Laila Ali, the undefeated women’s boxing champion and daughter of boxing legend Muhammad Ali, joined athletes Terry Bradshaw and Shaquille O’Neil, religious and political leaders Will Graham, Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani as the keynote speaker at the Forcht Excellence in Leadership Series of speakers at the University of the Cumberlands Tuesday night.
Ali, who has gone on to host sports and television shows, told the audience that her passion has been the driving force in her endeavors, whether it was in the ring, in front of the camera, or as she moves into the business of helping people lead healthier lifestyles.
As a child, Ali said she understood that her father was a boxer, but didn’t understand why he was so famous.
“My father had an open door policy at our house in Los Angeles,” Ali said, noting that among the people that frequently walked through the door were pop music icons Michael Jackson and Prince.
While she and her father did not always see eye-to-eye, Ali told the audience that she frequently saw him doing whatever he could to put a smile on people’s faces, whether it was through magic tricks, signing autographs or handing out money to those in need. “He never turned away a request for an autograph,” Laila said of her father explaining that he once told her, ‘Imagine how disappointed you would be if you were the person at the end of the line.’”
Even when she was old enough to understand what Muhammad Ali really did, and what he meant to the world, Ali said she didn’t set out to become a boxer.
That was until at age 17 when she was watching a pay-per-view boxing event, and a women’s’ fight was shown.
“I had not played sports before that, but I was hooked,” Ali said. “I didn’t know what it would take, and I spent the next year fighting self doubt.”
Instead of going to her father, Ali went to the gym to train and, three months later began sparring.
“I dropped a guy in the gym,” Ali said, explaining that word quickly spread through the gym that she had knocked this guy out.
Before she could go further, Ali decided she needed to tell her father about her career choice.
“I knew he would try to talk me out of it,” Ali said. “I knew the pressure I would be under, being his daughter.”
In the conversation, Ali said her father asked her what she would do if she got knocked down?
“I told him, ‘I will do what you did. I will get back up,’” Ali said. He then asked what she would do if she were knocked out.
“I said, ‘I will ask for a rematch,’” she said.
Ali said her father then talked about how boxing was too hard, and that it was not for women, but her mind was made up.
Being who she was, Ali went on national television to announce that she would be turning pro.
“People thought it was a publicity stunt,” Ali said.
When she got in the ring for the first fight, Ali said she was ready.
“I wanted to tear her head off,” Ali said of her opponent, adding that she was mad when she knocked her out in the first round.
However, she eventually saw it as a win-win as it was like getting your work done before lunch and getting to go home early and still get paid for the whole day.
When she retired from boxing at age 30, Ali had compiled a record of 24-0 with 21 knockouts.
“The times I didn’t get the knockout, I was upset,” Ali said.
Ali said her dad, who was in the advanced stages of his battle with Parkinson’s Disease, came to about half of her fights.
“He was getting sicker, but when the crowd would start chanting his name, he would just light up,” Ali said.
Ali said Muhammad later apologized for doubting her dedication and determination.
“It was an amazing moment for me,” Ali said. It allowed the two to connect on a whole different level.
Ali said since retiring from boxing she has continued to search for her new passion.
“I spent five years trying to figure it out,” Ali said, explaining that while she enjoyed working in television it didn’t give her a sense of fulfillment.
That has led her to developing her own lifestyle brand.
“I wanted to do something to give back,” Ali said.