Ramla Ali fights on the Devin Haney-Jorge Linares undercard this weekend
For a model who has appeared on the cover of Vogue, it is strange to think there was a time when Ramla Ali’s face did not fit.
She was just one when her family fled Somalia after her brother was killed by a grenade that landed in the family’s garden. There is no official record of her birth and she does not know exactly when it took place.
“We say it is 16 September,” she tells The Independent. “But we’re not exactly sure on it. I guess I’ll be forever 21.”
What she does know is that she was just about to turn 13 when she first laced up a pair of gloves. At first, it was only boxercise but it was not long before she joined an amateur club and eventually had her first bout aged 18.
The first decade of her boxing journey took place completely in secret as her family vehemently disagreed with the idea of her trading in violence.
“My older brother was always a boxing fan,” she says. “He always had boxing on in the background, Mike Tyson fighting and all of that. It would be on but I just wanted to play with my Barbie dolls and stuff like that.
“The first time I really watched it was Amir Khan in the 2004 Athens final, and I thought ‘wow, this is really cool’. I had done a bit of boxercise before then but that day I thought ‘wow, this is beautiful’. The movement was amazing and it was like watching poetry.
“That was when I joined a club but I knew straight away I had to keep it quiet. My dad was talking about how Amir Khan shouldn’t be in the ring, he said he should be protecting his brain and looking after himself. So if you hear your dad talking about a man doing that, how is he going to feel about his daughter doing it?
“In the end, I boxed secretly for 10 years. It was actually quite easy to hide it. With safety from the headguards you don’t really get many facial injuries – the odd black eye if you’re unfortunate.”
In truth, she became a well-schooled and highly decorated amateur with a skillset which kept her out of real trouble. She became the first Muslim woman to win an English title and can also count the GB Championships and ABAs among tournaments where she came out on top.
Strangely, however, she was never given the recognition from the GB set-up which would usually follow such success. It meant she plotted a very different and solitary path with her husband and coach Richard Moore, alongside whom she established the Somali Boxing Federation.
“Usually when you win the ABAs you get an automatic trial for GB but I never got invited up,” explains Ali, who nowadays supplements her boxing work with modelling for brands like Cartier.
“I won the GB Championships, the ABAs, won the English title twice. It was just evident they didn’t want me.
“I’m glad I did it the way I did it now because – A) I didn’t feel wanted and B) I got to travel the world with my husband. Normally you go away and you feel a bit homesick, like when I boxed for England at the European Championships I was only there for 10 days but got really homesick straight away.
“But that never happened because I was travelling around with Richard so that was quite nice – never felt alone because we did it together. I’m glad we did it that way.”
Ali and Moore met in a gym in Peckham in 2016 and were married six months later. As a unit they competed in more than 20 countries during Ali’s extensive amateur career and last year decided to turn over to the paid ranks.
Progress since has been serene with two fights and two wins in her first five months as a pro. On Saturday she fights for the third time, on the undercard of Devin Haney’s Las Vegas showdown with Jorge Linares, in what will be her American debut. It has been some journey.
“Because of the pandemic I knew the only way to continue competing was to turn pro and I’m in a very fortunate position where I can dictate what I do,” says Ali, who beat Eva Hubmayer in October and Bec Connolly in March.
“Overall I feel like the pool of woman is so amazing in America and Latin America – they’re just phenomenal. Fighting on those big stages – MGM Grand or Madison Square Garden – that’s like a dream. Boxing in America is the first step towards that.”
And what of her family? They once staged an intervention in a bid to stop Ali from boxing and warned Moore the couple’s wedding would be cancelled unless she hung up the gloves. None of it worked.
“Oh they love it now,” Ali says. “It’s quite nice. They still don’t understand it all, I just tell them not to worry about it. My mum doesn’t really know what’s going on – she will just say ‘good luck’.
“It’s a big change, it can be overwhelming. It was difficult operating in secret like that and it would have been really hard to do it as a pro. Luckily not a lot of amateur tournaments are televised so them being on board now is a blessing because it would be difficult to do it when it’s all on TV.
“I’ve always said representation is really important; you can’t be what you can’t see. I used to hide it because I never had a reference point of ‘look mum she’s doing it as well’. So if someone is looking up to me and saying that to their mum, it will be a lot easier for them. I hope that’s what comes from my struggles – I hope it makes it easier for a little Ramla somewhere.
“I’m not sure if I appeal to the average boxing fan, I feel like I might appeal more to non boxing fans but I am what I am and I don’t want to change myself.
“I get hate mail and death threats all the time. Just randomly. But I’ve realised you can’t make everyone happy, I am who I am. If people change their minds along the way, amazing, but I’m not going to compromise who I am to make that happen.”