Watch Ramla Ali in the new series of My Icon, showing on Wednesday at 6pm on Sky Sports Mix (Sky channel 121). All episodes of My Icon are available On Demand
By Belinda Hamilton
A remarkable journey of horror and hope, Ramla Ali is the Somali war refugee who – until last year – hid her entire boxing career from her family. Breaking down barriers as a young, Muslim woman, Ali is eager to instil that spirit into the next generation of young girls.
Ali has had a tougher start to life than most. Born in Mogadishu, Somalia, her birth date is unknown by either her or her family, although they attest it to sometime in the early 1990s due to the start of the Somali Civil War.
When she was barely two-years-old, her family were devastated when a stray grenade was thrown into their garden, instantly killing Ali’s eldest brother who had been playing outside. Leaving behind everything, the Ali family fled Somalia and underwent a treacherous boat journey to Kenya to escape the ordeal.
“This is as horrific as it goes. We were all playing outside, and a grenade landed in our front garden which killed my eldest brother. [Due to the war] all the hospitals had been burnt down, blown up and destroyed and we didn’t have a car. My Dad put him [my brother] in a wheelbarrow and wheel-barrowed him to the nearest hospital; but obviously you don’t get far in a wheelbarrow if someone’s in it. By the time we got to the hospital he was dead.”
“For my Mum, everything before then she just chooses not to remember and anything after then was just too horrific for her to repeat, so when we left it wasn’t the best circumstance.”
Arriving in England as war refugees, the Ali family settled in East London where Ali stumbled across boxing by chance. As an overweight child lacking in confidence, Ali’s Mum gifted her a membership to a local leisure centre, where she began taking classes in Boxercise.
Boxercise inspired her to join a boxing gym. Having to scour the internet in secret, Ali managed to find a local gym and she still remembers picking up a pair of gloves for the first time.
“I happened to find a boxing gym that was quite close to where we lived so I went there. No one helped me, no one showed me how to box, no one said this is how you correct your punch, this is how you turn into the shots, no one really taught me how to box because I was a girl and back then female boxing wasn’t really a thing.
“When you go into a boxing gym for the first time, and you grab a pair of the used gloves, that smell, that smell was what was lingering throughout. You’ve got like worn out bags and you’ve got like dirty floors and obviously after a while you get used to it but the first time I walked in it was just like ‘WOAH!'”
Ali found solace in boxing, the only problem was she couldn’t share her joy with her closest confidant; her Mum. Growing up in a traditional Muslim household, Ali was terrified of her Mum’s reaction to her daughter being involved in such a masculine sport, and the shame this could bring to the family.
“For me boxing was my friend. It was the person who never let me down, it was the person I could turn too when I was upset and when I was crying.”
“I think the reason why I believed my Mum wouldn’t be ok with me choosing sport as a career, was because she doesn’t – and it’s probably the same for most people who come from the same religion as me – see it as a stable career choice. And because we’ve come from such a hard background, for Somalis, a career choice that’s more stable would be better than something that’s unstable and that’s what my Mum used to always tell me.”
As Ali became older, she found it easier to hide her training. Under the guise of College and University trips she would attend amateur competitions, securing her records and celebrating victories. After Ali graduated, it became harder to make excuses for training and missing family events. She reluctantly confided in her brother, Yahya, for support and his enthusiastic reaction helped to lift a weight off her shoulders.
“When I was at Uni I could get away with it and say, look this is a University trip, or when I was in college, it was a college trip. But the moment I graduated, I was like ‘what do I do!?’
“So my youngest brother, I said ‘come into my room I need to tell you’. I knew I had to tell someone if I was able to continue to do what I was doing. So I told him and he thought it was amazing. I’d ask him ‘can you record my fights?’, and you could hear him recording at the same time, as I lined a punch saying ‘YES! Go on! Jab! Jab!’ – it was quite funny. It was really nice to have that support and to know that he believed in me enough to help me all of those things.”
Despite confiding in her brother, Ali was still successfully hiding her boxing career from her Mum. In 2018, Ali wished to fulfil her dream of representing Somalia at world level. Due to the war, Somalia did not have a boxing federation in place, so alongside her husband-and-trainer Richard Moore they created one from the UK, with the intention for Ali to compete in the AIBA Women’s World Boxing Championship.
To promote her role in representing Somali, Moore suggested a television interview for Ali to state her intent to her fellow countrymen. She was hesitant to oblige, as her now 15-year boxing secret was close to being exposed.
“One of my uncles, he watched [the interview], he called me up and he was so emotional. The phone conversation was so emotional. He called me and he said, ‘I’m so proud of you, forget what anyone else thinks, I’m so proud of you and it breaks my heart to know you’ve done this in secret for so long, with no support all by yourself! What are you worried about?’ I said ‘I’m worried about Mum’, and he said, “Pfft, don’t you worry about your Mum I’m going to speak to her and I’m going to make sure that you have her support.’ And ever since then my Mum has been so supportive.”
“She’s the first person I call now before a competition, I’ll tell her I’m competing tomorrow, I’m competing next week – she’s the first person I call after a fight decision. I’ve never had that before, ever, all thanks to my dear old Uncle, all of that has become possible.”
With her secret out in the open, Ali is keen to pass on the knowledge she has learnt onto a younger generation. As a young, Muslim woman involved with boxing, Ali strongly believes that it is her responsibility to educate her community on the importance of women participating in sport.
“There’s not a lot of education around sport, especially within the Somali community. I don’t blame my Mum, she obviously thought she was doing what’s best for me, she didn’t want me to get hurt, but what my Uncle did was educate her, and say ‘Look, this is actually positive what she’s doing, she’s becoming a role model for young girls who don’t believe they can do much.'”
“I’ve had so much positive support from a lot of girls, and a lot of Muslim girls. A lot of people feel like they’re restricted because they wear the hijab, they feel they have to be modest. But there are so many women paving the way for girls to wear hijab, US fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad and German boxer Zeina Nassar. Religion shouldn’t restrict sport in any way. Sport is so important and maybe now even more so than ever.”
Alongside training six days a week, Ali is helping to shape the next generation of female boxers. She teaches coaching classes in south-west London once a week, as well as using boxing to support the Solace Women’s Aid Charity.
“The good thing now is that female boxing is so big. I doubt that people consider it a male sport anymore. Back when I started it was predominantly male, loads of clubs had boys only. Not a lot of clubs accepted women.”
“I think now with Katie Taylor paving the way, Claressa Shields and Nicola Adams I don’t feel like its considered a male sport anymore; women are taking over!”
“I’ve always said that, you’ve got to be the hero for yourself that you never had. I’ve managed to become that hero for me and I hope that someone is looking up to me saying ‘she’s my hero!'”