‘Can you not paint me out to be a victim?’ says Ramla Ali in her slight east London accent, with a wry smile and a playful roll of the eyes. It’s been an intense day of training, and in a dark Nike tracksuit, curled up on a black sofa, she is almost camouflaged until she suddenly springs to life, eager to discuss the myriad projects she has in the pipeline — less eager to discuss her back story.
Ali has a point. She came to the UK as a refugee fleeing war, but she is also a decorated boxer who has yet to lose a fight in her young professional career. She is the first fighter to compete for Somalia at an international level and she has successfully launched her own charity. When she’s not in the ring, Ali is an ambassador for Pantene, Coach and Cartier. She was personally picked to be on the cover of British Vogue by Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, and is often front row at fashion week; so yes, Ali is anything but a victim.
And yet, there is a reason people are tempted to paint her in such a light. Ali, 31, understands that her inescapable past is a powerful one; her family lived through a civil war, lost friends and family and made a perilous escape by boat to Kenya. Long before Ali had ever picked up a boxing glove, her family had fought for their survival; could that be part of the reason she has become such a successful boxer? ‘It’s definitely an immigrant thing; you’re coming to another country for a better life, you do have to fight to survive and to succeed you have to take the opportunities you’re given and really, really go for it.’
Ali started boxing as a teenager. She was bullied at school for being overweight and wanted to change the way she looked. She discovered it by accident; a Boxercise class in her local leisure centre in East Ham ignited an early love of the sport before she joined a local boxing gym and eventually started competing. The competitions got bigger: she won the Novice National Championships and English title series and started fighting for England — but all of it was done in secret. She feared her Muslim parents would see it as haram; forbidden by Islamic law. Today her parents are her biggest fans. It didn’t happen overnight but they eventually accepted Ali’s career choice in part because she chose to fight for Somalia. She wanted to paint the country in a positive light and prove she was a fighter, not a victim.
Her dream was to be the first person to win Olympic gold for Somalia and she hoped 2020 would be the year; but of course, pandemic struck. She has said recently that she still hopes to get the call for Tokyo this year. ‘When the Olympics were [postponed], I was completely heartbroken,’ she says. ‘It was 100 per cent the right thing to do but I couldn’t help feeling sad.’ I ask if it was difficult, having her career put on hold at its peak by the coronavirus crisis. ‘It’s not on hold,’ she counters.
Though she is at the top of her game, she often has to settle for male sparring partners who are usually heavier than the weight category at which she competes. ‘Sometimes it’s nice,’ she says. ‘It definitely makes you fearless, but sparring men can be quite unrealistic.’ When Ali first started out there were so few women in boxing that fighting men was the norm. She even broke her nose fighting a male opponent. ‘A lot of the first gyms I trained at didn’t even have women’s changing rooms,’ she says. ‘I accepted it. I’d get dressed in the manager’s office when everyone had left instead.’
On 20 March Ali won her second professional fight against the Swindon boxer, Bec Connolly. Despite sustaining a brutal-looking cut to the eye, she remained strong and slick, but several pundits and social media commentators regularly judge Ali on her looks first, performance in the ring second. A few days after the fight Ali released a statement addressing the impact of constantly having her boxing undermined by sexist comments. ‘Should young girls believe that if they aren’t considered pretty by middle-aged men in publicly funded old boys clubs then they are unable to succeed in sport?’ she says. ‘It’s hard, it’s very disappointing. The idea that if you look good you will get far as an athlete — that’s not the right message to give to young girls.’
Nevertheless, Ali is determined to level the playing field. Her Sisters Club charity began as a free women’s boxing class aimed at Muslim and hijab-wearing women, though she stresses it has always been open to any woman. ‘I want to create a safe space where women can feel comfortable training,’ she says. Ali has encountered women who have suffered domestic abuse and want to learn self defence, Muslim women who want to train without their hijab and others who just want to get fit. In the past year she has landed enough funding from the likes of Nike and Sports Direct to be able to roll it out across the UK, as well as the United States. She even plans to open a boxing gym in her native Somalia.
It’s a huge initiative that Ali hopes will get more women into boxing. Given that women weren’t allowed to join British official clubs until 1996, and couldn’t compete in the Olympics until 2012, there’s a lot of catching up to do. ‘More people need to watch fights,’ she adds. ‘We get paid to our commercial value. If 11 million people tune in to watch Anthony Joshua fight, he’s generating a lot of revenue. Less people tune in to watch women fight, but we’re still getting paid according to demand. You’re telling me I need to bring more of an audience to the table to get myself equal pay. I’m doing that, but at the same time, it’s the broadcasters’ responsibility to have a standard that’s on par. I’m bringing in a new audience and they have to listen to sexist bullshit? You’re asking everything of the athlete, nothing of yourself.’
When Ali was first approached by Nike to appear in a campaign, she hoped occasional modelling could help supplement her boxing career but it quickly turned into something much bigger. She was invited by Vogue’s Edward Enninful to the annual Serpentine Summer Party, where she assumed the star-studded event would be a one-off and spent most of the evening asking for selfies. ‘I was told not to but I remember scouting the place out for people I’d love to get pictures with. I got a photo with Sabrina Elba, Liam Payne, Adwoa Aboah and that’s about it because I wasn’t used to wearing heels and my feet hurt so much. I thought I’d go in, get my pictures and get out.’
That was just the start. Ali’s life changed dramatically as magazine editorials, glitzy events and huge brand campaigns filtered in. ‘I never used to be a girly girl but now I love nothing more than getting a facial — I feel like a peeled prawn.’ But has the glamour impacted her boxing career? ‘No,’ she says, firmly. ‘I’ve been presented with amazing opportunities but I’m always true to myself. For everything I’ve said “yes” to, there’s loads I’ve turned down. If you sell out, how can you live with yourself?’
An example of the right kind of collaboration, she says, is her work with Coach. The New York brand dressed her for that very first Serpentine party, but more recently, she has been an ambassador for its Dream It Real campaign, an initiative with partner charity UK Youth, encouraging young people to explore their dreams. When Ali was invited to do a talk in a Hackney secondary school, she chose to speak about failure. ‘Instagram is always so full of people sharing their successes,’ she explains. ‘At that age… there’s so much pressure. Some of them won’t get the grades they want — that happened to me and I felt awful. But then my life steered a different way; failure is okay, it’s an opportunity to learn.’
Ali is clearly aware of her ability to influence. She supports the Black Lives Matter movement and last summer attended several protests. ‘When you see videos [like George Floyd’s killing] it makes you so angry because it’s not a one-time thing, it happens again and again and it really pisses me off. It’s important to try to educate people.’ Not everyone wanted to hear her message. ‘There’s a guy I’ve been friends with for a long time, a white man, and he messaged me saying he didn’t like what I was posting, he was essentially arguing for All Lives Matter. Of course all lives matter, but at the moment we’re talking about black people who are dying because of racism.’
For Ali, racism is still a part of life. ‘Every time I go through customs, I get stopped. They tell you you’ve been selected for a random search, take everything out of your bag, you look around and think, “Hold on, why is it only ever people of colour being stopped?” That’s why I go to protests. People say I’m wasting my time, but if there’s a slight hope that things might change, I have to fight for it.’
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