Growing up in the shadow of Muhammad Ali, one of boxing’s most colorful and controversial legends, Laila Ali has managed to carve out her own niche in the often brutal world of sports and entertainment.
Against the wishes of her famous father, Ali made her ring debut at 21 and was crowned IBA, WIBA and IWBF Super Middleweight champion in 2002. She retired, undefeated, in 2007 and deftly moved from the ring to a promising career in television. She now co-hosts a weekly lifestyle show, Everyday Health, and recently provided commentary on the first women’s boxing competition at the London Olympic Games. She’s also featured in a new NBC reality series, Stars Earn Stripes, which debuted in August.
Ali, 34, lives with her husband, former NFL receiver Curtis Conway, and their two young children in Los Angeles. We caught up with her at our cover shoot there to get her insights on strength, courage and the delicate art of choosing your battles wisely.
EL Your dad, Muhammad Ali, didn’t approve when you first became a boxer. How did you weigh his concerns against your desire to box?
LA Obviously, my dad was out in the world and he was a big deal, but to me he was just Dad. So how he felt wasn’t any different than how my mom felt. I did respect the fact that he was a fighter, and that was his sport, and he left his mark and, of course, he didn’t want anyone in the family to come behind him and tarnish his legacy. But he already knew I was going to do what I wanted to do.
EL | We know you don’t like to talk a lot about your own former boxing career these days, but we have to ask: Have you ever been hurt in the ring? How do you take those blows and keep on going?
LA | As fighters, most of the shots that we get hit with in the ring don’t hurt, but every once in a while you get hit with a hard shot that’s timed perfectly. Early in my career, I fought this girl who was bigger and stronger than me, and I remember getting hit hard for the first time and getting dazed and wondering, “Is this what being knocked out is like?” You just deal with the impact and keep going.
EL | But you’re saying those punches don’t hurt?
LA | It’s because your adrenaline is pumping. You feel it a little bit, of course. It’s hard to explain to someone who’s not a fighter. The punches that I’m talking about that don’t hurt me would probably hurt you.
EL | Yeah, that’s an understatement. Are there any lessons you’ve learned in the ring that apply to everyday life?
LA | I just think that, no matter what it is you’re doing in life, you’ve got to be realistic in assessing how much time and energy and focus it’s going to take. You’ve got to decide if you really want it bad enough. Once you know it’s something that you really want, then you’ve got to be 100 percent committed, and stick with it through the good and the bad times. My confidence comes from preparation. I just believe in preparing yourself; then, when the opportunity arises, you’ll be ready.
EL | You had an undefeated career before retiring in 2007. Did you have a plan for what you wanted to do after that?
LA | No, not really. I just kind of went with the flow, and it worked out because I was already pretty clear about my interests. I’ve always wanted to have a lifestyle brand, and that’s what I’m doing now. I have my own line of hair-care and skin-care products. I also have a passion for cooking, so I’m coming out with my own food products, a healthier version than stuff that’s currently available on the market. I just knew that’s what I wanted to do.
EL | You’ve also moved into television. Can you tell me a little about your recent reality show?
LA | Stars Earn Stripes was a show created to pay homage to our military servicemen, and to show civilians what these people do for us on a daily basis. Eight celebrities were paired with eight different military operatives. They had to train us and then we were given missions. And every mission that we won, we raised money for our charity of choice, which, for me, was a military first-responder charity. It was a lot of fun, action packed. What was different about the show was that we actually used live ammunition and did all these crazy missions. Jumped out of helicopters into the water fully geared and all kinds of crazy stuff that I never even thought I would do.
EL | Given everything else you are doing, how do you find the time and energy to raise two young children?
LA | I’m just very focused on my kids; they come first. You know, you have to really plan your life around them, and I’m very hands-on with my kids. Every decision I make, I have them in mind, and I think I’m a little more patient than I was. As a parent, you have to be. It’s just not about me anymore.
EL | Any chance your kids are going to grow up to be boxers?
LA | I already know that I don’t want my kids to box, so I totally understand where my dad was coming from. Because, as a fighter, you know how dangerous it is and how hard it is. Ultimately, I’m hoping they choose something else. But that’s not going to be my choice to make.
EL | Were there any strengths or talents that you discovered when you became a parent that you didn’t know you had?
LA | I’m pretty confident, and I felt like I was going to be a good mom because I’m naturally very nurturing. Everyone jokes with me these days, like, “Now you’ve got your own babies,” because in truth, I’m always kind of trying to take care of everybody. I’m basically like a mama bear; I’m going to fight your fight for you.
EL | How do you balance all that taking care of others with taking care of yourself? How do you keep up your own strength?
LA | Well, I have a husband now who I can vent to and all of that, and that support counts for a lot. But at the end of the day, I feel like I’m always strong regardless. It’s just in me.