Laila Ali: 'I proved to Muhammad Ali that women can fight'


A recent survey done by T.J. Maxx found that 80 percent of women feel they are stereotyped by society into specific roles and expectations -- and we can all agree that's an unsettling percentage. That's why the retailer launched the Maxx You Project, in which 80 women will be handpicked for a signature workshop to break the "I can't, so I won't" behavior. And who better to choose and mentor those women than former professional boxer, Laila Ali?

AOL Lifestyle had the pleasure of sitting down with Laila Ali at the Paramount Hotel in NYC Tuesday, the morning of the Maxx You Project kick-off concert*, to discuss how she broke a massive stereotype by pursuing professional boxing -- and how her father, Muhammad Ali, actually advised against it.

Check out our conversation below:

Tell me why you were excited to get involved with the Maxx You Project.

I am all about empowering women and encouraging them to break stereotypes and go after their dreams, and that's what this Maxx You Project is all about. T.J. Maxx interviewed hundreds of women last year, and that's when they found out that 80 percent of women feel stereotyped and feel like society kind of puts them in a box, labels [them], and has certain expectations -- and I know that's something we've all felt at one time or the other. So I wasn't surprised about the 80.

This is something I've experienced myself. I remember when I first started boxing, and I was told, "You can't, you shouldn't, you won't be able to." And if I would've listened to all of that, I would never have been able to achieve everything that I've been able to achieve over the years. So when I was approached about this project, I thought it was amazing, of course, and very natural for me to get involved. I'm excited about it.

In the years since you made the realization that you were being stereotyped at the start of your boxing career, do you feel as though society has made strides in that respect?

Society is going to be society. What we have to do is change who we are as individuals. You gotta learn how to block it out, you gotta learn how to have courage, be confident, not let your dreams die because of what other people tell you. Someone is always going to be a naysayer because of an experience they've had or a certain idea that they have about what you should and shouldn't be doing, so that we can't worry about. What we want to do is encourage women to push past that, see past that, and go for it.

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Was there a specific moment in your career where you realized you really had to fight those barriers?

From the very beginning, I knew going in -- because I'm a realistic person, and I strategize and I think about everything -- and I was like, "Okay, people are going to compare me to my father" and do all of that. But I was more surprised by -- and even now -- how many comments I get about "You're too pretty to box." And I'm like, "If I were less attractive, would you feel more comfortable with it? I don't understand that." But you know, people really have this idea that if you're an attractive woman, maybe you should be a model, or maybe you should do something that has to do with your looks -- and I'm doing the exact opposite. So I don't think there isn't a bigger stereotype that I could've broken. It was like in your face. So I'm encouraging other women to do the same. Not necessarily become a fighter, obviously, but just do whatever it is that you want to do.

Even if you're a mom, and you've been a stay-at-home mom, and you have this wonderful business idea -- and people are telling you, "Oh no, you can't do it. It's too hard out there" -- and you have something inside that you want to do that makes you unique and makes you different, it's just about coming together and encouraging one another to go for it.

We're sharing our stories, and that's what the project is all about. We're going to choose 80 women from the submissions. They're going to come to a workshop [this summer], and [we're going to] arm them with information and knowledge that they need to go for it.

Tell me about the process of choosing those women. What are you looking for?

It's going to come down to compelling stories. You know, there's no right or wrong; it's just about the stories and obstacles that you've overcome. Out of the 80, three will be picked to go on and actually have one-on-one contact with me and ["Shark Tank" investor] Barbara Corcoran and be mentored.

You mentioned your father earlier. Did he have any words of wisdom for you when you were breaking into the boxing world?

My own father told me I probably shouldn't box. It was my mother [who] encouraged me. And understandably so -- he didn't want me to get hurt. He didn't believe women should fight. He didn't want his youngest daughter fighting. You know, none of his kids followed [in] his footsteps, and here was his youngest, saying, "Guess what, dad?" So he tried to talk me out of it indirectly, and if I would've listened to my own father, I wouldn't have become a boxer.

PHOTOS: Laila Ali through the years

Did he change his mind at any point?

He did change his mind! I won that fight. I said, "You know what, I'm going to do it anyway. You just watch me." And then he came back and said, "Wow, you can fight. Women can fight." And that was a big win for me. I proved to Muhammad Ali that women can fight. Because he didn't think that we could.

Amazing. Rachel Platten is performing "Fight Song" tonight at the Maxx You Project kick-off event. Do you have a favorite pump-up song that motivates you?

I have so many, but let's see. I would say Beyoncé's "Run the World." I love that song, whether I'm working out, whether I'm getting ready to go into some sort of an entrepreneurial challenge. Anything. It's like, "Yes, let's do this. Let's make it happen."

See photos from the kick-off event below:

This interview has been edited and condensed.

*100% of ticket proceeds will be given to Girls Inc. of New York City to help in their mission to inspire all girls to be strong, smart, and bold.