When I was younger, I was always concerned by how people perceived me. It’s the reason I walked into a boxing gym in the first place,” says Ramla Ali, the most decorated female Muslim boxer in history. That gym was in her adoptive home of Bethnal Green, east London, where Ali moved with her family as a toddler to escape the ravages of the Somali Civil War in the early 1990s, after her 12-year-old brother was killed by a mortar shell while playing in the street.
Teased for being overweight at school, Ali decided to get fit and fell in love with a boxercise class, sparking a talent and passion which, little did she know at the time, would turn into a ground-breaking career. But her route to success was not without its difficulties. For many years, Ali (who, like many refugees, is unsure of her exact age or birthday) had to hide her boxing from her parents for fear of it bringing shame on the family. In 2014, when one of her brothers saw her compete in a boxing match live on television, he informed her mother, who furiously told Ali to stop – which she did, for a long time.
Thankfully, with the support of her husband and coach Richard (whom she married in 2016), and an uncle who persuaded Ali’s mother that her sporting pursuit was a positive thing, she has since been able to openly dedicate her life to boxing, and in so doing, bring inspiration to a generation of girls.
“When I started, female boxers weren’t really a thing. I always looked up to other athletes who were dominating their field, like Serena Williams. She’s been a big inspiration of mine.” Now, Ali says, clubs are “very welcoming to women”, but her first memory of being in a gym was a coach telling her, “girls don’t box.”
“Boxing has always been perceived as a male-dominated sport,” says the featherweight, who won her first UK national title in 2016, and now boxes for Somalia. “All the senior heads of federations are men. I’d love to see more female heads. That is how there will be more positive changes for women.”