A portrait of Ramla Ali in the boxing ring
A portrait of Ramla Ali in the boxing ring

Despite a jam-packed schedule, Ramla Ali is in a great mood. The Olympic boxer and model is speaking to me from a hotel in London on the promotional run for her debut book, Not Without a Fight. A kind of manifesto, the book compiles 10 key fights from Ali’s life both in and out of the ring to inspire readers to find the champion within.

“It was amazing to write” she says with a smile. “People ask me: which story that you talk about was the turning point for you? I feel like all of them collectively are what has shaped me; being born in Somalia, coming to the UK as a refugee, being bullied in school and starting boxing. I wanted to write this book for the young me, the little fat Ramla who had no self-confidence and very low self-esteem. I wanted to be a friend to that little girl and inspire her and show her that it’s always okay to be yourself.”

Reading the book, I felt as if I was in conversation with an extremely resilient and interesting best friend, someone driven yet down-to-earth – someone I would definitely call in a crisis. During our Zoom, Ali is exactly the same, a casual warmth exuding through the laptop screen as she speaks, a steely reserve bubbling not far beneath.

Ali says she was approached by several publishers for Not Without a Fight, but chose to go with Penguin and Stormzy’s #Merky Books as she admires the “platform they give to young Black voices and young Black creatives.” It’s clear she’s aware of how her presence in boxing and mainstream media is disruptive – and how it can be used as a force for change: “I always talk about representation. You can only be what you see. And there aren’t girls like me and you on TV” she says, looking directly at me down the camera. “Getting a career in sport I was told it can't be done. But it can. And that allows other girls to hope and dream and have aspirations of possibly doing the same.”

It’s hard to know where to start with Ali’s incredible backstory and the powerful lessons she’s drawn from it. Born in the midst of a civil war in Somali, she still was a baby when her 12-year old brother was killed by a grenade in the garden of their family home. Her grieving parents fled to Kenya with Ali, her two sisters and three other brothers on a packed and treacherous eight-week boat ride where many others lost their lives.

After some time in Dubai, the family settled in Whitechapel, East London, where Ali grew up. Pre-occupied with securing safety for the family, Ali’s parents left many documents behind and today Ali’s birthday is shrouded in mystery: “I moved when I was about one years old, I remember my Mum told me I was still breastfeeding. But I don't know my age. I don't know the month or even the year I was born. I just guess”. Ali estimates she is around 30 to 32 years old, adopting 16 September as her honorary birthday.

In spite of these early hardships, part of Ali’s book reads as a love letter to her parents and early life in London. She describes the school library as being her sanctuary (Pride and Prejudice remains her favourite book) and watching Somali soap operas with her mother. “You don't really pick up sacrifices that your parents made to make sure that you're safe and happy as a kid” she says. “We didn’t have a lot of material possessions but we had food, clothes, a warm roof over our head. My parents sacrificed their own dreams to make sure we had dreams. And for that I'm grateful.”

Ali’s formative years were on a council estate; her book opens with a disconcerting story of a racist attack where her hijab was ripped off her body by boys from her area. Today she no longer wears a headscarf, although her faith is important to her. “The hijab is a very personal choice and wearing it is not an act of being oppressed. It’s liberating to know that you have this choice. One day I’ll put it back on,” she explains.

Reflecting on the attack, Ali said she “hates” that she couldn’t retaliate. Did that inspire her foray into boxing? “Maybe that was at the back of my mind, I didn't want to be hurt, I wanted to protect myself. But it was more about getting healthier” she says. An overweight teenager, Ali was badly bullied until she starting working out with her best friend, Danica, at a local gym, stumbling into boxercise classes before joining a boxing club close to her home – an activity she kept hidden from her family for years.

However, when she was 22, Ali’s parents discovered their daughter’s secret and staged “an intervention”, viewing boxing as immodest. For Ali, it was a dark time. “I was asked to stop. And when you're from an African family or Muslim family, you want to be the dutiful daughter so you agree to the terms to maintain harmony and balance. It was… the worst.”

A portrait of Ramla Ali in the ring

In the ring: Ramla Ali.

Ali became depressed for the six to eight months she didn’t box. It was only in 2016, when she got married to Richard Moore, a coach she met at a London boxing gym who converted to Islam for her, that she believed that boxing could be a permanent fixture in her life. “He was the first person to tell me that, look, it can be done. I believe in you. You're good enough. Let's do this,” she smiles. “Now my Mum loves Richard more than me! He’s learning Somali which is really sweet.”

With the support of her family and her husband, boxing success soon followed, with Ali winning the 2015 Novice National Championships, the 2016 England Boxing Elite National Championships and the Great British Elite Championships. “I speak a lot in the book about the fight losses which stemmed from having to keep boxing secret from my family. I couldn’t fully go for it in the ring without their support” she reflects. “But I've always been a woman determined; if I put my mind to something, I have to go out and do it.”

Today Ali is signed to Anthony Joshua's 258 management label, and while she’s deeply patriotic and “proud to be both” British and Somali, she’s keen to emphasise the difference in experience when representing an “African nation compared to a Western one”. In 2021 she became first boxer ever to represent Somalia at the Olympics – a huge feat. But Ali was beaten by Claudia Nechita of Romania, something she feels might not have happened if she “was given more of a chance” by her country. Still, Ali’s spirit remains undiminished and she’s since helped set up the Somali Boxing Federation. “I got to the Olympics on my own, not many people can say that,” she says. “Imagine if I had all the support, what would I have been able to achieve?”

Ali’s funded her sports career by modelling, lending her to face to brands such as Dior. Luckily, she loves it. “Once right before a shoot I got hit under my left eye in a fight. I was crying – everyone thought it was because it was hurting but I just thought: how am I going to make a living? But on the shoot the editor walked up to me and said ‘This is amazing. We have to use this,’ and directed the makeup artist not to cover the scar. You have perceptions of what the fashion world will be, but everybody is so welcoming.”

So what’s next? Well there’s a Film4 TV drama of her life in the works, led by Oscar-nominated The Favourite producer Lee Magiday, for starters. But slowing down isn’t in the DNA of Ramla Ali. “Hopefully I can compete again by the end of this year to finish 2021 with a bang” she says. “I haven't achieved that much – there’s still so much more I want to do.”

 

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

  • Not Without a Fight: Ten Steps to Becoming Your Own Champion

  • ___________________
    Ramla Ali is a triple threat - humanitarian, model and boxer. Her life inside and outside the ring represents her ruthless refusal to quit and passion to fight for what she believes in.

    In her first book, Ramla details ten key fights - a combination of life's constant challenges and real bouts she's endured both in and outside of the ring - that have shaped her remarkable rise to date.

    From her arrival in England as a refugee to being drawn to the energy and spirit of her first boxercise class; from the adrenaline of her first amateur fights to how she often powered on alone, searching for a community of women like her, and her biggest win of all: letting love into her life.

    Each relatable lesson is packed full of honesty and urgency, powering the reader on to become their own champion.
    ___________________
    'No matter where you start off in life, hard work, dedication and an unwillingness to give up will always see you through to your target. I hope you can take as much out of this book as I did' ANTHONY JOSHUA


    'A gripping and essential read. She continues to turn her own immense personal achievements into positive change for others and make a mark not only in her sport, but also in the world' CAMILLA THURLOW


    'A force for good ... Ali is tough, self-possessed, funny and unafraid to tell it how it is' FINANCIAL TIMES

    'Ali radiates energy ... her ruthless refusal to quit has propelled her to the top of the sporting and fashion world' TELEGRAPH

    'Is there anything Somali-born boxing champion Ramla Ali can't do?' VOGUE

    'Here is a woman so determined and driven to meet her goals, 'hero' doesn't seem inappropriate' STYLIST

    'Ramla Ali is an unstoppable force' ELLE

  • Buy the book

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