By Greg Carannante
City & Shore Magazine
Laila Ali still dazzles you with the fire of a fighter. It’s been just over 10 years since she hung up her gloves, but you can still hear it her voice and feel its heat in the way she attacks the more recent rounds of her life.
From TV personality to health guru to inspirational speaker (which brings her to the Broward College Speaker Series, sponsored by City & Shore Magazine, on March 27), she’s managed to forge a persona that steps out even from under the shadow of Muhammad Ali. When your father is universally known as The Greatest, that’s some mighty fancy footwork.
And, though she recently turned 40, even the prospect of getting back in the ring is not out of the question for the four-time world champ who was undefeated with 21 knockouts in 24 bouts.
“I would never say never,” she told City & Shore recently. “But I’m really retired from boxing and have moved on to other interests in my life.”
And quite an array they are, including: mother of two young boys; appearances on Celebrity Apprentice and Dancing With the Stars; the Laila Ali Lifestyle podcast and brand of hair and skin-care products; charitable work for Feeding America and Peace 4 Kids; and her just-published cookbook, Food for Life, which is where our conversation began, the day after Martin Luther King Day.
If you were writing a review of your new book, what would it say?
That you can tell it’s not something I just slapped my name on. I’ve been working on it for over a year. Cooking is something I’ve been doing since I was 9 or 10 years old. The recipes reflect a lot of soul and heart and flavor — everything that the book says it’s going to be.
Food for Life — that’s saying a lot.
When I came up with the title, it’s really about food that you can eat for the rest of your life. There’s a lot of clutter out there as far as different eating styles and people are really overwhelmed. The book really brings things back to basics. The focus is eating clean, nutritious food — not any one style of eating — and also the idea that food is actually what creates life. When you eat food, that’s what breaks down into the nutrition that turns into the cells that turn into your hair and your organs. So I thought Food for Life was the perfect name.
You’ve had so many challenges. What’s your secret for handling them all?
It comes down to having a winning mindset. I have faith in knowing things ultimately go the way they’re supposed to. I’m very confident in all that I do because I prepare myself. You’ve got to be willing to put in the hard work because you have to be passionate about what you do. That passion is what drives you through. I learned that through boxing.
Yes, that sounds like it comes from training.
Yeah, because that was the first thing in my life I truly loved and was willing to do what I had to do to be successful. And that’s when I first felt pain, felt like quitting — but that passion is what drove me. Once you have that experience, you can apply that to every area in your life. And if you haven’t had the opportunity to feel those things, it’s nice to have someone like me to explain it to you so you don’t have to go through what I went through. [Laughs.] Don’t go trying to get in the boxing ring now. I took the beating for you. [Laughs.]
Thank you for that. Your blog post yesterday on MLK Day was The Power of Forgiveness. Is that what Dr. King’s legacy means to you?
The power of forgiveness is the sooner we can grasp that and incorporate it into our lives, the better. Harboring hate is very toxic. To forgive someone is a way of releasing yourself and creating more positive energy in the world. That’s something I learned from not only Dr. King, but also my father — people who have a lot of reasons to forgive somebody for things way worse than we complain about in our everyday lives. So if they can do it, I don’t see why we can’t.
Is there something or someone you’ve had to forgive that you can share with us?
Well, I’ve had to forgive many things in life. I always try to figure out what I could have done differently and not play the victim. Because there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Even if I don’t reach it in this lifetime, it’s coming.
Is there something specific that you can offer as a lesson?
Yeah, I was trying to tiptoe around that but I guess you’re still going to corner me and ask me the question again. [Laughs.] Let me think of something recent. It could be something as small as road rage. The other day I was stopped at a four-way stop sign and this girl was coming down the street and she just tapped her brake and I’m thinking she’s getting ready to stop so I can go but she just turned right in front of me. It pissed me off so much.
And I was just thinking: What would she do if I just turned down the street and came up to her as myself, Laila Ali, and said, ‘Excuse me, how very rude of you to not stop.’ It took me about 15 minutes to get over that, because it could have caused an accident and I had kids in the car. But it was over and I had to say to myself: Just let it go. You can’t change what other people do. The only thing you can do is control yourself.
Is there a scenario that would at least get you thinking about stepping back in the ring?
That’s not really something I’m interested in, but anything is possible. I would never say never. But I’m really retired from boxing and have moved on to other interests in my life. But, you know, once an athlete always an athlete.
You think you could still do it?
Oh, definitely. But there’s nobody worth me coming back to fight that would actually give me a challenge.
There’s so much excitement about women’s empowerment now. Is this maybe the time for boxing’s Battle of the Sexes?
No, there’ll never be a time for that. Are there men that women can beat? For sure. I’ve beat up a lot of men in my life — all I could spar with was men. Men naturally will always be stronger than women, pound for pound, and that’s really what it comes down to. A super middleweight is up to 168 pounds, so a 168-pound man is always going to be stronger than a 168-pound woman. It just wouldn’t be a fair fight, so I’ve never been an advocate for that. And even with Billie Jean [King], she played a much older Bobby Riggs. Who knows what the outcome would have been if he was younger.
Suppose it were an older man in the ring?
Then it’s no fun. That would be working too hard to try to prove something. I’m not a feminist. I definitely am pro-woman and love being strong, but I am very equally balanced in my mind about the power of men and women, being different but equal. I don’t ever feel like I have to prove I’m better than a man. We need to stop dividing ourselves and think about how we can work together as a team.
That’s a beautiful answer, thank you.
Thank you. And I’m not saying that just for now. You will never read anywhere where I’ve been a woman who’s like, ‘Women this and women that.’ I am so confident in my own skin as a woman that I don’t need to state that I’m a woman. It’s obvious that I’m a woman, it’s obvious that I’m powerful, that I’m a wife and a mom and I can kick your ass in the ring. I don’t need to say it. [Laughs.]
Now that some time’s passed, is there a special memory of your father you’d like to share?
There’s so many. My father loved people. I just remember growing up, as famous as he is, he always took the time to stop and look people in the eye and make them feel special. And he especially paid attention to the people who thought he wasn’t paying any attention to them at all — the waitresses, bus drivers, janitors. So I grew up understanding the importance of everybody being on the same level, regardless of their socioeconomic status or their race or religion.
Laila Ali will speak on “Finding Inspiration Against All Odds” at 7:30 p.m. at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets are $60 at BrowardCollegeSpeakerSeries.com.