Don’t you dare put me in a headlock!” Laila Ali teases one of her guests, Robin Coleman. It isn’t typical luncheon conversation, but this isn’t a typical gathering. Ali, who entertains often, has invited some of the stars of American Gladiators to her Woodland Hills, Calif., home to celebrate the show being renewed for a second season. (Last seen on Dancing with the Stars, the former boxer now cohosts Gladiators alongside Hulk Hogan.) Coleman, whose Gladiator name is Hellga, has her arms in a playful choke hold around Romeo Williams—a.k.a. Mayhem. The wrestling halts when they spy Ali’s spread of braised chicken, crab cakes, baked sweet potatoes and angel food cake with blackberries and cherries.
Boxing, dancing, cooking. Is there anything the woman can’t do? (“Come back to that question,” she jokes.) If she got her moves in the ring from her dad, Muhammad Ali, she got her kitchen credentials from her maternal grandmother, Ethel. “My mom didn’t cook,” says Ali, 30. “I would call my grandma and ask, ‘How do you make potato salad?’ I’d listen to her, then make up my own recipe.” These days she’s confident enough to forgo measuring spoons and cook “by taste.”
Married last July to former NFL player Curtis Conway, 37, Ali cooks dinner most nights for the two of them or for pals who stop by to watch a boxing match. “All I have to do is say I’m cooking, and people come,” she says. Her style mixes high and low—she’ll hire a florist, but “most times my guests get paper plates.” An informal lunch party like this one is a good way to get to know new colleagues, and Ali is learning a lot. They don’t always use utensils (witness Wolf—real name: Don Yates—having at the chicken), they can be picky (Mike O’Hearn, a.k.a. Titan, chooses to eat only fruit), and they can strike fear in a cook’s heart. Asks Mayhem: “Food fight, anyone?” Luckily, Wolf steps in saying, “No way! This is too good to waste!”
For Ali’s recipes, go to People.com/Laila