Laila Ali – «I’m a stronger puncher than my father was»

She’s as fast a talker as her father once was. She is the undefeated World Champion. Now boxer Laila Ali talks about her tremendous will to always win, her hope to be a mother and the presumably weaker punch of Muhammad Ali.

By Peter Hossli (text) and Charly Kurz (photos)

hossli_laila.jpgMs Ali, what does a dancer eat for breakfast?
Laila Ali: I eat egg whites, turkey bacon, and oatmeal.

And what does a boxer eat for breakfast?
Ali: Breakfast stays the same; it’s the most important meal of my day. But I don’t eat as much, now that I’m dancing. With boxing, I needed more energy.

You’re undefeated in the ring, but now you’re involved with Dancing with the Stars, and there’s a lot of talk about a modeling career. Does it mean you’re quitting boxing?
Ali: There’s no talk about a modeling career, and I’m not quitting boxing, I’ve taken a hiatus because I wasn’t really feeling challenged.

Boxing is a tough man’s sport, dancing is more of a girlie affair. What’s the appeal for you?
Ali: First of all, Dancing with the Stars is not just dancing. I wouldn’t be dancing if I weren’t on Dancing with the Stars. The show just seemed like so much fun, just to be able to get dressed up, glammed up.

Why is it not enough to be the greatest boxer in the world?
Ali: I was never gonna box forever. I said that I wanted to become a world champion. I am. Now it’s time to start looking into doing other things.

Like what?
Ali: My focus is to start a family. I’m getting married in a few month, I want to have a baby. I may decide I don’t want to box any more. I would love to go into the area of cooking, and nutrition, and teaching people how to be healthy.

Will you be perusing other types of competitive sports?
Ali: I’m 29 years old, almost 30. There aren’t many sports that you can do competitively where you can start at this age and get very good at it. I aspire to be the best at whatever it is that I do. Boxing was a challenge. I overcame that. I’m undefeated. I’m considered one of the best. Now I want to be the best mother that I can be.

Why do you always want to be the best?
Ali: There are some of us that settle for just being average. And there are some of us that want to be the best. I’m one of those people.

It takes a lot of energy to always try to be on top. Where do you take it?
Ali: It’s personal drive that comes from within. And in order to be the best, you have to be willing to work hard. And you have to be willing to accept when something isn’t perfect, something isn’t right, and continue to work at it. And that’s what I do.

Other female athletes have been trying to transcend their sports career. I’m thinking of the William sisters or Anna Kournikowa. Are they role models for you?
Ali: I’ve always gone my own way. There’s nobody out there like me. I am my own unique person. Nobody’s done what I’ve done.

At least no other female has had a more distinguished career in the ring. As a boxer you have punches thrown at you all the time. How do you overcome fear?
Ali: Fear is not an emotion that I face. I’m a fighter. I’m not the average person. I understand that you have two hands, the female that you’re fighting has two hands, and one of us is gonna win, one of us is gonna lose. I feel like I’m in control of the situation, so in the ring there’s nothing to be afraid of.

lail_standing.jpgWhat do you fear in general?
Ali: I fear losing. I fear not being prepared for a fight. That’s what drives me on the way to training. I would never want to lose a fight because I’m out of shape. Or my skill level’s not up to par.

Boxer must feel a lot of pain. How do you overcome it?
Ali: I don’t feel pain in the ring. Every time I get hit, it’s like somebody’s tapping me on the arm.

What’s the appeal for you to get hit?
Ali: There’s no way I can explain that to you. It’s just that you’re a little crazy, to want to be a fighter. Most people are weak. Back in the day when people were in tribes, and they were fighting each other, and they had something to fight for, most people wouldn’t want to be on the front line, because they’re afraid of getting hurt. It takes a lot of courage, obviously. I’d have been one of those warriors. I would have been a leader of the tribe.

When you decided to be a boxer, the sport was in a crisis. You must have felt an obligation to bring it back up.
Ali: Never. I would never take on that burden. I do it because I like doing it. Boxing is always in some crisis. I’ve never felt like I had to be concerned with the whole entire sport. Everyone in boxing is an individual. It’s not a team sport. I like to depend on me, and only me. Because then I know that things are gonna go my way.

In boxing the training is probably the most grueling training in any sport. How do you prepare?
Ali: I work very hard. It’s six days a week of running, and training. Work on your skills in the boxing gym. And then weight training. And then eating right. Getting your rest, staying focused. Knowing your opponent. Having a plan when you’re in the ring.

Do you follow the no sex, no alcohol, no drugs, no anything rule?
Ali: I don’t have alcohol or drugs ever, even if I’m not fighting. But you definitely aren’t gonna go have wild sex the night before a fight.

Some boxers say the training is actually the best thing.
Ali: Training is the worst thing for me. The fight is fun. Training is the hard part, day in, day out. The fight lasts 20, 30 minutes? And it’s easy. It’s a piece of cake. I spar with men. That’s what makes the fights easy for me when I get into the ring and fight a woman.

What can women bring to sports that men can’t?
Ali: I don’t separate the two. I’m not a pro-woman woman. If you’re an athlete, you’re an athlete. If you’re a woman, you’re gonna compete against women. If you’re a man, you’re gonna compete against men, in most cases. Obviously we’re different. But I don’t think that there’s necessarily a big difference as far as skill level.

Woman a generation before you had to fight for equality in sports. In some areas men are still getting paid much more. How do you experience this?
Ali: I never had to deal with being a woman in the sport. I came into the sport having to fight the fact that I’m Muhammad Ali’s daughter. I don’t pay attention to the restraints that are put on me, anyway. I do what I wanna do. It takes too much energy to worry about what other people think, or how other people feel.

Many people find women’s boxing absurd. Why do you think women need to fight each other?
Ali: Women don’t need to box. But if they want to box, then they just need to go on and pursue it. I think that anyone should do anything they want to do in life. You only have one life to live. And you shouldn’t let anybody define your life for you. But I don’t ever say, “Women, you should go box.” I think that you’re better off not boxing, cuz it’s a little crazy to begin with. And if you have to fight me, you’re gonna end up getting your ass beat.

Famous boxing commentator Burt Randolph Sugar detests women’s boxing. He said that women can’t fight.
Ali: I’m sure I could beat him up. There’s always gonna be those male chauvinists that don’t want to get with the program. But women are gonna continue to box. And his little comments have no importance in my life.

Obviously you are the face of women’s boxing, as well. You’ve really lifted the sport up. Now there’s this talk about retirement…
Ali: Yeah … they need to find a new face! That’s what they need to do. I’m Mohammad Ali’s daughter. It’s the most famous name in the world, and it’s the most famous name in boxing. So of course I’m gonna be the face. And I’ve done my part, as far as holding up that legacy. But I’m not gonna be around forever. And there will never be anyone else like me. Just like there’s no one else like my father. There’s criticism on me. But we’ll see if somebody can do the job better than I did. I doubt it.

After you’ve retired, will you be involved in promoting boxing?
Ali: No. I’m not a fan of the sport of boxing. I’m not a fan of the type of characters you have to deal with in boxing. And to be honest, I’ll be happy when I no longer have to go to the sweaty loud gym.

What type of characters are you tired of?
Ali: It is a sport where anyone can participate. Anyone can say, “I want to be a boxer”, “I want to manage fighters”, and “I promote fighters.” So you get people off the street a lot of times who just think they’re tough, and think that that makes them a fighter. You’re dealing with a lot of uneducated people who decided to just start fighting. Then you throw a couple of ignorant people in there. You’re gonna have a messy situation.

Your career lacks one thing – a true rivalry. Why didn’t this happen?
Ali: You gotta ask the girls who just don’t measure up. All I can do is be the best I can be. I can’t make everybody else be competitive. There’s a girl in Germany, Natascha Ragosina, she’s a good fighter. She’s a big, strong girl. I hope that that fight could happen one day, because I think that in the eyes of the public, that would be a competitive fight.

You could always fight a guy.
Ali: No, I can’t. I wouldn’t put myself in a situation where I’m gonna have a disadvantage. And that’s to be in the ring with someone who’s physically stronger than me.

Every boxer loses sometime. You stayed undefeated. How come?
Ali: For one, I have good genes. Okay? I had the natural ability, the talent. I also had the desire to be the best that I can be, to continue to push myself. And I had the right people around me, to make sure that I took my time. That I learned as I fought. And I don’t settle for second best.

You’ve done very well professionally. You got a lot of endorsements. What does money mean to you?
Ali: Money means not having to worry about bills. To be able to enjoy life. A lot of people are always worried about their job, worried about who they work for, worried about today. Worried about tomorrow. I’m not so much worried.

What is a luxury for you?
Ali: Being able to wake up and not have to go to work.

Bill Gates decided to give all his money to charity so his children have to work for themselves. Is your father more generous in that regard?
Ali: No, not really. I’m not in one of those families where money is just given to me. I’ve had to work very hard to get where I am. And it didn’t come from my dad.

Your dad is probably the most famous person living on this earth. How important is he in your life?
Ali: My dad is my dad. I love him, and I realize that he’s as famous as he is. Of course, I don’t look at him like everybody else does. Because I know his little faults, I know his weaknesses. Nobody’s perfect. But he’s my dad. Just like your dad is to you.

What kind of a dad was he?
Ali: A loving dad. Very open. You know, his house was everybody’s house. He pretty much would spoil you and just gives you everything that you wanted.

Your dad left you when you were a child.
Ali: My parents were divorced.

So some people have suggested that you box to finally get his attention. Any truth to this?
Ali: No.

Your father got a lot out of boxing. But he also got hurt. It has been suggested that his Parkinson comes from boxing. Why did this not scare you away from the sport?
Ali: First of all, his Parkinson’s didn’t come from boxing. People continue to say that. Parkinson’s is a disease. You don’t get a disease from boxing. But every single fighter that started boxing after Muhammad Ali is asked this question. We all look up to him. But you don’t live your life scared, period.

What role did he play in your decision to take up boxing?
Ali: None. Absolutely none. I decided to get into boxing on my own.

What did you learn from him, in and outside the ring?
Ali: My dad’s the most famous man in the world, but he doesn’t walk around and live his life as that. He doesn’t think he’s better than anybody else. He makes the so-called “smaller people”—the janitor, the housekeepers, feel like bigger than life. He tries to uplift people, not put them down, no matter who it is. So that’s the same way that I am.

Did you learn something that you could use in the ring from him?
Ali: You learn a lot of things from my dad. But boxing is a whole different sport now. It’s evolved.

Do you discuss boxing with him?
Ali: After a fight I might discuss the opponent I fought, or what he thought of the fight. But that’s pretty much it.

Boxing is also about making money. Do you talk to him about who makes more?
Ali: My dad asks sometimes, “how much money’d you make?” Cuz he still gets excited about money.

Do you tell him?
Ali: Not really.

Does he tell you?
Ali: Yeah. It’s not a secret what he used to make. Now he wants to know what my house costs, and what kind of car I drive. He gets excited about those little things.

In what way does he accept you as a fellow boxer?
Ali: He accepts me as his daughter who decided to fight. But he doesn’t like the fact that women box, but he knows I’m gonna do what I wanna do. And he’s happy that I’m doing well, he’s happy that I didn’t embarrass him. Because that’s important to my dad.

You got into boxing with the Ali name. You must have been afraid to being compared to him.
Ali: No, I wasn’t. Because I don’t compare myself. I didn’t feel any comparison, as far as skill level. That would have been too stressful, to try to live up to my father’s. I want to be me. I love me more than I love my dad.

Some fighters accused you of using his name to get ahead.
Ali: That’s the most obvious, stupid thing that anyone could say. I’m Muhammad Ali’s daughter, my last name’s Ali. What am I supposed to do, change my name? Never have I gone into the ring trying to do the shuffle. Never have I gone into the ring trying to be like my father. There are lots of things I could do to try to be like my dad, but I don’t. Because once you start, you can’t stop. Everybody expects it. And I purposely never have done that. Because I don’t want to be like my dad. I want to be me.

What does the Ali name mean to you?
Ali: My dad stood for so much. My dad is just a great man. He was a great athlete. And he was a man who did what he wanted to do. And that’s the same way I am. And I think that that’s a quality that more people wish they had the courage to have. I’m not afraid, or I don’t try to hide my confidence, or my self-love. That’s everyone’s ultimate goal in life. I’m just happy that I was born with it.

You have eight brothers and sisters. Why are you the only professional athlete?
Ali: Cuz I can kick all their butts. Not everybody aspires to be an athlete. It’s not that easy.

You’re dad was the greatest athlete of the 20th century. What do you want to be?
Ali: I don’t need a title like that. My dad wanted everyone to recognize him as this, or the that. That’s not me. That’s the major difference between us two. I really don’t care what people think.

You made an Adidas commercial in which you fight your dad…
Ali… it’s one of the best commercials of all time.

When your dad started out, he was in the same weight class that you are in now, super middleweight. Would you have had a chance fighting him?

Ali: Of course not. My dad’s a way better boxer than I am, skill-wise.

In what way are you better?
Ali: Lotsa ways!

Tell me.
Ali: I’m more of a fighter. I’m more fearless than my father was as a fighter. I’m not afraid to get in there and mix it up. Whereas he didn’t really like to so much. He liked to fight from the outside. Which is okay. But that’s not my style. And I’m physically stronger, comparatively. You know what I mean? For a female, I’m a stronger puncher than my father was.

How do the two of you differ in styles?
Ali: My dad was more of a showman. He wants to excite the crowd, he wants to put on a show, and he wants to dance around. I can use my feet, but I’m more of a fighter. I’m a puncher more. I’m gonna stand in front of you more. And I don’t worry about the crowd. I don’t care about the show. I’m gonna take you out as soon as I see the opportunity, instead of trying to punish you, and keep it going for the show. That’s all showmanship. It’s not me.

You win mostly through fast knockouts. Your last fight in South Africa took less than a minute. Do you aspire to be more like Mike Tyson than your dad?
Ali: Not at all. Mike Tyson was a one-punch knockout artist. I’m not. I punch and throw combinations. A lot of my fights are technical knockouts, not knockouts.

When you fought in South Africa, you met Nelson Mandela again. What do you make of him?
Ali: He’s just another great man. There are not many men that I look at on the level of my father. Mandela is a great man, who stood up for what he believed in. Gave up so many years in prison for his people, fighting for the right causes. There’s no higher level of respect, for someone like that.

He went to prison. You’re dad went to prison because he did not want to go to war in Vietnam. Now there is another war going on over in Iraq. Why don’t we see the same kind of commitment now?
Ali: It’s a whole different time. My father didn’t go to the war because it was against people that he felt were being put down, just as he was. Back then he still couldn’t eat in certain restaurants. There was still segregation going on, and a lot of prejudice. He wasn’t gonna go fight for a country that didn’t love him. He’d rather give up his titles, and give up everything he had and go to jail. I woulda done the same thing.

You’re dad had a big impact as a civil rights leader. What are you doing in that regard?
Ali: I’m not into it. I’m not trying to be a political leader.

How is your dad doing?
Ali: My dad’s good. Obviously he has a disease, a progressive disease. He struggles with that, just as a lot of Parkinson’s victims do. But he handles it very well. He still is not hiding from the public. He still goes out, and travels. He does what he said he was gonna do. He wanted to be a humanitarian, and he wanted to give back. Boxing didn’t define him. And it’s not gonna define me, either.

Laila Ali, 29, is on of boxing legend Muhammad Ali’s nine children. Her parent got divorced when she was seven years old. He has a degree in business from Santa Monica College. At 18 she opened a beauty salon in Los Angeles. At the age of 21 she fought her first fight in October of 1999. She won through knockout in the first round. So far she’s been undefeated in 24 fights and won 21 of them through knockouts. On June 8, 2001, she boxed against Jackie Frazier-Lye, the daughter Joe Frazer, Muhammad Ali’s longtime nemesis. It was the first female boxing match that was shown on pay-per view on television. Starting this February she began appearing in the popular US reality show «Dancing with the Stars».