Laila Ali strapped on gloves for the first time about eight years ago. Since then, women’s boxing has evolved from a few obscure exhibitions to a legitimate, big-business sport that headlines pay-per-view specials.
Ali has spent her entire career fighting to get out of the shadow of the greatest boxer of all time. But now, the youngest daughter of ring legend Muhammad Ali and humanitarian Veronica Porsche Anderson is the best female boxer in the world. Although she inherited her father’s confidence, quickness and stiff jab, she’s won each of her 23 contests—including 20 KOs—on her own merits.
Long before the 5’10” slugger tested her punch on the canvas, Laila was living out her entrepreneurial dream. Armed with the morals, drive and lessons learned from both her parents, she had her own business, was earning a degree and was on course for greatness. Then the fighting bug bit. Shifting gears, Laila prepped for her first fight by training and sparring with a vengeance. On Oct. 8, 1999, she earned her first victory in just 31 seconds with a convincing knockout of April Fowler. Most of Laila’s bouts since then have followed the same script, and she remains unbeaten.
Laila speaks on women’s boxing, how she ended up in the ring and why she’s grateful for everything both of her parents passed down to her.
STACK: What kind of interests did you have growing up? Did you play many sports?
ALI: I didn’t play any sports until I started fighting. I was never interested in team sports, and my parents never pushed me in that direction. I wish they would have, because I probably would have been successful if I had gotten involved.
Since sports weren’t part of your childhood, how did you spend your time?
ALI: I was just like any other child, but more focused on what I was going to do to make money. I was always ambitious and wanted to be an entrepreneur. That’s what I was thinking about when everybody else was having fun and partying; I was planning my future. I partied a little bit, but it was never my main concern like it is for a lot of teens.
When did getting in the ring first cross your mind?
ALI: I was 18, and I saw women’s boxing on television for the first time. It was the undercard on a Tyson fight. As soon as I saw it, I wanted to start, but I didn’t until about a year later. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to drop everything to start doing that. I was in school for business and I owned a nail salon, so at first it was just a thought. I like to stick with my goals until I attain them, so I wasn’t sure that I could drop everything I’d been working on, which is why I didn’t start boxing right away.
Once you made your decision, did your family and friends support you or think you were crazy?
ALI: The people who knew me well didn’t think I was crazy, because they knew it was right up my alley. I don’t think anyone was thrilled about my doing it, because it’s a dangerous sport. And since it was new territory, nobody really pushed me. I was my own driving force.
Who were your biggest influences growing up?
ALI: My father and my mother. They led by example, which is how I learned my values and morals.
What was the most important lesson they taught you?
ALI: Not stepping on others to get ahead. Just do things the proper way.
Describe how you felt as you walked toward the ring for your first fight.
ALI: Obviously there was a lot of anxiety. But I felt confident, and I knew I had worked hard and trained right, so I was ready to go in there and execute. That’s all.
What is your most memorable moment in the ring?
ALI: Probably when I fought Jackie Frazier, Joe Frazier’s daughter. The fight was much tougher than I expected. There was so much energy from the crowd—both Frazier and Ali fans were going crazy. Both of us were in there fighting our hearts out.
Talk about your training regimen heading into a fight.
ALI: I usually go into training camp about eight weeks before a fight. I shut down everything else and just focus on fighting. I run in the morning, and then head to the boxing gym to spar in the afternoon. I weight train in the evening three to four times a week. Everything is very intense, and all I do is train.
What are your biggest weapons as a boxer, or as an athlete in general?
ALI: My confidence is number one—just a very strong belief in myself. Next is the fact that I am a hard worker. I will outwork anyone in the gym. I have very high expectations of myself, so I am always going to be working on my craft. Finally, I am blessed with God-given ability.
Do you credit your father for that sense of confidence?
ALI: Everything I just mentioned came from my father and mother. Everybody knows my father, so they always assume my qualities are from him. But my mother has those same qualities.
What were some of the main obstacles you had to overcome?
ALI: The biggest thing was all the attention on me when I was still learning, because of who my father is. Most fighters, like Muhammad Ali, Oscar de la Hoya and Floyd Mayweather, got to learn and come up before they were famous and before people started watching them; but a microscope has been on me from day one in the gym.
How has women’s boxing changed since you entered the ring, and how much credit do you take for any of the changes?
ALI: No doubt it has changed. There’s a lot more awareness, and more people have been introduced to the sport. Early on, many people didn’t even know about women’s boxing, because it was poorly promoted. A lot of people thought women had to look a certain way to box—like they had to be butch or unattractive to be fighters. There is a new breed of female fighters who are athletic, but don’t necessarily fit that look. More women have entered the sport because they see that they can be successful and make money doing it, which has increased the level of boxing and made more people aware of it.
How do you want people to remember you as a boxer?
ALI: Just for what I am—one of the best fighters and a world champion. Boxing won’t define me as who I am, so that’s all I can say about my boxing legacy. There will be a whole lot more to come—outside of the ring. But strictly as a boxer, I just want to be the best female fighter.
What are some of your goals for the next few years?
ALI: Right now, I’m focused on the ring. Outside of that, I want to do some motivational speaking and get into other types of business. I don’t have anything exactly mapped out yet.
Based on your experiences, what advice do you offer a high school athlete or young person in general?
ALI: Always stay focused, prepare yourself to work harder than everybody else, and don’t get caught up with what everybody else is doing. The whole peer pressure thing is a big problem for high schoolers and young adults. Certain people want to bring you down with them, because they don’t want to go down alone. Realize that it’s normal for somebody who wants to go far in life to be home while everybody else is out having fun. You have to stay out of trouble and save your energy for your sport or whatever you are trying to do.