Pioneer Ramla Ali turning her ‘secret’ sport into platform for change
Ramla Ali had imagined the moment she would claim her first amateur boxing title many
Ramla Ali had imagined the moment she would claim her first amateur boxing title many times. When she finally did, in 2015, it was as sweet a moment of victory as she could have envisioned. Except that it remained a secret hidden from those closest to her – her family.
“I just had to make something up,” she says. “So, I told my mum I was going out for a run – that the run would be a long one – and left.” Ali laughs as she recalls this story, shaking her head at the sheer audacity of her fib.
“Looking back at it now, it’s crazy, but what else could I do? I went, competed, won the match and said my thank yous before I ran back home. I was still sweaty, and my mum was none the wiser.”
The 2015 Novice National Championships were the stepping stone for Ali and what followed were a string of successes, including winning the 2016 England Boxing Elite National Championships and the British Championships. With each win, it became increasingly difficult to hide her burgeoning career from her family. Ali, who originally trained as a lawyer, had not seriously considered boxing as a career choice. As a young Somali girl, it was a cultural taboo – her mum frequently reminding her: “Women don’t box.”
With the support of her mother, Ali started fitness classes as a way to keep fit, build confidence and lose weight following years of bullying as a child for being overweight. But somewhere between 12 and 14 years old, Ali discovered boxing and fell in love with it. She became the first Muslim woman to win an English boxing title, but it was not easy. After years of frustration at a lack of opportunities to compete for England, she decided to switch to represent her country of birth, Somalia, in 2018.
But in the chaos of a civil war, documentation was a luxury, therefore Ali had no official or unofficial note of her birth. Ali now puts herself as somewhere between 28 and 30 years old. It also meant that any history of the Somali boxing federation was effectively lost. “I had to set up the federation from scratch,” Ali says. “It was actually a really long process of back and forth between ourselves and the Amateur International Boxing Association.”
International boxing rules state that there has to be a minimum of a two-year gap from when a person switches the country they represent. The wait was agonising for Ali, who felt she had already been stalled for years. But in 2018 she became the first female boxer to represent Somalia at the World Championships, followed by winning the 2019 African Zone featherweight title: the first boxer to win an African title for Somalia.
Ali radiates energy talking about Somalia, from which she and her family had been forced to flee. They travelled between refugee camps in Kenya before settling in London. Now, looking back, she says representing the country of her birth was a career-defining decision which opened her eyes to how important representation is.
“My initial reason for wanting to represent Somalia was purely selfish – not going to lie, it was all about me. But seeing how proud people were of me for representing Somalia, I thought to myself, this is something bigger than me. It’s about encouraging resilience – if I can do it, why can’t other girls?”
Outside the ring, she has featured on the cover of Vogue, chosen by Meghan Markle as one of her “forces for change”, and is releasing a self-help book entitled Not Without a Fight in partnership with Stormzy’s Merky Books. Perhaps unwittingly, her ruthless refusal to quit has propelled her to the top of the sporting and fashion world. Yet for Ali, the honours are only the start of the legacy she hopes to build. She has committed to giving 25 per cent of her boxing income to Black Lives Matter causes, she delivers self-defence lessons to women through her “Sisters Club” and was a prominent supporter for the Justice for Shukri Abdi campaign – the movement supporting the 12-year-old Somali refugee who drowned in Manchester.
“Like many, I’ve suffered racism,” Ali says. “When I was younger, I was walking home from Islamic classes at the mosque and some kids pulled off my hijab. Unknowingly, they’d pulled it so hard that the safety pin went into my neck. I had blood dripping down my neck, it was so painful. Since that day, I stopped wearing the hijab.” The emotion catches in her voice as she recalls the episode. “In hindsight, I wish I was strong enough to not let it affect me, but I was a kid.”
Ali actively encourages others to support the Black Lives Matter movement. “It is something that ultimately affects everyone. Yeah, it’s something that predominantly affects black communities, but we have a collective responsibility.”
Though last year saw her work in fashion and activism catapult her to new heights, Ali’s sporting career was at a crossroads. The onset of the pandemic prompted her to switch paths and turn professional.
“The whole world just came to a standstill. I thought, let’s just keep training, but amateur boxing just wasn’t starting back up again. I wanted to qualify for the Olympics and to stay active, so I made the decision to turn professional.”
Ali signed to Anthony Joshua’s 258 Management label and kicked off her pro career with a dominant victory over Eva Hubmeyer last November. “The Olympics is still the ultimate dream, if it’s not this year then 2024. Growing up, I’d hear the phrase hore u soco, which means to move forward in Somali. You know, sometimes, you have a dream that’s just so big inside of you, you’ll do whatever you possibly can to achieve it.”
Ali’s mother might not have known her daughter was winning a national championship on their doorstep, but when the world’s eyes fall on the Olympics, Ali hopes to be centre stage.