She’s won every boxing title there is to win in this country. And now Ramla Ali, who left her native Somalia as a child and came to England, is inspiring female athletes – Muslim and otherwise – to follow their dreams. And she’s got her eyes on the biggest prize of all: becoming the first boxer – male or female – to represent Somalia at the 2020 Olympics.
Ramla first started boxing in Year 7. She was a bit overweight and getting bullied, so her mother got her a pass to the local gym. Ramla found running on a treadmill beyond boring so she started going to classes. She tried Boxercise – and was hooked. One class a week wasn’t enough for her so she found a gym in her area running kids classes, so she could start practising those jabs and hooks three times a week.
“It’s quite superficial to say but the thing that got me into it at first was how I noticed my body changing,” says Ramla.
“I was losing a bit of weight and getting more confident within myself, which made me enjoy it a lot more. I became addicted to seeing how much it could change my appearance. I know, I should have loved myself. But I was 14. What can you do?”
Ramla continued boxing for fun in her teens, stopping for a bit when she moved to Whitechapel and couldn’t get to her former leisure centre as easily. She took up kickboxing instead (which she wasn’t such a fan of), and when her friend – a member of a top boxing gym – suggested Ramla go with her, she didn’t think twice.
Once the coach there saw Ramla box, he immediately asked her if she’d be interested in competing.
“Up until that point I’d never thought about it but I thought, why not give it a go?” she says.
“And then I won my first fight. You can’t describe the feeling to a person who hasn’t felt it before. I was just hooked. I had to keep doing it and doing it.”
There was one small snag: Ramla hadn’t told her parents about her passion – she knew they wouldn’t approve. Eventually they found out in the most public way possible: when Ramla’s brother spotted her on television, performing on an all-female boxing show on the London Live channel. He told their mum, who was incredibly angry and asked her daughter to quit the sport.
“My boxing career has been stop and start – I’ve been so worried about what my family would think that I’d stop for a bit to make them happy. Then I’d go back when the bug would hit,” Ramla says.
“You need to keep progressing and putting in the hours and the hard work. I regret the stop and start and not continuing my training.”
Fairly recently, Ramla appeared on a televised interview for a Somali TV channel, speaking about how she wanted to compete for Somalia and make her family proud. One of her uncles was watching – and Ramla was happily surprised at his reaction.
“He called me and told me how proud he was and how it broke his heart I had to hide it for so long. My mum was worried about what her brothers would think but her family being OK with it made her much more OK with it and supportive.
“My most recent fight was in Denmark – I’d never talked to her about my fights – but before I left, I did. She called me during the final and after I won gold she told me that she had been praying all night and that she was so happy it went my way. I could never have pictured that we’d ever have a conversation about that!”
Ramla’s started travelling the globe in recent years, as she aims to gain as much international experience as possible. She’ll be in Germany next month for a small competition and then will be going to the AIBA Women’s World Championships in New Delhi in November – something she’s equal parts excited and nervous about.
“I’ve never done anything like it before,” says Ramla. “It will be harder than anything I’ve done because every single country in the world enters. It will be even harder than the Olympics.”
Ah yes, the 2020 Olympics. Ramla’s got clear goals. And big ones: she intends to represent Somalia in the Olympics as the first boxer, male or female. Ever.
Although the sports psychologist she’s recently started seeing to help boost her confidence has told her to focus her mind on the here and now (to avoid putting too much pressure on herself by thinking too far in the future), she’s already starting to get a plan in place.
She’ll do various box cups and small competitions abroad, then compete in the All-Africa Games in 2019 (equivalent to the Commonwealth Games), followed by the African Confederation Boxing Championships, and, in 2020, the qualifiers for Africa and the Olympics.
Since Ramla is aiming to compete for the country of her birth, Somalia, she won’t have the same resources, high-tech training facilities or staff as athletes competing for bigger countries – but that doesn’t faze her.
For starters, most of her family are in the medical profession – and live close by, in case she needs medical attention. She’s got one brother who’s a doctor (and is married to a physio) in Birmingham, another brother who’s a sports nutritionist living in London and two sisters who are nurses, also in London. And they’re more than happy to look after her.
She’s also had loads of people come on board who are willing to sponsor her for free, including two strength and conditioning coaches from The Commando Temple in Deptford, as well as a track coach who competed for Barbados and who will be helping Ramla with the speed and track work she needs.
“A lot of people have questioned why I’m doing it,” Ramla says of her decision to compete for Somalia instead of Team GB. “You know, some people have said: ‘You’re British.’ I’ve lived here close enough to all my life and I love this country.
“But I was born in Somalia so for me to represent my homeland – it’s something no one else has ever done. I don’t have the same resources as everybody else and it might not happen. But I want to at least try and have at least one fight for the country. To wear Somalia kit just once would be amazing.”
Ramla hasn’t been back to Somalia since she left the country as a young child – her parents are worried the country is still too dangerous and that she’d stick out like a sore thumb – although they go back from time to time. Ramla stays connected to family in Somalia through Skype and WhatsApp voice and video calls.
“The pictures I’ve seen of Somalia are absolutely beautiful – I wish I could go one day. I don’t know my real date of birth because we left during the war and everything was a bit fuzzy.
“But I remember after I got here, thinking, you can’t hear bombs and gun shots. It was so weird. We came in November and I’d never witnessed cold before. Somalia was always hot,” she says.
Ramla is a seasoned traveller these days, regularly competing in foreign countries and visiting exciting global destinations.
“I recently went to Australia because a friend of mine was competing for Dominica in the Commonwealth Games and asked me to come along as her training partner. I got passes to the Athletes’ Village, saw amazing athletes walking around and everyone was really friendly.”
Next stop? Ramla is desperate to visit Thailand. Not to box there – but she feels the country is calling her.
When Ramla’s not training, she’s coaching: she volunteers for a charity called Fight 4 Change, teaching women boxing and self-defence.
“It’s important that little Muslim girls feel they have a place to train: I lock the doors, they take their scarves off and they can feel free – not that they’re not free, but they can feel confident in this environment full of women, taught by a woman as well. They don’t feel they can go to a normal boxing gym because it’s mixed,” Ramla says.
“Health and fitness are really important to young women, and it’s important that as many girls take part as possible. Self-defence is also really important because a woman should feel confident to walk the streets at night and to walk alone.”
When it comes to giving the next generation of female boxers advice, Ramla cautions:
“Don’t do what I do. I kept it hidden for so long and it was bad because you always need the support of your family. The advice I have for girls is to enjoy the process. Training is hard and sometimes it can feel that your progress is so far away. It’s not good to worry too much about it because if it doesn’t click at first, it will click in the future.”
For Ramla, boxing isn’t just about strength and power – she loves the sport for the camaraderie and sense of discipline it’s instilled in her.
“I have to make lots of sacrifices – I might miss friends’ birthdays or weddings because I have a competition – but that’s discipline. I also like the sense of feeling that you’re part of a team. It’s an individual sport but your team builds you up and helps you get to where you need to go. It gives you that confidence.
“For me, boxing is something that took years of practice but it’s been so rewarding and so worth it. Sport is about learning and developing within yourself – it’s important to stay humble in the process.”
Extraordinary. Inspiring. And just plain kick-ass. Watch this space – we’re going to be seeing a lot more of this young female boxer.