Why the boxer Ramla Ali is a force for good
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Just over a month ago, the Somali-born, London-bred boxer and model Ramla Ali stepped into the ring for her first fight as a professional. She’d been a force to reckon with on the amateur circuit for a number of years. But with the cancellation of the Olympics and amateur boxing at a standstill because of Covid-19, going professional was the only way she could get back in the ring. “Professional boxing had just opened up again and nothing was happening with amateur boxing. And I really wanted to continue competing,” she tells me from her London home. “Throughout the whole of lockdown I was training. I just wanted to be ready.”
And she was ready. If there were any doubts that she’d make the grade as a professional, she laid them to rest, defeating Germany’s Eva Hubmeyer decisively. “[Ali] towered over Hubmeyer,” read the Boxing Scene report of the fight, “and completely outclassed her… it was uncomfortable watching at times, as Hubmeyer had no real defence against Ali’s punches.”
But then overcoming is what Ali has always done, both in and out of the ring. When she was one (Ali is not exactly sure how old she is – somewhere between 28 and 30), her 12-year-old brother was killed by a mortar while playing outdoors during the ongoing Somali civil war. Her family – father, mother, two older sisters, an older brother and two younger brothers – subsequently fled to Kenya on an overcrowded boat on which a number of the passengers died of starvation.
From there, they travelled to Dubai and then to the UK, eventually settling in east London, where Ali was bullied at school for being “overweight”. She took up boxing in her local gym to get fit, something that, as a young Muslim woman, was an absolute no-no. She kept it secret from her family, saying that she was going out for a run when she was actually going to compete in tournaments. When they found out and forced her to quit, she took it up again anyway. She went on to win the 2015 Novice National Championships, the 2016 England Boxing Elite National Championships, the Great British Elite Championships, and, fighting for Somalia since 2017, the African Zone Featherweight title. With the help of her husband and coach, Richard Moore (grandson of the late football manager Dave Sexton), she has now reconciled her family to her career. She works with Coach (for whom she is largely dressed on these pages), has contracts with Nike, Pantene and Cartier, and was chosen by the Duchess of Sussex as one of her 15 “forces of change” on the cover of Vogue in September last year. She also has a first in law from SOAS.
And yet, one of the most striking things she says in the course of our conversation is that, for all the prizes and contracts she has been awarded, she doesn’t want “to be known for her accomplishments and achievements”. She’s already committed to giving 25 per cent of her first year’s take as a pro to Black Lives Matter charities, and highlights one of her main priorities as being the Sisters Club, which she launched in 2018 to give self-defence lessons to women. “I wanted to get into volunteering because I want to be known as a person who was able to give back,” she says. “So Sisters Club was set up initially as a three-month project, and two and a half years later here we are still going because it can’t just be a three- month thing. It’s got to be ongoing. It’s about being able to defend yourself, because that’s what I teach them. It’s not boxercise. It’s not: ‘Throw 20 punches on the bag and then do 10 burpees.’ It’s teaching them how to actually box and how to actually defend themselves from punches.”
The club was originally created as “a space to allow Muslim women to train free of men” but “the other need”, says Ali, has been to give any women who have suffered from domestic violence or sexual assault a chance to learn to defend themselves. “I don’t believe women should need to pay for the privileges of that skill,” she says. It works out of Box Clever Sports gym in Ladbroke Grove, and is run by Ali and her husband, with admin help from her sister Luul. The local council is going to turn the gym into flats and offices and, frustrated, Ali aims to find new premises and expand the club to provide different outlets for women across London.
The increased levels of domestic violence that have been seen this year have further fuelled her commitment to the cause of Sisters Club. “We’ve continued via Zoom. A lot of these women would tune in every Sunday morning to get their workout in before looking after the kids or tidying up the house and things like that. Knowing that they can still defend themselves if anything was to happen – it’s just the best feeling.”
She’s also keen to inspire girls back in Somalia that being female and being Muslim should be no barrier to sports such as boxing. “The other day I was sent a video by this amazing political activist, Ilwad Elman, showing two Somali girls wearing a hijab practising boxing and she said, ‘Look, Ramla, look what you’ve done. You’ve inspired a whole generation.’ To take up any sport wearing a hijab, knowing that they’ll be probably plastered all over most TV channels, is so brave. Especially in Somalia because you’ve got these horrible terrorist groups and these warlords that want to control the country. So to just sort of stick a middle finger up at them and say, ‘Look, I’m just going to do what I want, and if I want to box, I’m going to box’ – that’s amazing.”
Back in London, she has become involved with fashion label Coach’s Dream It Real initiative, which works with inner-city children to prepare them for the working world. “When you finish school, what happens?” she says. “When you finish college, what happens? When you finish university, what happens in the real world? So the idea of Dream It Real is to prepare young adults for the real world. It shows them how to be creative. It helps them build relationships. It helps them to be ready for interviews. It’s something that I personally wish I had had when I was in secondary school, because I was in such a hurry to grow up, not knowing how shit it is growing up.”
In terms of her own role models, her mother stands centre stage. Ali has recently worked with Unicef visiting refugee camps in Jordan, and speaks about how NGOs saved her and her family’s life when they fled to Kenya. But it is her mother who emerges again and again as the figure who saw the family through. “She’d queue for hours to get food rations that would in turn feed us, because when we fled Somalia, we fled with nothing,” she says. And, “My mum is probably the strongest person I know. She’s a better fighter than I am, that’s for sure. She is the best fighter I know.”
Despite their quarrels over her becoming a boxer, Ali and her mother remain close. “During lockdown, I was cycling past my mum’s house and just waving to her from the outside,” she says. “It was so sad. She was, like, ‘Come in, come in.’ She doesn’t understand English, so she doesn’t understand that you’re staying away for her own good, and I would be, like, ‘Mum, I can’t, I’m just going to wave to you from outside.’”
When they lived in Somalia, her mother travelled the country as a buyer, while her father ran a shop in Mogadishu. In interviews, Ali has talked less about her father, but he remains a constant in her life. “He’s an introvert,” she says. “He doesn’t say much. Give him a packet of crisps and he’s happy, just watching everybody arguing around him. I feel like the day that everybody sat me down to say you’ve got to stop boxing, he was the only one that stuck up for me and said, ‘Look, it’s her life. Let her do what she wants.’”
The Alis weren’t, however, a family that liked to talk about things much. “This is not great, but it’s the truth,” she says. “Talking about your past and talking about mental health and bullying and things like that, it’s just not a thing that African families talk about.” I’d imagined that Ali would have grown up knowing the stories of her family’s escape from Somalia to the UK, but it turns out that much of the narrative remained secret until she was in her early 20s and married to Moore. “My mum, because of all the trauma she’d faced, would never speak about Somalia to us. It was only after I got married that Richard started asking my mum questions, and half the stories I heard her tell him via the medium of an interpreter were stories I was hearing for the very first time.”
Similarly, when Ali was being bullied about her weight she felt unable to talk to her family. “I mean, there are a few times I thought about just wanting to not be. I feel like most people that have gone through bullying have felt like that at one point in their life. And the only reason why I didn’t go through with it was because I was scared of my mum. How stupid does that sound? Like, imagine it didn’t go to plan and my mum found out, how mad she’d be? That sort of saved me. Then I got into boxing, fell in love with it and in time I learnt to love myself.”
In learning to love herself, she also put her relationship with her family in jeopardy. Looking back now, she can understand her mother’s fears for her. “I obviously hid boxing from my mum because I thought – and I was partly right – that she wouldn’t approve because of the taboo, if that’s the right word, around Muslim girls taking up sport, especially a ‘male’ sport like boxing. But more recently I found the true reason: when we were in Somalia, one of my cousins narrowly survived an attack, came to the UK, and then was stabbed outside of a school. So she was trying to keep us from danger and I was essentially walking into danger, and yeah, I feel like it was 50/50. So, 50 per cent you know, she didn’t want a Muslim girl taking up boxing, but then 50 per cent she didn’t want me to walk into danger to get hurt.”
Does she fear getting hurt in the ring? “For me, it’s always the fear of losing,” she says. “I don’t mind being hurt. I mean, so many bad things have happened to me in boxing. I’ve broken my nose, I’ve broken a rib, broken my hand…”
Ali is tough, self-possessed, funny and unafraid to tell it how it is. A school report might describe her as perfect role-model material, the kind of woman who inspired the Duchess of Sussex to put her on a Vogue cover. “For me, Ramla is a changemaker,” says Stuart Vevers, creative director of Coach, who asked her to collaborate with the brand. “And I think that really lives with our Coach values. She’s genuine, she’s courageous and she’s someone who has forged her own unique path. You are drawn to people who are interesting and cool at the end of the day, and that’s what Ramla is to me.”
She’s currently starring alongside J Lo, Megan Thee Stallion, Michael B Jordan and Paris Hilton in Coach’s Holiday Is Where You Find It campaign, and was shot for us in pieces from the pre-spring collections. There’s a casual, wearable elegance to Vevers’s collections for Coach that speaks to Ali’s easy-going sense of style.
She first wore Coach to the Serpentine party in 2019. “That was the first time I ever went somewhere that wow,” she remembers. “I was given a few dresses to choose from and the one that stuck out for me was the Coach one. It was all me, basically, and that’s how the partnership blossomed.” She now talks about feeling “part of this amazing Coach family”, and loves the way Vevers designs pieces with an emotional appeal. “All of the Coach clothing is things that I would wear every day,” she tells me of the gold leather skirt, chiffon dress and shearling jacket she wears here. “It just suits me very well.”
In 2018 Coach collaborated with Teen Vogue and model Adwoa Aboah and Holly Gore, whose Gurls Talk community highlights the importance of speaking about mental health, sexuality, racism and body positivity. Ali is a crucial part of that ongoing story for Coach as Vevers seeks to develop the narrative and change the conversation in fashion about gender, identity and class.
“I love the work we’ve been doing with Ramla,” says Vevers. “We’re a house that stands for optimism and authenticity and an inclusive attitude, and Ramla is a perfect ambassador for us.” In the age of #metoo, #blacklivesmatter and of women living their lives unencumbered in the way they want to, Ali is a vital force.