You knew someone important was coming on Monday night. There was a special black armchair, padded and more comfortable than Dancing with the Stars' standard stiff ballroom chairs. At the top of the show, it was occupied by a seat filler. And then, just before the fourth dance, when Laila Ali and her pro partner, Maksim Chmerkovskiy, took the stage, the seat filler was ushered away. While cohost Samantha Harris was backstage interviewing Billy Ray Cyrus about the fox trot that judge Bruno Tonioli had just called "crap," a familiar figure shuffled slowly into the ballroom.
It was Muhammad Ali. He walked in under his own steam. But he is 65 years old and struggling with Parkinson's disease, a neurological disorder that usually involves a progressive loss of motor control. There was a hush in the ballroom as he settled into the armchair next to his elegant fourth wife, Lonnie. Host Tom Bergeron made note of his arrival and the crowd immediately erupted in a standing ovation. Ali's mouth, not opening enough to show teeth, curved into the sweetest of smiles as he acknowledged the love in the room.
As he settled in, five red-jacketed ABC pages stationed themselves with their backs to him, a ring of security, doubtless to stop any die-hard fan from rushing to the floor to meet him. But there was never a feeling that someone would do something stupid: the adoration – and the respect — were palpable. "Muhammad Ali's in the house tonight," said warm-up Cory Almeida. "Come on, you know you want to give it up." And the audience went crazy again.
And then, as Laila danced, you could see that her father was entranced. He didn't move a muscle. But his eyes were glued to her every move. He didn't watch Maks, just Laila. It must've been so bittersweet: To be the former world-heavyweight champion and watch his offspring, another world champion and an extraordinary physical specimen, wowing the judges, the audience and the public with her own powerful blend of athleticism and grace. "It put a little more pressure on me tonight," said musical director Harold Wheeler, "knowing he was going to be there. I try to do the best job I can for all of the performers. But there was more pressure for Laila's number in the fact that Muhammad Ali was here. I wanted her to be able to do a good job for him."
She did a wonderful job, a solid waltz, and walked away with three "9" ratings from the judges. As they rolled into a commercial break, Lonnie Ali took out Kleenex and gently dabbed her husband's eyes and mouth. Then she straightened his suit jacket and tie. The two have been married since 1986. Laila's mother, Veronica Porsche Anderson — Ali's third wife — sat nearby. She, too, only had eyes for her daughter.
Leave it to Billy Ray Cyrus to break through the wall of formality that surrounded Ali. With Cyrus' trademark warmth and friendliness, he walked over to Ali immediately after his mambo to shake his hand and then aim a few fake punches in his direction. It was twice as funny when Tonioli's critique included the following: "You're like a wild beast that cannot be tamed." At that point, Cyrus was beyond caring. He knows he can't dance, and he had just shaken hands with a legend.
It was also a thrill for Chmerkovskiy, who thought he'd won the lottery when he heard that he and Laila would be partners. "When they said it was Laila Ali, I was very happy," says Chmerkovskiy. "She's a great athlete — and I get to meet her daddy."
As for Laila herself, she must've reached a whole new comfort level in her dancing to have her father in the audience. Before the season began, we asked her how her father felt about her being on Dancing with the Stars. She said, "My dad would probably say, ‘Don't put her in dresses that are too slinky.' My dad is a Muslim and he doesn't even like me wearing a sports bra and shorts in the ring. So you can imagine what he's going to think of [ballroom costumes]. And it's not just the outfits — it's the movements, the facial expressions. We'll see what happens when he sees the actual performances. But I'm grown, so I'm not asking for permission. I didn't ask permission to box. And I didn't ask permission to dance. So he can feel what he wants to feel. The show's gonna go on, regardless."
But you could see it in her father's eyes. It was just fine.
ABC's Dancing with the Stars airs Monday at 8 pm/ET, and Tuesday at 9 (results show).
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