Before I even knew what would follow the utterance of that name, my heart burst ecstatically into a million pieces. The name carried a legendary significance to me: black empowerment, advocacy and strength. The name is idolized in my home, transcending all our generations. Muhammad Ali was my father’s hero, and Laila Ali was a symbolic inspiration of what I, as a young, black woman, could do.
Her energy filled the sound booth the moment she walked in. With a loud boom, her laughter caught my ears, and her smile caught my eyes. Star struck and excited, I jumped up to greet her: my right hand extended as wide as the smile that had spread on my face. Her eyes sparkled and the room was filled with a comfortable chatter.
“Oh man, I’m so excited to be back here. So close to where I had one of my first boxing matches,” she said, lightly falling into the swivel chair that was pulled out for her. Her energy was contagious. I didn’t expect any less.
Growing up, I would watch her fighting in the boxing ring against other female boxers. My father, sitting next to me, would encourage me to be as strong and brave as she was, to pursue whatever it is that I wanted, even if it was unconventional to do so. I always wondered whether it was really so unconventional for a boxer’s daughter to want to be a fighter too.
Turns out, it was. As she spoke about her father, she highlighted the well-known fact that her dad was not the reason she decided to become a boxer, nor did he encourage her to pursue it when she initially decided that she was going to.
“Dad didn’t encourage me to be a boxer,” she said. “Actually, he tried to indirectly steer me away from it, telling me the whole world was going to be watching, and asking me what I’d do if I got knocked out or knocked down. “How are you going to feel?” he’d ask. “You’ll be embarrassed,” she laughed and scoffed. Her smile reflected that there was never any love lost between the two of them. Fathers and daughters disagree. I knew that wholeheartedly.
Laila explained that being of Muslim faith, her father didn’t think it appropriate for a woman to be in the ring, much less in a sports bra and shorts. However, from a young age she asserted to him that she was not Muslim, in practice or belief.
“So, when I started boxing, I always had my game face on. I had something to prove,” she said, reflecting on her own battles to pursue an ambition that was seemingly already stacked against her. “However, having come into myself and finding my place in all of this, that has gone away, and I am simply Laila Ali.”
As one of nine children of Muhammad Ali, people tend to assume that her decisions and the things she does are because of him. Very few people, and certainly only the ones closely related to her, know that she does what she does and is who she is somewhat because of him, but mostly in spite of him. Despite her dad being a boxer, her interest in the sport was only piqued when she saw women boxing, and realized that she had many of the qualities to excel in it. Nonetheless, her family roots have affected the various roles she’s taken on in her public domain.
“The confidence, the ruggedness… I had it all, and it just seemed to be in my DNA,” she said, laughing off the statement with a shrug. “Sure, I wasn’t boxing with dad or training with him, but it was in my DNA, likely as a result of him. So I’d like to say I did it on my own, but he played a role in it too.”
Although acknowledging that he played a role in it, of course, she continues to emphasize that she made the decision to pursue that avenue in spite of him.
“I’m the youngest of seven girls, and none of them box. So it’s definitely not just the DNA,” she laughed a little harder. She was constantly full of laughter.
In the moment, her laughter and energy inspired me just as much as her strength in the boxing ring did. Boxing is a difficult sport, and like any sport, women are underrepresented, but Laila never let that deter her from what her ambitions were; or at least she couldn’t let them, as she said. Naturally, she had a different experience being Muhammad Ali’s daughter.
“When I went to train I made sure to focus on what I had to do to improve myself and be the best boxer I could be. I couldn’t let anyone else's limitations on me get in my way; and I just made sure to keep it off my mind,” she started, “but people had something to gain from trying to promote me, in comparison to other female boxers that were coming into an industry that hadn’t yet equipped itself for that demographic.”
In light of it all, she remained focused on what she had to do and remained oblivious to the stigma and talk happening around her.
“If I’ve learned anything, it is that your mind can be a limit, too; and if you allow yourself to get distracted by the expectations of the world around you, you put that limit on yourself,” she said. My father had said these same words to me time and time again; and hearing them come from her solidified the sentiment.
Laila Ali: A boxer, an advocate and a woman; but to me…a laughter-filled inspiration who created a name for herself tangentially to the iconic shadow that her father’s image left behind for her to fill.
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