Boxing Champ Laila Ali Speaks on Becoming a Fighter and Her Father’s Struggle with Parkinson’s

By Sabina Leybold, October 10, 2016

Boxing Champ Laila Ali Speaks on Becoming a Fighter and Her Father’s Struggle with Parkinson’s

Boxing champion, fitness expert and television personality Laila Ali visited Ithaca College on Sept. 29, where she spoke to the campus community on topics ranging from overcoming obstacles and achieving goals to media portrayals of disabilities.

Speaking before a packed crowd in the Athletics and Events Center, Ali discussed her journey to become a boxing champion.

As the daughter of famed boxer and humanitarian Muhammad Ali, she said that she had often watched the big boxing matches in her youth, but her dream to become a boxer herself materialized after seeing Christy Martin, a fighter renowned for helping to break down barriers for women in boxing.

“It hadn’t even occurred to me that I could be a fighter,” Ali said. “I went home and I couldn’t stop thinking about fighting.”

Even though Ali was thrilled by the idea of boxing, she didn’t jump into it right away, nor did she tell her father about her newfound passion.

“There was an inner struggle I had to deal with,” she said. “I didn’t know if I could do it, and I’d have to live my life publicly. It took about a year before I actually went to the gym and started training.”

Once she took the plunge, however, Ali’s dedication drove her to the gym six days a week.

“I loved boxing, I loved training, I loved learning,” she said. “I can’t even remember a time that I remember thinking I was too tired or I didn’t want to go.”

Because women’s boxing was not yet an Olympic sport at the time, Ali decided to become a professional fighter. She said that her father was uneasy with her decision, and asked her to consider what would happen when she got knocked down and how she would handle everyone watching her.

“He didn’t say ‘don’t do it,’” Ali said. “I wouldn’t have listened anyway.” 

Ali told the audience that she was often underestimated in the ring because of her looks. Her opponents might think that she didn’t have the skills to be a fighter because she was seen as pretty, but Ali had a tough, intimidating demeanor and fighting style in the ring. Ali said this experience taught her to never judge someone by the way they look and to remain confident despite criticism.

“I love proving people wrong,” she said. “You have to have a deep belief in yourself.”

Before her speech, Ali addressed students participating in the Roy H. Park School of CommunicationsMedia for Social Responsibility mini-course, which this year focused on portrayals of disability and chronic illness in popular culture.

Ali spoke at length about her father and his struggle with Parkinson’s disease, a chronic and progressive movement disorder involving the malfunction and death of nerve cells in the brain.   

“I remember when I first started noticing his hands shaking, and I didn’t really understand what Parkinson’s was,” said Ali. “Even when he lit the torch at the 1996 Olympics, his hand was shaking.”

Ali told students that her father’s attitude about Parkinson’s was remarkable, saying that he was not afraid and never asked “why me?” Even after he lost the ability to speak, Ali said his energy shone through his eyes.

“When people are put on a pedestal, sometimes they want to hide parts of themselves, but he didn’t do that,” said Ali. “He stayed strong and raised money for the Parkinson’s Foundation. That was something I was always proud of.”

Ali’s visit was sponsored by the Park Distinguished Visitor Series