By Stacy Parish, Children’s Department
The name Laila loosely translates to “night blooming flower” in Arabic, but Laila Ali is certainly no shrinking violet. (Author’s note: I’m going to start incorporating a drinking game into my blogs. Darling Reader, whenever you encounter one of my obnoxious puns, take a nice deep pull of whatever beverage you have close at hand. Please drink responsibly.)
Laila Amaria Ali was born on December 30, 1977 in Miami Beach, Florida, to famed boxer Muhammad Ali (nee Cassius Clay) and his third wife, Veronica Porsche-Ali. Laila is the eighth of her father’s nine children. One might think that Laila led an easy life as the child of a world-renowned athlete, but her childhood was anything but placid. Her parents divorced when she was 7, and Laila made a number of bad decisions as a rebellious teenager — fighting, ditching school, boosting her mother’s car, shoplifting, credit card fraud — and spent time in a juvenile detention center, youth group homes, and later, jail.
Laila decided to begin boxing at age 18, after having what she called “a revelation” while watching a women’s match that was a preliminary bout to a Mike Tyson fight. She began training in earnest, adding strenuous workouts to her already busy life of owning her own nail salon and working on a business degree at Santa Monica Community College. In January of 1999, Laila knew that a conversation with Muhammad Ali about her new endeavor was long overdue, as her ring debut was quickly approaching. Laila’s father, who by this time had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (which many believe was exacerbated by the years of punishment he took from shots to the head in the boxing ring) was not at all happy that his daughter was following in his footsteps and entering into such a dangerous profession. Laila assured him that she would be fighting women, that she had Muhammad’s genetics, and that she would never again behave in a manner that would bring dishonor to him or to herself. After a long moment of stony silence, Muhammad spoke at last: “OK, come over here and show me your left jab.”
For her first professional boxing match on October 8, 1999 at Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona, New York, the 21-year-old Laila weighed in at 166 pounds, placing her in the Super Middleweight class. Laila’s first match was attended by many fans and journalists, primarily because she was Muhammad Ali’s daughter. Her opponent, April Fowler, described by WomenBoxing.com as an “out-of-shape novice,” was knocked out by Laila just 31 seconds into the first round. Laila’s boxing career was firmly launched, and she went on to compete in a total of 24 matches over the next eight years. She retired undefeated, after defeating Gwendolyn O’Neil by technical knockout in the first round in South Africa on February 2, 2007 in her last professional fight.
After retiring from boxing, Laila didn’t sit around counting her money and polishing her belts. She had already appeared in a music video for Canadian rock band Default and had guest starred on the George Lopez show, so her transition from professional athlete to professional actress was not a difficult one. (Author’s note: I wonder if, in addition to her boxing prowess, she inherited any of her famous father’s flair for theatrics.) In mid-2007, Laila was a participant in Dancing With The Stars; she partnered with Maksim Chmerkovskiy, and they finished the competition in third place, coming in behind Apolo Anton Ohno and Julianne Hough in first place and to Joey Fatone and Kym Johnson in second. In 2008, Laila hosted the revival of American Gladiators with former wrestler Hulk Hogan, and the two became close friends. In his memoir My Life Outside The Ring, Hogan credits Laila with saving his life when he was in a downward spiral of depression over his impending divorce and a family tragedy, and was self-medicating with rum and Xanax and becoming increasingly suicidal. “She called with no agenda, just to say hi and check on me,” Hogan said. “It snapped me out of it . . . (hearing) her voice saved my life.”
On July 23, 2007, Laila married former NFL player Curtis Conway, and they have two children together: Curtis, Jr. and Sydney. She continues to be a highly sought-after public speaker, and in addition to eloquence and athletic prowess, Laila also inherited her father’s philanthropic spirit. Muhammad Ali’s generosity was legendary, and Laila is very active in many charitable causes—Feeding America and Women’s Sports Foundation, to name just two. She is an inspiration to many, and earned her place in our “Amazing Female Athletes” series.
Sources and suggested readings:
- Laila Ali: Champion Boxer by Norman D. Graubart (J 92 ALI)
- Famous Families: Muhammed Ali and Laila Ali by Tim Ungs (J 92 ALI)
- Reach! Finding Strength, Spirit, and Personal Power by Laila Ali and David Ritz (92 ALI)