The daughter of the self-proclaimed ‘Greatest of All Time’ is serious about challenging the Greatest Woman of All-Time.
Whether just capitalizing on the hype that comes with a major fight week or finally ready to settle up a lengthy out-of-ring rivalry, unbeaten former super middleweight titlist Laila Ali has given serious consideration to returning to the ring to challenge current pound-for-pound queen Claressa Shields (10-0, 2KOs). The two have traded barbs through the media for a while, to the point of talks for a potential superfight to materialize in 2020.
Of course, that would require the second-generation boxer—who is the daughter of the late and legendary former three-time heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali—to lace ‘em up for the first time in 13 years.
“I would have to be inspired by the opponent,” Ali (24-0, 21KOs) told ESPN’s Max Kellerman during a recent segment of First Take when asked about considering a ring return. “I have to be inspired by the purse. I have multiple things going on, I have multiple streams of income. I don't HAVE to do it. I have to WANT to do it.
“Is [Shields that opponent]? Of course, especially that mouth. When it's personal, that starts a fire. When the money's right, when the money makes sense, then why not?”
The rivalry first materialized a couple of years ago, when Shields—a two-time Olympic Gold medalist and three-division titlist in the pro ranks—took exception to comments made by Ali, insisting they could just as easily take it to the ring to truly settle all differences.
Ali has insisted any such comments were taken out of context, having previously dismissed any thoughts of ending her retirement after walking away from the sport in 2007.
Her eight year career includes two of the biggest fights in the history of women’s boxing. Ali earned the hell out of an eight-round decision over Jacqui Frazier-Lyde—daughter of the late, great Joe Frazier—in a June 2001 war of a fight billed as “Ali-Frazier IV” in efforts to cash in on the famous trilogy produced by their legendary fighters. It worked at the box-office, with the low-budget pay-per-view event drawing 100,000 buys and with the in-ring action well worth the price of admission.
Two years later came Ali’s most iconic win, a four-round slaughter of trailblazing Christy Martin, who fought well beyond her prime fighting weight of 140-pounds for the sake of bringing to fruition their August 2003 superfight.
Ali walked away from the sport following a 1st round knockout of Gwendolyn O’Neil in February 2007. Her post-fight career has been spent as a model, actress and spokesperson for various products, rarely if ever looking back at a sport that helped build her brand but which was never meant to be her end game.
For the right price, however, it could be her next game.
“I love boxing. I always have... but boxing has inspired my Laila Ali boxing brand. I've been outside of the boxing gym but I've been in the gym ever since I've left,” notes Ali, now 42 and—by her own admission–closer to cruiserweight these days than the super middleweight mark at which she spent most of her career. “I've got nutrition products. I've got spice blends. I'm all about health and wellness.
“I'm very healthy and have I been sitting around, thinking about boxing? No. But, lately there has been a little chatter… [Shields] has been calling me out, has taken offense to things that I've said in the past that've had nothing to do with her.”
Recent social media trolling strongly suggests otherwise. Ali has made the rounds with Cecilia Braekhus (36-0, 9KOs), the unbeaten pound-for-pound entrant and long-reigning welterweight queen whose career began just as Ali’s ended. The two posed together for a selfie, which was taken by Ali and with Braekhus hailing the former champ as ‘the real GWOAT’, a clear shot at Shields who has anointed herself as such since turning pro in late 2016.
Many have taken issue with Shields’ brand of self-confidence, although it’s nearly impossible to dismiss her accomplishments. The unbeaten three-division champ from Flint, Michigan—who is a full 17 years Ali’s junior—is the only American boxer in history to have captured back-to-back Olympic Gold medals, doing so in London 2012 and Rio 2016.
From there has come an already historic pro career. Shields has captured titles at super middleweight, middleweight and junior middleweight—in that order—all in just 10 career fights, the fastest road traveled in boxing history to such a feat.
Shields soared to pound-for-pound prominence following her 10-round whitewash of Christina Hammer in their undisputed World middleweight championship clash last April in Atlantic City. If there was a downside to the event, it’s that it left her without a notable ring rival moving forward.
As much was evident in her lopsided win over Ivana Habazin this past January, a long-building grudge match which turned into a one-sided showcase for Shields. The best competition for the unbeaten boxer only remains in the pound-for-pound sense, and with her rivals in that regard—Braekhus, two-division and World lightweight champ Katie Taylor (15-0, 6KOs) and record-setting seven-division titlist Amanda Serrano (38-1-1, 28KOs)—all much smaller than Shields in physical stature.
Taylor and Serrano are heading to a likely superfight of their own in April, with Braekhus remaining keen on her own blockbuster showdown versus Taylor at a potential 140-pound catchweight.
That leaves Shields without a notable rival—unless of course, Ali is ready to put action behind her words, and a network or streaming service willing to put dollars behind such an event.
“I’m gonna walk through Laila Ali,” Shields insisted in reaction to social media commentary on Ali’s comments—fittingly as both are in Las Vegas for Saturday’s heavyweight title fight rematch between Deontay Wilder (42-0-1, 41KOs) and Tyson Fury (29-0-1, 20KOs). “I’m gonna hurt her! I’m tired of the talking and her hating!
“Fight me! I’m gonna show her why they call me the GWOAT ! Let’s go!”
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox