Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Boxing [Print without images]

Tuesday, August 1, 2006
Wolfe's for real in ring and has compassion outside it

By Joe Tessitore
Special to ESPN.com

Ann Wolfe knows a lot about life. But she doesn't know how to be a fake. On "Friday Night Fights" (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET) from Memphis, Tenn., we once again get to visit with her and appreciate just how real she is.

Ann Wolfe
Wolfe

At 34, Wolfe (23-1, 16 KOs) has spent the past few years recognized as arguably the best female fighter in the world. It's a tag that comes with pride and pain, but it doesn't come with much satisfaction or cash.

She doesn't have Anna Kournikova's sex appeal. She doesn't have Michelle Wie's child-prodigy status. And she surely doesn't have Laila Ali's silver-spoon last name or marketability. It's sad to say, but it seems those characteristics -- rather than winning and character -- are still the easiest way to strike fame and fortune as a female athlete in this supposedly evolved sports society.

"I still want the Laila Ali fight, but I will not let it define my life," Wolfe said.

Laila Ali
Ali

It has hardly defined her life, but the yet-to-materialize women's super-fight is starting to define her ring legacy. It's tough to have a women's boxing conversation that doesn't include the topic of Laila Ali ducking Ann Wolfe.

"I'm hoping to fight Ann Wolfe in November," Ali said on Friday. "If it's up to me, it's definitely going to take place."

Where Ali is sugar and spice and everything nice, Wolfe is just as her name surname suggests. She is a predator with speed, power and freakish muscularity. At 5-foot-10, the six-year pro middleweight has uncanny strength and a tremendous physical presence. I would give that description even if Wolfe were a male fighter. The fact that Wolfe is a woman makes her boxing's own special attraction.

Wolfe has lost only one fight in her career. It was 15 wins and six years ago on a night when she dropped Valerie Mahfood in the first round only to get caught by a punch in the third that ended it. Aggressive boxers get caught with punches. It happens. It hasn't happened again. My bet is, now that she has matured in the ring, it never will. Ann Wolfe is a forged-steel-tough pro.

"I'm not afraid to lose," she said. "A real warrior knows when they go to war you may lose. All of our troops in the Middle East know they may not come home. Laila Ali needs to step up to the plate and be a true warrior. I don't care about losing."

The formula for Laila Ali seldom involves being a warrior. Often it focuses on car commercials, sports apparel ads and collecting site fees.

Laila is a naturally gifted athlete who has worked to hone her skills at the top level. But beyond that, you get the sense Ali's master plan has less to do with boxing than with maintaining her status as a boxer. It's as if being a boxer is an occupation Laila is required to hold in order to keep the label as Greatest of All Time, Part II.

"They all say they want to fight me, then make the excuse that with me, it's about the money," Ali says. "It's never about the money with me. I could fight a bum and still get paid. People think that she can beat me; I want the challenge, I want the bragging rights."

But if it's not about the money, then why not pay Wolfe what it takes to make the fight?

The apple that fell from Muhammad Ali's tree didn't fall far enough. If it did, maybe Laila would have had the hunger to simply fight and not let business plans get in the way of her own legacy.

"We've offered her $500,000, more money than she has ever made in the ring before," a frustrated Wolfe said. "I'd rather work construction than be disrespected by Laila Ali. Why doesn't she fight me? And we will give all the money to a battered-women's shelter."

Anne Wolfe
Anne Wolfe (right) is 23-1 with 16 KOs, and has been recognized as arguably the best female fighter in the world.

Yes, Wolfe has a great sense of helping others. Maybe it's because there was a time in her life when she could have used so much help.

The scars are abundant. Wolfe was molested as a preteen, she said. She was a dropout unable to read or write when her mom died. That same year, she said, her father was killed. Her brother was also killed in an attempted robbery. Another is serving a life sentence.

In 1990, she too got tripped up by street life. It took four police officers to haul her in on a drug charge.

"I swung back and caught one," Wolfe said. "Another cop said, 'Take it easy, that's a female.' And the guy I hit said, 'That ain't no female. No woman in the world hits like that.'"

She served 18 months. After that, living a straight life didn't come easy. With two young daughters, Wolfe tried to provide in any way she could. The result was a year spent working construction during the day and being homeless through the night. Wolfe and her daughters lived under a boat in a desolate parking lot, she said.

Then one day she saw a female fight on TV. An inspired Wolfe made her way to the Texas Park and Recreations gym in Austin. Her fighting style was clear from the start: Wolfe was a brawler.

That raw aggression and power has never left her. This week it will be on display against Virginia's Lisa Ested (10-4, 5 KOs). If there is a part of you that already feels sorry for Lisa, you are not alone.

"When I get in that ring I have no compassion for my opponent," Wolfe said. "That's how I feed my family."

Her compassion is reserved for outside the ring. Eight days before she was set to star on ESPN, her fight preparation started at 5 a.m. She wasn't hitting the bag or doing road work; that will come later in the day. The crack-of-dawn wake-up call was for picking up her amateur fighters. On this day, she is bringing 15 of them to the Texas State Games. They have gone through tournaments sharing two trunks and two pairs of gloves. And most of the time, they dominate.

"Every day, I pick the kids up," Wolfe said. "If they're hungry, I try to get them food. If they need anything, I try to help. I would give up any of my fights to make sure they could fight."

Wolfe is a believer in boxing. She never misses a "Friday Night Fights" broadcast and, like Teddy Atlas, she enjoys most the impact boxing can have in changing a life.

"I teach my kids how to treat women and how to have a man treat you like another man," Wolfe said. "When you go to my gym, you'll see 60-year-old women working out, teaching 16-year-old boys how to be respectful."

You know, I think Ann Wolfe is right. She doesn't need a Laila Ali fight to define her.

Joe Tessitore is the blow-by-blow announcer on ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights."