Editor’s note: From TV personality to health guru to inspirational speaker, Laila Ali has managed to forge a persona that steps out even from under the shadow of her late father, boxing great Muhammad Ali. Ali spoke about her relationship with her dad Tuesday night as part of the Broward College Speaker Series at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, sponsored by City & Shore magazine. Ali revealed that her father was not happy about her decision in 1999 at age 21 to box professionally – and that he tried to talk her out of it. Edited excerpts of what happened next follow.
“News started kind of getting around, I started sparring and getting into the ring and people started to talk. And I remember my dad coming into town, who I hadn’t told that I had decided to box. This was about six months in [to my training]. He says, you know, ‘I hear you’re boxing.’ And I was like, ‘yeah, Dad, it’s true.’ I already knew he wasn’t going to approve of it, right? And so, he had this conversation with me, and he basically tried to talk me out of it, indirectly.
“‘What are you going to do with all the pressure that’s going to be on you?’ he said. ‘You know everyone’s going to be watching you.’
“Yeah, I know, I’ve thought it through and I’m preparing to deal with it, Dad.’
‘OK, what are you going to do if you get knocked down in the ring?’
‘I’m going to do what you did,’ I said. ‘I’m going to get back up.’
“He was getting more and more frustrated.
‘Well, what if you get knocked out?’
“And I said, ‘that shit’s not going to happen. But, if it does, I’m going to ask for a rematch.’
“So he got so frustrated, he finally said what was really on his mind:
‘It’s just too hard,’ he said. ‘It’s not for women, it’s a man’s sport.’
“I expected that he would feel that way. Women’s boxing wasn’t really mainstream, it wasn’t televised, I mean, this is a man who went through so much blood, sweat and tears in his boxing career, his whole history of not going to the Vietnam War and having his title stripped and the segregation and all these different things that he dealt with all the time in his career. And here’s his baby girl, in a grimy gym, sparring men, and going into this business with all these boxing promoters. He didn’t want that.
“So I said, ‘Dad, I understand, but this is what I want to do. This is what I want to do and what’s in my heart to do.’
“I had my pro debut in 1999,” she said. “My dad came, my dad supported me.”
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Years into her boxing career later, Laila says her dad came to see her after she’d won another fight.
“I told you, my father wasn’t necessarily happy with me fighting, but he supported me. And you see how happy I was [in a photo], having him kiss me on the cheek. And I felt the love. Because I had told myself I didn’t really care what he thought, because I had to have that tough exterior, that I was going to do this with-or-without kind of attitude. Because when you go into that ring, it’s just you. It’s not your team anymore. Not anyone who’s been in your ear. You have to go into that ring by yourself, relying on what you know – what comes naturally to you.
“So I remember after that fight, him coming to my dressing room, and saying, you know, ‘I want to talk to you.’ And I thought, oh, no, what now? Are we going to have another one of these talks?
“And he said, ‘I was wrong. You can fight. Women can fight. And you’re a good fighter.’
“And I just started crying. And it was crazy because I didn’t even realize how much I wanted to hear that from my dad.”
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“I’ve had an amazing team of people that have been in my corner along the way. But, ultimately, I had to make the decisions for myself. And the message I’m always sharing with people is, to go for it. Because I’ve seen so many individuals who have all these things they want to do in their heart but they have fear that holds them back. So I am definitely that friend who’s going to push and say, just go for it. What’s the worst that can happen? Of course be smart, be calculated, don’t just do anything without thinking. But sometimes we talk ourselves out of things.
“And I just remember, what if I’d listened to everyone who’d told me not to do something?”
PHOTO: Laila Ali and her father, Muhammad Ali, after she beat Suzy Taylor to win the IBA Super Middleweight title in 2002. (AP photo/ Joe Cavaretta