Born the daughter of “The Greatest of All Time,” Laila Ali was seemingly destined for greatness. By the time she turned 18, she was a business owner. With an undefeated record of 24-0 and five championships, Laila Ali would end up becoming one of the all-time greatest boxers. She would later author two books —Reach! Finding Strength, Spirit, and Personal Power (co-written by David Ritz) and Food for Life: Delicious & Healthy Comfort Food from My Table to Yours! — become the host of OWN’s Home Made Simple, and host numerous events, including the ESPN Humanitarian Awards.
From owning her own business as a teenager to becoming a world champion and a worldwide name, these accomplishments were not handed to Laila Ali. Though she takes a lot of pride in being Muhammed Ali’s daughter, Laila created her own success and walked her own path in life. She has a passion for promoting a healthy lifestyle and enjoys sharing her knowledge with others. This reporter recently spoke with Laila Ali, and we discussed her boxing career, the 2018 ESPN Humanitarian Awards, and her current passion, promoting eye health through Think About Your Eyes.
So excited for my second year with The Maxx You Project, a program designed to help women embrace their individuality with workshops and an online community. Maxx you with us at https://t.co/xnJfgLtrf8. #Ad pic.twitter.com/k0EzceateR
— Laila Ali (@TheRealLailaAli) June 22, 2018
Carter Lee: You’ve recently teamed up with Think About Your Eyes to spread awareness on the importance of a comprehensive eye exam. This is topical to me because I started wearing glasses not that long ago.
Laila Ali: I just started wearing glasses again too. I know first hand the impact that vision problems can have on our wellbeing. That’s why I partnered with Think About Your Eyes to encourage families to schedule annual comprehensive eye exams, especially in the summertime.
I wore glasses around age 11, and my experience was, I think, like most peoples. I started squinting in class, I started having trouble reading, my teacher moved me to the front and informed my mom that I needed to get my eyes checked. She had been pretty much relying just on the school exam, but so much can be missed. And that’s why it’s important to get a comprehensive eye exam every year. So, when she took me, we found out that I needed glasses.
I wore glasses, and then when I started boxing, I couldn’t wear glasses in the ring. I had to get my vision corrected, and for many years it was good. But recently, maybe over the last couple of years, I started having trouble seeing at night, squinting at night, and I went to get my eyes checked, and I had to get glasses again because it wasn’t something that could be corrected with vision correction. Now, I’m back in glasses after so many years of not having them. Our eyes always change, and that’s why I encourage people to not only take the kids but also to go themselves and get your eyes checked.
CL: It’s certainly important. Plus, glasses look cool. Right?
LA: They do, they do. People are wearing them now even without prescriptions.
CL: I’ve shaved my head for the last 21 years, and I’ve essentially looked the same. So, I welcome anything that makes this head look different. At what age, do you think, should people start really getting an all-around exam for their eyes?
LA: Well, what I learned, which was new for me, was that you should start taking your children as young as 6-months-old. People think, ‘How can you exam a baby?’ But they actually have exams specifically for babies. A lot of people haven’t, they missed that mark, and that’s okay. It’s never too late to go.
CL: Switching gears for a moment, tonight on ESPN, they’re going to be showing highlights of the Sports Humanitarian Awards, and you were heavily involved with that from my understanding. Tell us a little bit about what that was like.
LA: It was the fourth year of the ESPN Humanitarian Awards, and it was a time to highlight the athletes, the corporations, and individuals that are doing wonderful things to give back to the communities and using sports as a platform. It’s just an amazing night, and they have a Muhammed Ali Award that’s given, which is a true honor for my family, and I’m sure for the athlete that received the prestigious award as well. I had been hosting up until this year, I was mistress of ceremonies.
It was just a fun evening. There’s so much negativity in what we see going on in the news and what’s being reported, so it’s nice to see something positive for a change. The impact these athletes and corporations are having has been huge, so it’s always nice to highlight these people, and I think it also encourages and inspires others to follow suit. So, I’m happy and honored to continue being part of it.
Editor’s note: The humanitarian awards had not yet aired at the time of this interview. Kevin Durant received the Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian Award.
CL: That’s great. Speaking of boxing, I’m a huge fan of your career, and of course, your father’s career. I remember being very young and watching his last match with my father. That’s a very special memory to me. And like he did with the men’s division, you helped revolutionize the sport of women’s boxing. What I refer to as the golden age of women’s boxing, back when there was you, Christy Martin, and Lucia Rijker. I’m sure back then it was even more of a battle, but I feel like women’s sports in general still struggles to get the spotlight that they deserve. Boxing is struggling as a whole right now, but the women’s division seems to have fallen a bit since your retirement. Do you think we have improved as a society on how we perceive women’s sports?
LA: Well, two questions, asking about women’s sports in general and boxing. I think that women’s boxing has gotten some exposure because women’s boxing is now a part of the Olympics, which was not an option for me when I was fighting because there wasn’t women’s boxing in the Olympics. So, definitely, there’s been an improvement there. Of course, there’s not as many weight classes in the Olympics and we’d like to see more, but it’s nice to have a start because people are getting exposure, like Claressa Shields, who won the gold for the U.S. She’s been able to fight on television and get some exposure. You’ve got Katie Taylor from Ireland who is absolutely amazing. She’s doing really well. I think the more people see women in the ring with skills the more exposure it will get, but boxing is a little different than anything else. You know, people aren’t always going to be comfortable with boxing, and especially women’s boxing, so it’s not going to grow at the same rate, which is expected.
But women’s sport as a whole, the women are killing it. We’re playing every sport. I mean, you’ve got women playing football and hockey, boxing and wrestling, and doing everything. We’ve definitely shown that we’re able to do it.
I think it’s just going to take more time to see the sports grow as a whole. I’m not one to complain. How I went about my career was not feeling the pressure or feeling the weight on my shoulders. It was just more about focusing on my performance as an athlete, and I think at the end of the day, that’s what people want to see. They want to see you perform, they want to see you compete, and when you amaze them, they’re going to become a fan. That’s just the way it is, so that’s what we need to do. We need to keep being the best that we can be as athletes, not necessarily thinking about whether male or female and then when we have the opportunity to use our platform to make the sport standout, then that’s what we have a responsibility to do.
You have to be an athlete first because it takes a lot of work, dedication, focus, and confidence, all these things to push yourself to be the best. Having the weight on your shoulders of trying to represent women is added on top of that. So, it’s really about just finding that balance. But yeah, I think we have grown, and I think we have a long way to go. But just keep your down and keep working hard, and that’s what’s going to get us there, I believe.
CL: Absolutely. You have made a lot of boxing history, including your fight with Jackie Frazier, which was the first-ever women’s boxing match to main-event a pay-per-view.
LA: For the time in which it happened, there was no social media. I mean, can you imagine if there was social media when I was boxing? There just wasn’t, so I didn’t have that. You always want the next generation to have more tools to help them, and that’s what they have now. Even looking at what Ronda Rousey’s been able to do just from getting someone behind her and promoting her, and I didn’t have that. It’s nice to see these women now having the opportunity, but in order to have people behind you, in order to inspire people to want to support you, you’ve got to bring something to the table and continually get better.
For me, it was about having the best trainers—Roger Mayweather, Floyd Mayweather, Buddy McGirt— and making sure that I could be the best that I could be so that when I had the opportunity, I could shine. That’s what’s really important, and not sitting around worrying and being negative. Just being like, ‘Let me be the best I can be,’ so when that opportunity comes to get a chance to fight on the big network and the big stage, that I actually capture the audience and entertain them and inspire them to want to continue following me and supporting me. That’s the way I used to think, and hopefully, that’s what these young ladies are thinking now, and if they’re not, they need to think that way [Laughing].
CL: Well, you’ve done a tremendous job with your career. I’m sure you had pressure that you put on yourself to not remain in your father’s shadow. As great as your dad was, and as inspirational as he was, you obviously want to be your own person, and you successfully accomplished that even in the world of boxing. Going undefeated certainly helps that, and you spun your success into numerous other things. Tell me a little bit about your promotion of health and other things you have in the mix.
LA: I think the reason why I’ve been able to just kind of do me is because, to be honest, I never really worried about trying to get out of my father’s shadow because that would have caused an issue on its own. My father’s a global icon, one of the greatest ever, understandably so. I have a lot of pride, and I will always be his daughter. From the beginning, it was like, ‘Well, you’re just his daughter,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I am.’ It’s always going to be that way, and you’ve just got to deal with it.
But at the same time, I have my own hopes and dreams and aspirations that I want to accomplish. That’s what I wake up thinking about every day, and that’s why I’ve been able to do me. Like you said, there’s so many things that I want to accomplish. Before I was boxing, I had my own nail salon by the time I was 18. That’s not something my father did for me, that’s something I did on my own. So, I’ve been able to show myself that I can pretty much do anything that I put my heart and desire into, and I feel anyone can.
I’m very passionate about encouraging others to be healthy, and I learned that through sports. I learned what it takes to be the best, and part of that is nutrition and food. That’s something I’m passionate about that I would do for free, so I was like, ‘Wow, this is what my second career should be.’
So, over the past 10 years, I’ve taken the time to figure out the best way to go about building the Laila Ali lifestyle brand. I have my cookbook, and I’m getting ready to release a line of nutrition products, which I’m really excited about.
So, that’s really the direction I’m going, and it’s been an honor to work with Think About Your Eyes because it’s programs like these that help encourage people to be their best, and to take care of their health. There’s underlying health issues that could start with your eyes that you can learn about ahead of time from a comprehensive eye exam, like diabetes, and like heart disease. A lot of times people say, ‘What? Now you’re talking about glasses?’ This isn’t just about glasses, it’s about your health, and it’s about making sure that you consistently do your routine checkups. I want to mention that people can visit Think About Your Eyes, and they can find a doctor in their area and schedule a comprehensive eye exam.
CL: Very good. I read that one of your inspirations for getting into boxing was the legendary Christy Martin.
LA: Yeah, she was the first woman that I saw boxing. She was on Mike Tyson’s undercard fighting Deirdre Gogarty. I didn’t know who she was at the time, but it was actually both of them, but Christy is mentioned more because she’s more known. But yeah, watching their fight inspired me because I didn’t know women’s boxing existed until I saw that.
CL: Oh, wow. That’s huge. So, you would end up fighting her, of course, and beating her. What was that experience like for you, fighting the person who inspired you to become a boxer?
LA: The funny thing is, I didn’t really want to fight Christy because I didn’t see her as competition for me because of the weight difference. Definitely competition in terms of experience. She had more experience than me, but as far as the size difference, a lot of people don’t realize that I’m as big and strong as I am. I was 168 pounds of lean muscle. I weigh 195 today, so people wouldn’t even look at me now and think I weighed that, but I’m a big girl. I got big hands, big feet, big head, I’m huge [laughing], you know? People don’t realize that until they see me in person, but I’m proud of those things. Most women wouldn’t say that about themselves.
But when I look at Christy I’m just like, ‘Oh man, she’s not gonna be able to handle me.’ But she wanted to fight. She started calling about the fight. She started calling me out. And then the public started saying comments. As soon as I think people think that she has a possibility of beating me, I was inspired. And the deal was a good deal, so we ended up getting in the ring. That was a playful fight for me. I didn’t really, like, box her. I just jumped on her.
She was strong. She hit me with a right hand, clean, because I wasn’t even looking out for her shots to be honest with you. I was fighting a little sloppy, and she hit me, and I felt it. I said, ‘Wow! She has strong punching power.’ Not for my weight, but I could see why she was knocking girls out in her weight. She was a tough fighter. She went four rounds. I expected to get her out of there in two, but due to the way I ended up fighting, I didn’t. You can always go back and study tape and say, ‘Okay, I could have done better.’
But at the end of the day, I have a lot of respect for Christy. They’re making a story on her life, a movie, which I think is absolutely amazing, and I wish all the best to her. She’s definitely a pioneer in the sport. She’s the one that I saw, and now that I’m older and past that time, I have a lot of respect for her. You know, we got into a fight before our fight. She attacked me, so at the time I probably wouldn’t have said these things, but now in hindsight, I wish her all the best.
CL: Awesome. That’s a great story, and I appreciate you sharing that. Anything else you would like to add?
TA: I just want to encourage people to Think About Your Eyes. Summer’s a great time to get out there and start annually. We’ve got so much on our plate. When you just set an appointment to do something annually, then you don’t have to think about it. And thank you. All the best to you, with your haircut and your glasses [laughing]. I like it. You can change your glasses every year and change it up. That’ll be fun for people who know you.
CL: [Laughing] Right, exactly! I appreciate it. Well, thank you very much.
LA: Okay, take care. Thank you.