Cover Story: Laila Ali

Scope of Project: Transcribing interview, writing cover feature story

Purpose: Introducing Laila Ali as the speaker for the American Heart Association Go Red for Women Experience, promoting her upcoming projects, connecting her story to her family’s legacy in Kentucky

Published: November 2017 issue of TOPS in Lexington magazine

Undefeated Boxing Champion. TV and Podcast Host. Author. CEO. Wellness and Fitness Expert. Volunteer. Public Speaker. Mother. Motivator. Did we forget to mention daughter of world-renowned boxing legend Muhammad Ali? 

These are just some of the many facets of Laila Ali.

Laila is a legend in her own right. Since retiring from the boxing ring in 2007, she has accomplished more than most women can claim in a lifetime. She spends her days motivating others to live a healthy and active lifestyle through her blog and Podcast, both titled Laila Ali Lifestyle.

Much like her father, Laila is an inspiring humanitarian. An advocate for child hunger, women in sports and heart health, Laila packs a punch on the non-profit scene. On November 17th , she will speak to hundreds of Kentuckians at the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women Experience luncheon.

We caught up with Laila before the event to get the inside scoop on what it’s like to live the Laila Ali Lifestyle.

Before the Ring

Laila Ali was born in 1977 as the daughter of Muhammad Ali and Veronica Porché Ali. Porché, a stunning actress, was one of the four poster girls who promoted the Rumble in the Jungle fight featuring Muhammad Ali versus George Foreman.

The eighth daughter of Muhammad Ali, Laila was independent, ambitious and forward-thinking. She attended Santa Monica College for a degree in business and became the owner of a nail salon as a young teenager. “Growing up, living on my own, totally independent, and I had a plan, but boxing hadn’t been a part of it,” she explained. In fact, Laila didn’t even know women’s boxing existed. “I didn’t want to box, myself, until I saw women boxing for the first time when I was about 19,” she explained. Laila saw a Christy Martin fight, and became enamored. It spurred her to consider entering the ring.

“The fear set in. I thought ‘that’s not what I should be doing’ and ‘what’s everyone going to think?” she remembered. Laila didn’t want to make a hasty choice. She explained, “It took me about a year of contemplation to even go to the gym and start training.  I did it on my own–kind of in secrecy.”

Nearly a year went by and Laila knew she had to discuss her plans with someone very important. “After training,I decided I did want to do it and I talked to my dad about it,” she said.

His reaction wasn’t what she had hoped. “He tried to talk me out of it. One, he didn’t want his baby girl boxing and getting hurt. And two, he didn’t feel women should be boxing in the first place–it wasn’t a woman’s sport,” Laila remembered. “I said, ‘Dad, I’m gonna show you.’ And I did.”

She Bee Stingin’

Laila announced her boxing career in a Good Morning America interview with Diane Sawyer. Her first match was in 1999 and journalists flocked to the ringside, curious to see Muhammad Ali’s eighth child in action. 

At the time, women’s boxing was relatively unknown. That quickly shifted, and public interest began to grow. The Ali name brought the sport a lot of attention, as did Laila’s sterling record. During her career, she held the WBC, WIBA, IWBF and IBA female super middleweight titles and the IWBF light heavyweight title. She retired undefeated. But Laila is quick to remind everyone that she wasn’t out there alone.

“There were so many women boxing before me. I was the most successful boxer because I was good at what I did–I was undefeated, I was a world champion–but I also had a very famous last name,” Laila explained. “I had everything it takes as an athlete to push through, to get the recognition, but there were a lot of women who were talented that just didn’t get the attention.” 

Laila believes that gender norms have a lot to do with the lack of recognition female athletes receive. “We have this mindset that limits us: we’re taught that she should protect women, that men are the fighters and the warriors,” she said. “People weren’t ready for women’s boxing, and they’re still not.”

Her incredible achievements earned her one very important accolade: her father’s stamp of approval. “He came to me after I started winning titles and he was like ‘wow, you can do it! Women can do it!’” She was proud to say, “I changed his mind!”

Her Father’s Legacy

When Muhammad Ali, known across the globe as The Greatest, passed away in 2016, Laila’s children experienced firsthand how much he meant to Kentucky and the world. Thousands of people lined the streets of Louisville to show their respect. During that time, Laila’s children toured The Ali Center for the first time and learned more about their grandfather’s significant role in history.

“The Muhammad Ali Center is an amazing place. When I step outside of who my dad is as my dad, and just go there as a regular person, there’s so much history there.” She reflected, “Every time I go, it just blows me away just how much my dad has done in this life and how much of an impact he’s had on the world. It just inspires me to want to do more.”

Her son, now nine, is finally coming to understand just how huge Muhammad Ali was. “I tell him why Pawpaw was so great, not just as a boxer in the ring, but what he did to change the world, and all the lives he inspired,” Laila explained.

Laila remembers what a challenge it is to grapple with knowing a man so personally, then coming to grips with how they changed history. “As I got older, I learned more about my father and what he did, how times have changed in the history of our country and the role that he played in that,” she explained. “My kids are learning the basics of that now, about how he cared about people at all stages of his life, how he gave back and stayed humble throughout.”

An Active Retirement

While it would have been understandable for someone so dedicated to their sport to relax in their retirement, that’s just not who Laila Ali is. “When I boxed, that’s what I did full-time: I got up every day, I trained, I ate right, I focused.. I put a lot of hours and dedication towards that.” Upon retirement, she asked herself, “What is my next thing going to be? What’s going to be a lot of work, but I’m going to love it the same way I did boxing, where it didn’t feel like work? What’s going to fulfill me and sustain me?”

For Laila, the answer was something she was already living each and every day. “Over the years, I realized that I was passionate about fitness, health and wellness,” she said. 

That wasn’t always the case. “I try to inspire people with my story. I wasn’t always healthy,” she said. “Before I started boxing, I was just like anybody else. I was 30 pounds overweight, eating whatever I wanted to eat–junk food, fast food.”

She made a commitment to herself and her health through boxing. In order to become a champion, she had to eat healthier food and treat her body right. Even in her retirement, that commitment hasn’t changed. “I’m not an athlete anymore, but I’ve already tasted what it feels like to be at my best weight, to be at my best health and to have energy.” She added, “I’m always chasing after that. It’s my motivation.”

She wants to help others find their way into a healthier lifestyle.  Laila has a blog and weekly podcast, both titled Laila Ali Lifestyle. She uses these outlets to inspire and educate her fans. “We’re living in a time where so many people are so confused. There are so many bad options out there for us, health-wise. People have to understand that being healthy really is a lifestyle choice, and it’s a mindset.”

From sharing delicious recipes and fitness routines on her blog to interviewing interesting guests on her podcast, Laila has created quite the lifestyle brand. “I always said I wanted to be like Martha Stewart, but with a twist,” Laila explained.

As if her blog and podcast don’t keep Laila busy enough, she is also hosting a show on the OWN Network called Home Made Simple. “I’m super excited about it,” she enthused about the show. Laila and a team of design experts visit the homes of  deserving families to help them transform their spaces. Laila also teaches them how to cook healthy, family-friendly recipes. Home Made Simple season 7 premiered Saturday, November 4th. Fans can catch it on OWN at 9am EST.

Being a working mom doesn’t come easy. “Monday through Friday, I’m up and out of the house at 4:30am and not back home ‘til 7pm,” she said. Laila spends the evenings with her husband and children, then records her podcast at home. She usually doesn’t get to bed until midnight.  “I don’t remember what it’s like to not be tired!”

With Laila’s many roles, it can be difficult for her to know when to say no. “One of my major challenges in life is balance. Trying to do it all, but also get enough rest. You have to have balance; you’ve got to have your priorities in order; you’ve got to learn to say no; you can’t do everything,” she stressed. Yet, it seems Laila does do everything. How does she keep it all organized?  “I love a list, and I love seeing lines go through the things that I’ve done!” she answered.

Laila’s list continues to grow. In January, she will release her first cookbook, Food for Life. It is filled with healthy family friendly comfort food recipes. Food for Life will make cooking healthier food easy, with simple swaps that make classic dishes a little lighter.

“I started cooking when I was about 10 years old because my mom didn’t really cook. You want something, you’ve got to do it yourself! So I got in the kitchen and started teaching myself how to cook,” she remembered. “As I have gotten more informed about health and wellness, I started using healthier ingredients, understanding good fats and good oils,” Laila explained. “Rather than trying to be fat-free, sugar-free, carb-free – the gimmicks – we just need to eat fresh food at home!”

A Passion for Health

As Laila learned more about healthy eating, she also learned more about what unhealthy choices can lead to. “We have a big problem with chronic illnesses, and they’re directly related to our lifestyle choices,” she said. She wants to help Americans fight for their health.

Many people assume they are going to get sick as they get older. That excuse won’t cut it for Laila. “Know that there are a lot of healthy 70-year-olds out there who are fit, eating right, doing yoga, full of energy and vitality, just by taking care of themselves,” Laila advised.  She encourages people of all ages to be proactive about their health. She added, “I don’t want people to wait until they go to the doctor to find out your blood pressure is high or you have diabetes.” 

Laila champions healthier living to fight heart disease. When we asked what she wants women to know about heart health, she answered, “I want women to know that heart health is a big issue for women. It’s the number one killer of women; one in three women die from cardiovascular diseases. It doesn’t have to be that way; it’s something we can change. Heart disease and stroke can be prevented. Understand your family history, know your numbers and make the changes necessary before it becomes a problem.”

As a wife and mother, Laila believes it’s especially important for women to arm themselves with information about cardiovascular diseases. “Women are usually the head of the household when it comes to food and when it comes to healthcare: we must be informed so that we can take care of ourselves and our family.”

Her family is her motivation for staying healthy. “The greatest fear of mine is getting sick and getting a disease that I could have prevented. I want to be here for my children,” Laila explained. “I’m looking forward to coming to the Go Red for Women Experience and hopefully inspiring women.”

As a busy mom, TV and podcast host, author and health activist, Laila doesn’t get to come to Kentucky very often. “When I do, I love it, she said.  “I get to visit family members, and of course I go to the Ali Center. There’s just so much love for my family in Kentucky, and I feel it from the time I land in the airport!” •

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