During the live taping of May 7’s Dancing with the Stars, Muhammad Ali slowly shuffled his way into the ballroom, using his wife, Lonnie, for support instead of a walker. Easing himself into a padded black chair, the formerly louder-than-life boxer, who has battled Parkinson’s disease for more than two decades, sat expressionless at first, his left thumb twitching slightly in his lap. But when the legendary fighter spotted two attractive young women in the audience blowing him kisses, his eyes lit up. He pointed at them and waved as the crowd cheered. To Laila Ali, that was just Dad being Dad: “He’s the biggest flirt in the world!”
That night, however, the champ was there for one woman: his youngest daughter, Laila, 29, who followed her father into the boxing ring as a women’s super-middleweight titlist. But this season her knockout dance moves have made her a TV star and a semifinalist on Dancing. After Laila dedicated her waltz to her father, 65, and her mother, Veronica Porsche Anderson (they divorced in 1986), “I lost my focus a bit,” Laila admits. “I got a little emotional” as her home video reel played. “It took my attention off of the dance for just a minute. I started off on the wrong foot.”
Still, she nabbed three 9s, a proud moment for both father and daughter, who share a keen competitive edge—and much more. “I see a lot of me in him and him in me,” says Laila. Their bond has lasted through the strains of fame, divorce and the disease that has ravaged Muhammad’s body—and yes, Dad, who devoured previous Dancing episodes on TV, is as thrilled with her high scores as he was with her KOs. “After he saw the first show, his thing was just ‘Everywhere I go everybody’s talking about you!'” says Laila. “He thought it was funny because he’s used to people talking about him.”
Their May 7 reunion at Dancing was the first time father and daughter had seen each other in a few months. “When we get together, it’s like we haven’t missed a beat,” says Laila. But “it’s not as easy for him to get around as everyone else.” Despite the tremors, stiffness and slurred speech caused by Parkinson’s, Muhammad keeps an ambitious travel schedule to support humanitarian causes. At the home he shares with Lonnie, 50, in Phoenix, his routine includes lifting weights and bike riding. He also likes to pop in old Clint Eastwood movies and answer fan mail—sometimes by calling a phone number in a letter to say hello in his whispery voice. And his playful nature remains intact. “He has dessert for breakfast—ice cream and Popsicles,” says Ali’s older sister Hana, 30.
To Laila, her father’s condition—diagnosed in 1984—”is just a part of life. Since I was a child my father was sick. I’ve always known him to be that way. That’s why I’m proud of him—he has a disease he’s obviously struggling with, but he’s not letting it stop him from doing what he wants to do.”
Little ever did—whether the three-time heavyweight champion was taunting opponents in the ring or stirring controversy when he converted to Islam and later refused to join the Army citing religious reasons. “The things that he stood up for, I would have done the same thing,” says Laila. Growing up in L.A., she clearly took after her dad: As a toddler, she would punch at the camera in home videos, imitating him. And she had self-confidence to spare. In elementary school, she persuaded her teachers to skip her ahead, asserting that she was not supposed to be in the second grade but the third grade.
At home, Muhammad “wasn’t really a good disciplinarian. He would give you whatever you wanted.” Except Christmas presents—as a Muslim, he nixed any celebrating (though he relented as they got older). “That was big for a kid,” says Laila, who does not practice her father’s faith. As for her dad’s global celebrity, Laila remembers fans coming up to him “in awe” during her childhood. “I didn’t really understand until I was older why people respect him so much.”
After her parents divorced, Muhammad remained in her life, though she only saw him every other month. Other siblings—Ali has married four times and has nine children, aged 15 to 38—divided his attention. So did the demands of his career (Ali retired in ’81) and public life. Says Laila: “We shared our father with the world.”
Soon Laila stepped into the public eye too—much to her dad’s chagrin. When she told him she wanted to enter the boxing ring in ’99, “He pretty much told me every possible negative thing that could happen. ‘What’s going to happen if you get hit and you get dazed? What if you get knocked down?’ He never said, ‘Don’t do it.’ He knew that wasn’t going to work. I’m going to do what I want to do. But he definitely [will] be happy when I retire from boxing.”
So this bit of news may bring a smile to Muhammad’s face: Laila is considering hanging up her gloves soon. “I’m on the fence right now,” says Ali. “I’m undefeated. When you’re not challenged anymore, it’s hard to continue.” Besides, after her summer wedding to former NFL star Curtis Conway, 36, Laila (who is divorced from trainer Johnny McClain) is eager to make room in their Woodland Hills, Calif., home for a baby boxer—or ballroom dancer. That’s something Muhammad has long been anticipating. After Laila first introduced Conway to his future father-in-law, “He comes up to me and says, ‘You guys gonna have babies?'” recalls Conway, laughing. “What am I going to say to this man? We weren’t even engaged yet!”
Laila says she’ll encourage her children to step out of the shadow of the Ali legacy; still, she can’t help but use her father as an example to live by. “The things about their grandfather that I want to teach are why he’s so loved and the things he went through that made him such a great man and a great fighter,” says Laila. “That’s something to get inspired by.”
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