Editor’s Note: This story originally ran June of 2012. We are highlighting it again due to the recent passing of boxing legend Muhammad Ali. In this interview by Charles Hallman, Laila Ali talks about her famous father, as well as her own career goals and endeavors.
A famous parent sometimes can be an unfair-comparison chip on the shoulder of the offspring who goes into the same business. Expectedly, that was the case for Laila Ali, the second-youngest of Muhammad Ali’s nine children and the youngest daughter of Ali and her mother Veronica Porsche Anderson.
Laila chose boxing, the sport her dad became world-famous in, and over her eight-year career (1999 to 2007), she won each of her 24 bouts, with 21 knockouts. When she retired in 2007, she had won four super middleweight championship belts.
In a one-on-one interview with the MSR in Ann Arbor, Michigan prior to her scheduled May 9 keynote speech at the “Title IX at 40” national conference, Laila Ali candidly admits that growing up she never thought about sports, let alone going into the “sweet science” of boxing.
“I am not a real sports person, because I didn’t grow up with it in my household. My dad didn’t watch basketball or football. My mom wasn’t into it, and I wasn’t into it,” explains Ali, who was born in Miami, Florida.
“People think I had a silver spoon in my mouth. When my dad and my mom got divorced, I had a dysfunctional household with my mother. I literally had to raise myself.
“I made a lot of my own rules. That ended up with bad grades, bad choices, and juvenile hall. I didn’t want to be Muhammad Ali’s daughter. My attention wasn’t really focused in areas where it should have been. I had to go through that to get where I am now.”
Laila did turn things around, went to college and graduated from Santa Monica College with a business management degree. She once owned her own nail salon. “There are a lot of paths I could’ve taken,” she notes, “but I had to make the right decision for myself.” Fate brought her that “right decision” while she was watching television.
“I instantly realized I was excited that women [were] fighting. I wanted to do it even before they started fighting,” recalls Ali, who trained for at least a year before she got her first fight. “I wasn’t an athlete — I was an average girl. I wanted to learn and get better every day. I knew I would become a world champion.
“It was me and one other girl. One of us was going to win and one was going to lose, and it wasn’t going to be me.”
Now, Ali wears many hats: “I’m a very well-rounded person,” a fitness and wellness expert, businesswoman and television correspondent among other things. Her philanthropic efforts include AIDS research and awareness, hunger relief, and children’s health issues. But the wife and mother of two young children quickly points out, “Family comes first — when I say that, I mean it.
“I’ve got a one-year-old [son, Curtis, Jr.] and don’t want to be gone more than two nights. If I am, they got to come with me.” Ali also has a daughter, Sydney.
“I don’t want to miss out on my kids’ life. I don’t have a lot of memories of my childhood with my parents. You never will get that time back. I want to raise my children.
“It’s not easy. It’s a real juggling act. I can’t be Superwoman to everybody, so I have to pick my time carefully.”
Ali also is president of the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF), a girls-and-women-in-sport advocacy organization. She was first introduced to the group at an event and was impressed with its work with young girls in New York City. As a result, “I ended up on their board of trustees,” she says, adding that her messages go beyond sports.
“I do pay attention more to the problem we have with young kids and obesity, heart disease, and young girls getting pregnant and dropping out of school and not having confidence and self-respect, not having discipline and not having courage. My mission is just to spread the awareness about uplifting our kids, keeping them active and healthy…being good role models.”
She knows that young girls today, especially Blacks and other people of color, constantly receive mixed messages from people and media on how they should be. “We get caught up on having a certain car or purse, or just keeping up with the Joneses, and that’s not what matters.”
As co-chair of the WSF athlete advisory panel, Ali strongly advocates for the discipline and other skills sports can give young girls that can help them later in life. “I think that’s why a lot of women who play sports become lawyers and doctors and are more successful, because you get that structure growing up.”
During a question-and-answer period following her speech, asked if she would want her daughter to become a boxer, Ali responded, “I’m going to introduce my daughter to sports, [but] I’m not going to force her to be a professional [athlete].
“I love to box, but I don’t push girls into it,” said Ali. She instead tells young women to “box for fun, but don’t make a career out of it,” recommending they focus instead on getting an education.
Her father didn’t want her to box — Ali said they “butted heads” on many such things, including her not choosing Islam as her religion. However, he did support her choice and followed her career.
Now 70 years old, Muhammad Ali, who has Parkinson’s disease, “has his good days and bad days,” reports his daughter on her “iconic father… He’s still very strong mentally,” she says proudly.
Laila Ali has her own beauty and personal care products, Laila by Laila Ali, in department stores and specialty retailers from coast to coast. She has her own website and hopes to launch a signature line of fresh salsas, salad dressings, seasonings and marinades late this year. “Cooking is a passion of mine. I started cooking when I was 12.”
Also, “I want to be successful” in the nonprofit world, Ali says. “I’m really doing what I want to do, but I feel that there is a whole lot more that needs to be done. I really would like to make a difference in the world.
“What’s most near and dear to my heart is making the world a safer and better place for children, because they are so honest and pure. If you get them early, we can help them grow to be individuals that help make a difference in the world.
“No matter what I do, I’m always a sister. I’m just real all the time. I got that from my dad,” concludes Laila Ali, “Muhammad Ali’s daughter — the most famous beloved man in the world.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.