My father, Muhammad Ali, never read storybooks to me when I was growing up. He read from the Bible. He read from the Quran. But he never read bedtime stories. Growing up, I would say my father was never just my father. As one of the most famous and revered figures not only in American sports but in American culture, he was constantly surrounded by hangers on. He had an open-door policy, which meant, for instance, that we never really had a family routine.
But I also realize that my father was a courageous and important man. He meant so much to so many people that he couldn’t be just my dad. That was a sacrifice our family made. We lived in Los Angeles: my mom, my sister Hana and me. I have step-siblings, but we never lived together. From a young age, I was repulsed by the fakeness of the people who surrounded my father, coasting off his fame. Luckily for me, I was not a Daddy’s Girl. A lot of people would assume I was because I’m the boxer, but it was actually Hana who always wanted to be right there with him. I, on the other hand, hid away from all the attention. I realized that if I was going to be with my dad, I was going to be with a bunch of other people too. Since I didn’t really like that and didn’t feel safe around all of those people — most of the time, men — I never had the relationship with my dad that my sister did.
One of the biggest conflicts with my father was that I did not become a Muslim. Religion was extremely important to my father. By the time I was born, all the controversies of his youth were pretty much over. Religion was his main thing. He really wanted me and my sister to be good little Muslim girls. But I knew at an early age I did not want to follow that path. I said, look basically, not in these words, I’m not feeling this. “You’re too young to know,” he told me. I said, “I’m old enough to know that it’s not in my heart.” He didn’t take it well and he never stopped trying to talk me into being Muslim. Of all his nine children, I’m the only one who said that to him.
Even though I wasn’t always seeking out my father, we are very much alike. I am an independent person who makes up my own mind. That’s where a lot of our conflicts came from. Take, for example, my decision to become a professional boxer. From a young age, I was infatuated with the idea of growing up and moving out. By the time I was 18, I owned my own business and had my own apartment for which I paid rent. I had gone to school quite young to become a manicurist and I subleased a space in the back of a hair salon where I saw clients. The business was called “Laila’s Nail Studio” and I had a healthy clientele. I had it all mapped out. I’d start with one business, while in school, and become an entrepreneur.
Laila and Muhammad Ali
Then, one day in 1996, I was at a friend’s house to watch the Tyson v. Bruno fight. All of a sudden, I saw two women enter the ring. They weren’t ring girls. They were fighters. For the first 18 years of my life, I never even thought boxing a possibility for me. After watching that fight, I knew it was something I had to do.
It took a year of contemplation before I even began to train. I knew the responsibilities I would have as Muhammad Ali’s daughter. Not only was he the most famous fighter ever, but he’s also just a beloved icon in the world. Also, having grown up watching the spotlight of his fame, I knew I never wanted to be famous or to live my life publicly. But boxing was in my heart, it was in my blood, and I decided to commit.
At first, I began training in secret at the L.A. Boxing Gym. I told everyone I was just trying to lose weight. But then the news leaked out that I was sparring in the ring. Soon my father found out. When he asked me, I didn’t deny it. I said yes, I want to become a professional boxer. Immediately, he tried to talk me out of it. “What are you going to do if you get knocked down in the ring and the whole world is watching?” he asked. I said, “I’ll do what you did and get back up.” He said, “OK. What if you get knocked out?” “That’s not going to happen but if it did I would just deal with it,” I said. He kept on asking me what I would do when things went wrong but he just couldn’t deter me. Finally, he said, “It’s not for women. It’s not a girl sport. It’s a man’s sport. It’s too hard and you can get hurt.”
Here’s my father, not only my dad, but one of the greatest fighters of all time telling me to my face that it’s not a sport for women. I told him he had a right to say whatever he wanted but that I was still going to do it. A few years later, I was a world champion.
Even though he didn’t think women should box, my dad still came to most of my fights. He would have come to more but his sickness slowed him down. After one of my championship bouts, he came to my dressing room and he had a long talk with me. He said, “You know I was wrong. You can fight. You’re a good fighter and women can fight.” He smiled and he said, “You jab like me and move around the ring like me.” He started showing me a couple of his boxing moves. I joked, “Oh, so now that I’m the world champion you want to show me?”
father always spoke from the heart and I always respected that about him, even if I didn’t always agree. I can see all of the reasons why he will forever be known as The GOAT.
Laila and Muhammad AliThe last time I saw him was the day before he passed away. By then, his condition had worsened so it was hard to have a conversation.
We used to talk to him on the phone in the mornings. He didn’t really talk very clearly, but we would call and have a conversation with him. The last time I remember all of us being with my father was on his birthday before he passed. He had all of his kids and grandkids there around him. He was surrounded by his family. We were all his and he was all ours.
— As told to Joshua David Stein
Laila Ali is a retired professional boxer (24-0-0), the author of Reach! Finding Spirit, Strength and Personal Power, an entrepreneur, and host of Laila Ali Lifestyle, a wellness podcast produced by PodcastOne.