and clearly terrified waitress named April Fowler, who never even threw a punch. As Fowler was counted out, Ali postured over her, striking the memorable pose her father had for his controversial one-round KO of Sonny Liston in their May 25, 1965, rematch in Lewistown, Maine.
Fowler, who soon after “retired” from boxing with an 0-2 record, headed home to Michigan City, Ind., to work the dinner shift at Ye Olde Benny’s Steak House. Ali dismissed any criticism leveled at her for picking such a ridiculously soft touch for her debut by haughtily saying, “It doesn’t matter who you put in the ring. I’m knocking them out.”
Ali’s mother, Veronica Ali Anderson, was at ringside for the brief, one-sided skirmish and voiced her approval to what she had just seen, which, she claimed, she had seen before from her then-husband: “It was like history repeating itself.”
A few days later, I phoned Frazier-Lyde, a practicing attorney with a law degree from Villanova University who spoke three languages (English, Spanish and French), to ask her thoughts on a daughter of Muhammad Ali getting into same profession that had made Ali’s and Jacqui’s pops such legendary figures. I figured it’d be worth a line or two in a notes column.
“I read where (Laila) said nobody could take her power, that she’d knock everybody out,” Frazier-Lyde responded. “But I don’t know about that. I can’t imagine her knocking me out.
“I love the power aspect of boxing, of sports in general. (In addition to basketball, Jacqui had at various times also competed in lacrosse, hockey and softball.) “Maybe I got that from watching my father. You know, everyone in my family said that if I had been a boy, I would have been a champion boxer. Actually, we’re all pretty athletic. I just have the biggest mouth.”
And then Frazier-Lyde uttered the words that set everything into motion, once those words appeared in print.
“If Laila Ali wants a piece of me, I’ll kick her ass.”
That very afternoon, or maybe it was the next day, the 5’9” Frazier-Lyde, then 210 pounds, began training to take off the 45 pounds or so she had gained from having her babies and living the less physically demanding lifestyle of a courtroom litigator. Her goal: an eventual showdown with Laila, which she said would be the equivalent of the 15th round that Smokin’ Joe never got to fight in his unforgettable rubber match against Muhammad Ali in Quezon City, the Philippines, on Oct. 1, 1975.
On Feb. 6, 2000, in Scranton, Pa., the slimmed-down, toned-up Frazier-Ali turned pro against Teela Reese, who had had the temerity to say this, when asked about Jaqui’s father: “The name doesn’t mean anything to me. He’s just another guy.” Frazier-Lyde then proceeded to do unto Reese, 20, what Laila had done to Fowler, winning on a first-round knockout.
It was inevitable, of course, that Ali and Frazier-Lyde would clash at some point, and that there would be verbal fireworks in the lead-up to that battle of the celebrity daughters. The surprise, at least to those who did not know Jacqui, was that it was Smokin’ Joe’s kid who would supply the juiciest comments.
At a joint press conference in Philadelphia, the surprisingly taciturn Ali said, “Anyone who’s seen me before knows that when it’s fight time, I don’t have much to say. I’m Muhammad Ali’s daughter, but my father and I are very different in that area. I don’t necessarily try to 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. It’s not scripted.” She also admitted that Frazier-Lyde is “the first opponent that I really could not stand.”
Frazier-Lyde, standing nearby, was quick with the sort of snappy retort that her father was less adept at delivering than his wrecking-ball left hook.
“You won’t be standing,” she said. “You’re right about that, baby. You’ll be on your butt.”
Ali and Frazier-Lyde generated enough buzz that they appeared on that week’s cover of TV Guide. Ali entered the ring with a 9-0 record and eight KOs; Frazier-Lyde at 7-0 with seven stoppages. It was reported that each woman was guaranteed a minimum of $100,000, a queen’s ransom for women’s boxing then and now, with their purses escalating to as high as $250,000 if PPV projections were met, and they very well might have been.
Women’s boxing remains an afterthought in the minds of many fight fans. A proposed matchup of Rijker and Martin – promoter Bob Arum was going to pay each $250,000, with an additional $750,000 going to the winner – was scheduled to take place three weeks after the DVD release of the Academy Award-winning Million Baby Baby. But that fight never took place because Rijker tore her Achilles’ tendon and never fought again.
Ali-Frazier IV remains the most publicized, most-talked-about, biggest-money women’s fight ever. And whether they care to admit it or not, the Cecilia Braekhuses and Anne Sophie Mathises, the best of today’s female fighters, owe them a debt of gratitude for demonstrating that, as is often the case in men’s boxing, the sizzle often is as important as the steak.
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