MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — With a flurry of Hollywood-style lighting and audio of Muhammad Ali stating “I AM the greatest,” Laila Ali took the stage Wednesday night, March 22, as MTSU’s Black History Month and Women’s History Month keynote speaker.
However, the story she told to an attentive James Union Building audience was not one of glitz and glamour but of hard lessons and harder work.
Ali, the youngest daughter of the late heavyweight boxing champion and humanitarian, spoke of the hardships created by her parents’ divorce when she was 8 years old, a stepfather she described as “mentally abusive” and hanging out with the wrong people. She credited a three-month stint in a juvenile correctional program after a shoplifting arrest for turning her life around.
“That program really gave me the structure, the nurturing and the support that I needed and helped get me back on track,” said Ali.
Laila Ali competed as a professional boxer from 1999 to 2007, earning the female super-middleweight titles of four governing bodies of boxing and the light-heavyweight crown of the International Women’s Boxing Federation. She retired undefeated with 24 victories.
A former president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, Ali promotes equality for women in professional sports, fitness and wellness. She also is a regular panelist and contributor for “We Need to Talk,” a panel discussion program on the CBS Sports Network.
As a business entrepreneur, Ali recently debuted a signature line of hairstyling tools with Helen of Troy hair care products. Her charitable endeavors include support for Feeding America, Peace 4 Kids and the American Dental Association.
Dawn Stigall, a sophomore fashion merchandising major from Memphis, Tennessee, said she found Ali’s talk “very eye-opening.”
“I didn’t know about her going to jail … just the rough patches she went through to get to where she is today,” said Stigall. “Being a major celebrity’s daughter, I thought that she would be so privileged.”
Ali spoke of celebrities like Michael Jackson, Prince and Stevie Wonder’s constant presence around her father, but she said he still kept his door open for visits with all kinds of people.
Married to former NFL player Curtis Conway and the mother of two children, Ali said that although she also knows celebrities, her closest girlfriends are her hair-care buddies.
“I don’t ever want to become disconnected like some people do, you know, and just be living in a bubble,” said Ali.