The boxing refugee talks about her secret career, losing her brother, and why she doesn't have a date of birth.

Imagine having to keep national sporting success a secret from your parents.

That was the reality for Ramla Ali after she became the first Muslim woman to win English national boxing titles in 2016.

Born into a strict Muslim family, including an imam for a father, she was expected to dress and behave modestly.

"My mum, I think what she feared most at the time was the community and how they would perceive me," Ali said to the Olympic Channel Podcast.

"In her eyes to be a good Muslim girl you have to have to be fully covered."

Heartbreaking decisions

Ali took up boxing as a teenager in order to lose weight, assuring her family that she was not contesting bouts.

The London fighter's cover was soon blown and her parents told her to stop.

It was their wish for the university law graduate to pursue a career in the court room, rather than the boxing ring.

Ali dutifully obeyed and took up employment with a London law firm.

However, after six months of regular late nights she quit in order to pursue her passion once more.

"I absolutely hated it, the hours were crazy, and the morning rush hour was horrible especially in the summer," said Ramla, who has now switched allegiances to box for Somalia.

"I’d be in the office for so late in the evening that I’d miss training and I thought what is this? This isn’t life and it’s not making me happy so I stopped."

The Somali boxer who escaped war to become a champion

The Somali boxer who escaped war to become a champion

Double life

Keeping her boxing secret was the only option for Ali, who neither wished to disappoint her parents or give up on boxing.

So how do you win a national title in secret?

"I remember telling my mum, ‘Mum I'm going for a run’ and I dressed up in a tracksuit, put on a woolly hat and looked like I was going for a run and then walked two roads down to York Hall and competed," said Ali, who then lived with her family in London's Bethnal Green.

"The moment my bout had finished, I put my tracksuit back on and jogged back home, to make it look like I was still sweating and then I walked in the house, ‘hey mum’ and then just went upstairs and took a shower, sat in front of the TV and watched some TV."

"It was the worst feeling. The first person I wanted to tell was my mum, but I couldn’t."

Ramla Ali
Ramla AliRamla Ali

Escaping Somalia

Ramla was lucky to arrive as a refugee in Britain alive.

She was just a baby when her family were forced to flee war-torn Mogadishu, after her brother was killed by a stray grenade.

The future prize fighter almost died on the treacherous, overcrowded boat journey to Britain, after someone suggested to Ramla's mother to use rat poison to rid her of hair lice.

"I was just vomiting and vomiting and vomiting... I’d lost so much weight."

There was a full recovery but in the chaos all the family records were lost.

"I don’t have a real date of birth.

"At the time I was born it was June, the start of the civil war so there was little focus on records and everyone was just fleeing for safety."

A refugee family

After the horrific journey in which many people died of starvation, the family's early life in Britain remained tough.

"None of us spoke English and my Dad, who is very educated, speaks really good Italian and had a really good job in Somalia, had to take up a job in construction when he came here despite knowing nothing about it.

"He had to do that so we could eat. My Mum took up some sewing lessons so she could make dresses and stuff like that so we could eat.

"My mum’s always told us we should be so grateful, we should be so lucky that we’re here, we’re in safety and you have always got to fight for what you want."

With determined parents eager to give their children a better life, it is clear to see where Ali's persistence and drive to become a great boxer stemmed from.

Body transformation

Boxing improved Ali's life both physically and socially.

"When I was in secondary school, I was quite overweight... and I got bullied.

"I did boxercise and I thought wow, this is amazing, this is so good I love it. But once a week wasn’t enough for me so I searched on the internet for local boxing gyms next to me and I found one and I walked in, and I’ve loved it ever since.

"All of the friends that I have now were made through boxing and for me it just gave me a second family."

Eventually, Ali's talent was spotted by a coach, who felt she could do more than just hit the pads.

"I’d never thought about competing because the idea of women’s boxing wasn’t really a thing back then. He said, 'I think you should do it' and I thought, 'Why not?' So, we did it.

"Trying to keep bruises and black eyes a secret, that was especially hard because I don’t wear make up, so when I started wearing make up everything became a bit more suspicious."

Marriage roadblock

On the eve of Ali's marriage to her now coach Richard Moore, a dilemma that plagued her career to date reared its head once more.

Upon hearing that she was boxing again, Ali's mother and sister called Moore to explain that their marriage would not go ahead unless he put an end to her boxing aspirations.

He assured the family he would follow their orders despite having no intention of stopping Ali's career.

The next day Ali competed in, and won, the English title.

The breakthrough moment

In 2017, Ali and Moore made the decision she would switch alliances and box for Somalia.

The only barrier to this idea becoming a reality was that there was no Somalian boxing federation.

In order to help set it up and gain global attention, Moore contacted a Somalian news channel with the story.

Ali's uncle saw the interview and decided to reach out her.

"He said how proud he was of me and he said he thought deep down my Mum would be proud and me and that I should tell her."

A call from Ali's mother, Anisa Maye Maalim, shortly followed and contrary to her daughter's fears, she too was proud.

"My uncle told her what I'd been doing was a good thing, raising awareness for the Somali community and raising awareness for women in Africa and she just said it was amazing and 'I’m really proud'.

"That was probably one of the best conversations I’ve ever had with my mum, to know that she was supportive and proud of what I was doing."

Ali securing victory at the Boxing Elite National Championships in Liverpool.
Ali securing victory at the Boxing Elite National Championships in Liverpool.Ali securing victory at the Boxing Elite National Championships in Liverpool.
News of the Week with Ash Tulloch on 8 March 2019

News of the Week with Ash Tulloch on 8 March 2019

Female role model

Ali has now become a pillar of inspiration within the community that her mother once feared would reject her boxing.

Far from being judged, she receives daily affirmations of her sporting achievements through social media.

"I constantly get bombarded by messages on Instagram saying that you’re very inspiring and my daughter looks up to you and I’ve started taking my daughter to boxing.

"If you can inspire let’s say another Ramla in Somalia to take up boxing, then you’ve done your job very well.

"It’s great to win titles and medals and things like that, but if you can inspire a whole new generation of girls and athletes not just to take up boxing but to take up sport, then you’ve done so much."

In addition to her inspirational actions in the ring, Ali likes to give back directly to her community through boxing classes too.

She hosts weekly a boxing class for a group of Muslim women, where the blinds are drawn, they remove their hijabs and work out in comfort.

"They just love it. And it’s not like a boxercise class, I’m actually teaching them how to box and throw proper shots and I think that’s what they love the most is that they’re learning to box and learning to defend themselves.

Sights set on Tokyo 2020

Ali's next goal inside the ring is to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

In addition to becoming Somalia's first ever boxing representative at the Games, there is another huge incentive in making it to Japan.

"My Mum said she would come and watch me. She’s never been to any of my fights, she’s never watched me box so that would just be really emotional."

Ramla Ali was this week’s guest on the Olympic Channel podcast.

We speak to athletes, and others involved in sport, about the biggest Olympic talking points.

The interview and questions were shortened to make them easier to read.

Head here for ways to listen and subscribe.

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