Rat poison is an unconventional treatment for head lice but Ramla Ali’s mother had few other options. When you’re in the middle of a nine-day voyage from Somalia to Kenya, hundreds of people crammed on the boat and they’re dying every day of disease and starvation, you must combat your daughter’s head lice with whatever you have to hand. Somebody suggested rat poison and so rat poison was tried.
“I got really ill!” says Ramla Ali with surprising good cheer. “Everyone’s obviously just leaving and fleeing to safety. You don’t have any medics onboard because they’ve chosen to stay behind and help all the wounded. It wasn’t necessarily medical advice, it was just a bit of, what’s the word, ‘bro’ science.” She laughs. “You should never follow bro science!”
Ramla Ali is… well, Ramla Ali is many things. First and foremost she’s a boxer, a veteran of more than 70 amateur bouts, preparing to make her pro debut this October and, God willing, represent Somalia in the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics next summer – the first boxer of either gender ever to do so. Making boxing history comes naturally to Ali: in 2016, she became the first Muslim woman to win an English title. In the coming years, she expects to win a world one.
She’s also a model, a successful one – signed to IMG Models, a brand ambassador for Nike, Coach and Pantone. Last September, Ali was among the 15 women to cover the Meghan Markle-edited issue of British Vogue. The magazine described its cover stars as ‘trailblazing female changemakers’, which feels about right. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, climate activist Greta Thunberg and legendary actor Jane Fonda were among those selected.
So yeah, Ramla Ali is a big deal, and on the way to becoming a much bigger deal – not that she acts like it. Both photoshoot and interview take place on a sunny August morning on the rooftop of Coq d’Argent. Ali is charm personified; she mightn’t have the ego of a star but she certainly has the quality. She’s sharp and witty and engaging and all those other attributes that make global brands base advertising campaigns around her, and one of the world’s most famous women choose her for the cover of the world’s most famous magazine.
But she’s almost preternaturally grounded, with zero interest in self-mythologisation; whether discussing her marriage off a three-month relationship or her struggles to secure funding, Ali has the same straight-talking, no bullshit attitude throughout – the tonal equivalent of ‘it is what it is’. And what it is is really quite remarkable indeed.
"I don’t know my date of birth"
There are two facts about Ramla Ali that every profile mentions, and mentions early. The first is that she doesn’t know her age. Born in Somalia during an intense period of civil war, Ali was never issued with a birth certificate. She estimates herself to be in her late 20s, although she could pass for a teenager. The date on her passport is 16 September but that’s just a date.
“People always ask, ‘when’s your birthday?’” Ali poses the question in a singsong voice that is very Pretty Little Thing. “I say, I don’t really celebrate a birthday. So if you wanna give me a gift, I’ll happily take a gift, but I’m not going to go out and have a meal with friends, have a party.”
She’s never been much of a party animal. “The best thing in life is your health. Yeah, it’s cool celebrating birthdays, but as long as you have your health that’s the only thing that’s important, that’s the only thing that matters, that’s the only thing that should matter. That’s why I never celebrate it. People are like, ‘let’s go out! Let’s do stuff!’ Nah. I’ll take a gift. But nah.”
This attitude may be changing: as it happens, I’m writing these words on 16 September. Five hours ago, Ali posted a photo with her husband Richard Moore on Instagram, captioned:
‘I was alway jealous growing up of people who got to celebrate birthdays and even knew their actual date of birth. I don’t know my date of birth (day, month, or year), 16th September is what’s listed in my passport but not something I ever thought about or enjoyed but since meeting my husband he’s always made a conscious effort to make it a special day and now I love it. So happy birthday to me. [Balloon emoji]’
It’s not quite Justin Bieber hiring a private island for his 21st, but give her time.
So that’s the birthday, or lack thereof. The other fact is this: for many years, Ali concealed her boxing from her family. A video she filmed with Nike – Fight For Your Dreams – summed up the situation via voiceover.
“I grew up in a strict Muslim background. My family always imagined for me to be a lawyer or a doctor or something like that. When I wanted to pursue boxing, I always knew that they weren’t going to be OK with it. So I hid it.
“When I was competing for the national title, I told my mum I was going for a run – all the while, two roads down, competing in the national finals. The only person I wanted to share it with was my mum. I remember a friend of mine saying, ‘you’ve become the best in the country – don’t you think she’d be proud of that?’ I said, ‘nah, I don’t think she would.’ And I just never told her.”
The double life was rumbled when she was spotted on TV. A family intervention was called. Boxing was forbidden. Ali joined a law firm – she holds a first-class law degree from the University of London – and the long hours made training impossible, illicit or otherwise.
But the lure of the ring is hard to resist. She met Moore in a gym in Peckham. They fell in love. He started to train her. Word got out. Ali’s family phoned Moore, telling him the wedding was off if Ramla continued to box. He assured them not to worry, boxing was done. The next day, Ali won the English title.
Thus your crash course in Ramla Ali. And if you think the above paragraphs read like the first draft of a decent screenplay, you’re spot on: a biopic is coming soon to a cinema near you. (Covid permitting.)
In the Shadows will be funded by Film 4; produced by Madeleine Sanderson and Lee Magiday (Oscar nominated for The Favourite); written by acclaimed playwright Ursula Rani Sarma; and directed by Anthony Wonke, an Emmy and triple BAFTA winning director who helmed the 2015 documentary Ronaldo.
Some pedigree; but then again, some story.
“I was upset with myself that I wasn’t strong enough"
It’s a story that begins with a death: that of her older brother, killed by a bomb in Mogadishu as he played outside the house. “Is a mortar a grenade?” checks Ali. “I never stop to question when journalists wrote ‘mortar’.” She continues, unphased. “So he’s playing outside – is it called ‘shrapnel’? The grenade explodes and then the shrapnel hits him, if that makes sense? But it’s tiny, so nobody could see any injuries on the outside, so nobody knew what was wrong. But he was obviously bleeding internally, and nobody knew. And that’s what killed him.
“When it happened – you know when you hear those stories on TV, you hear parents saying you just don’t think it will happen to you. That’s what my mum said. She went to the hospital, she prepared his favourite meal to give to him, not knowing that as she was going there he was already dead. She said that was quite hard.”
Her brother’s name was Abdul Kadir. She writes it in my notebook, jokingly bemoaning the quality of her handwriting. (It’s far neater than mine.) “I don’t remember him. I was really young. I don’t remember anything from Somalia to be honest.” She smiles. “It’s probably a good thing. I was talking to my sister and she was saying that once upon a time Somalia was amazing. She said watching the news was the worst thing she ever did because all you’d see on the news was horror and terror. We lived in such an amazing place.”
Abduls’s death prompted the Ali family to flee Somalia and brave the perilous voyage to Kenya. Due to the lack of rations, the family had to survive by licking sugar cubes. Many onboard did not. Ali doesn’t remember the voyage but she’s reminded of it whenever she turns on the news.
“When you see those BBC articles of them recording refugees trying to get across the channel, you think, sorry about this, but, like, you cunts. What are you doing? I’m sure everybody understands but only a person that’s been through it can say something like that. It’s really hard. You don’t know what they’re going through. It’s like a circus to you.”
There was no particular reason for the Alis to come to England. “It was just: a country in the West seems safer than a country being bombed. I think I had one uncle here.” The family were shunted round London, first social housing in Paddington, then Manor Park, then Eastlands, finally settling in Whitechapel – a few roads away from York Hall, the famous boxing venue where Ramla would one day claim the English title.
Ali adores London. Along with boxing, and Richard, the city is one of the great loves of her life. “I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else,” she admits. “This is the best place to grow up. I hear New York is the equivalent, but then screw America. They have guns.”
“I couldn’t imagine growing up in America, let’s say New York, because I just feel like one of my brothers would have been shot. It’s quite weird because one of my cousins, who was with my elder brother at the time of his death, survived that grenade attack only to then come to London and be stabbed to death outside his school when he was 16. You just can’t make this stuff up!” And here she chuckles, wryly, because what else can you do? “We have been through a lot, but you’ve got to love London. London is honestly the best place to live.”
One afternoon she was on her way back from Quran studies. Two boys approached. “Wrong ‘uns, you know the type. It’s barely hot and they’ve got their tops off. Where are you? Are you in Jamaica? Put your T-shirt back on.”
The boys called her a racial slur, one that Ali requests isn’t written in the article. “It’s the same thing as when the BBC used the N-word. You’re not allowed to say it. Please cut that bit out.” They attacked her. “They pulled my head scarf off. The safety pin dug into my neck and it was the most painful thing ever. I remember going home crying, thinking I never want to go back to Quran studies ever again.”
That she didn’t remains a source of perpetual regret. “I was upset with myself that I wasn’t strong enough to not worry what they thought. But I was. I was very worried about what they thought.” She told her mum that she was too old to attend the classes. “I still beat myself up every day that I wasn’t strong enough.”
Still? “Yeah! You should never let bullies dictate what you do.” She cites boxing as an example of her self-determination. “That should have been the same case when I wanted to stop going to Quran studies. It should have been a choice that was dictated by me, not by someone else. And it still pisses me off to this day.”
She was only a kid... “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” she says, acknowledging the point without accepting it. “Now, when people say, ‘you’re so strong, you stand for this and that’, you look back on those times and you think, ‘am I really that strong?’”
In June this year, a jogger called her dad the same racial slur. Ali posted about the incident on Instagram: ‘This morning, I took my mum and dad for a walk around the block in East London, this is their only form of exercise. A woman was jogging but as my father is elderly and didn’t know what she was doing he accidentally and momentarily forced the woman to stop, while he stepped aside for her. She then decided it was fitting to shout a racist slur at him for being in her way…’
“London is the best place in the world but you have some dickheads. Let’s be honest.” Her elderly father didn’t notice the slur. Her mother didn’t hear it. Ramla pretended that she hadn’t either. The woman quite literally jogged on. “What I should have done is karate chop her in the neck,” says Ali. “You know right here, where you cut off someone’s air circulation? Hi-yah!”
"I just wanted to fit in"
You do not look at Ramla Ali and think, here is a woman who deals in violence. Nor do you think this when you speak with her, although she has the same calmness that manifests itself in many boxers, including Chris Eubank Jr, her friend Joshua Buatsi, and her manager Anthony Joshua. It’s a self-belief that does not require a raised voice or bombastic statements. You might even call it a sense of destiny, one that has been forged through sacrifice and perseverance, suffering and sweat. A certainty that you are going somewhere. That one day you will arrive.
Yet the 12 year old who walked into an East London boxing gym dreamed not of titles or world domination. Her primary goal was weight loss. “I just wanted to have a bit more self-esteem. I went to a school full of very thin girls, who could all easily be bloody models.” She deadpans, not missing a beat, “Ha ha, jokes on you, cos I’m the model now!” and continues, “I just wanted to feel accepted, if that’s the word. I just wanted to fit in. I don’t like standing out for the wrong reasons.”
So she stood out for the right ones. “Female boxing wasn’t really a thing and so none of the coaches took the time out to teach me how to throw shots. Or turn into my shots. Or turn my hips. Things like that. So it was quite hard. I always want to give 100% on everything I do. I just wanted to get better at what I was doing.”
For much of her adolescence, Ali taught herself: “You go online. You research things. You watch videos. Back then, there wasn’t as much as you have now.” She moved homes, moved gyms. Aged 19 (ish), she caught the attention of a coach named Terry Palmer. “He could see I wasn’t like a beginner-beginner. He was like, ‘how long have you been training?’ This many years. ‘How many fights have you had?’ I’ve not had any. What was nice was him thinking female boxing was normal.”
She had her first amateur bout around 2010 against a girl from Feltham. “It was all good. I remember thinking, wow this is hard. Why am I getting so tired so quick?” She worked at her craft, learning from both victories and defeats. She didn’t tell her family. Her little brother helped her sneak out to training. She wore reading glasses to conceal the bruises and black eyes.
I knew that I wanted to be with her for the rest of my life
Her family found out. Asked her to stop. “I stopped, then I got back into it. A lot of stop and start from my end, which is obviously to the detriment of my career. They knew about it. Loads of times they asked me to stop, but I think it was 2016 when everyone sat down and said, ‘look, you’ve got to stop doing this.’”
She joined a law firm, she went back to the gym. There she met Richard Moore. The grandson of football manager Dave Sexton, Moore is a handsome, immaculately groomed figure who would not look out of place on an episode of Love Island. He’d been producing sports documentaries in LA, came back to London in the summer of 2016 to visit his family. Then he walked into a Peckham boxing gym and saw Ramla Ali.
“I knew that I wanted to be with her for the rest of my life as soon as I met her,” Moore tells me. “I fell in love with her as soon as I saw her, even though she didn’t give me the time of day.”
He stayed behind to watch her train. Tried to speak to her the next day. She blanked him. Saw her a few days later when she came to open the gym. She blanked him again.
Ali, explaining her reticence: “You know when you see someone and you kind of picture the type of person that they’d be with? And it’s not you. Why would you entertain that? Why would you waste your time entertaining that? I just thought he was a nice person that was really into boxing.”
After a few weeks, Richard finally took her on date to Negril, a Jamaican restaurant in Brixton. Things moved pretty fast after that. He proposed to her as they walked past a primary school in East Dulwich. “I was going to do it at the gym, candles, all that shit. I didn’t have a ring and then there and then I just thought fuck it.”
They were married three months later in the family council house in Bethnal Green. Whirlwinds have had more prolonged romances. Moore summarises the timespan: “Came back in May, we met in June, then I made the decision by end of June, then I proposed in July. Then got married in October.”
“When you know, you know,” says Ali. “Why waste 20 years?” A lot of people thought the marriage wouldn’t last. Four years later, a lot of people are being proved wrong. They seem an incredibly well-matched couple, their similarities evident in our conversations. Candid. Calm. Ready to take on the world, and win. Transcribing the interviews, I even notice the same vocal inflections – although this may be a consequence of barely ever being apart.
“Me and Rich are inseparable,” says Ali. “We’re always together but we never get sick of each other. Never, ever. When I leave to go out to a family event, he’ll message me – when are you home? What time are you home? Some people are like, you guys are so cringe!”
As well as her husband, Moore is Ali’s boxing coach. He compares her fighting style to the cerebral American boxers Andre Ward and Terence Crawford. “She’s not an out-and-out fighter; she’s meticulous, her skill comes first. She understands as a pro she’s got to be entertaining, which means pushing forward a little bit more than she’d like to. Her natural thing is to be a back foot counterboxer. She wants you to make the mistakes and then she’ll punish you for them.
“Anyone that’s sparred her, anyone that’s trained with her, will know just how unique her ability is. She’s been boxing for 18 years. She’s managed by AJ but she’s had more fights than AJ, Lawrence Okolie, Joshua Buatsi – all of them. She’s been boxing longer than all of them. She can come forward, she can find the inside, she’s slick, she can box on the back foot, she’s a counterboxer, she can switch to southpaw. She can do it all.”
We needed her to get endorsements in order to keep boxing
There are challenges – such as the month of Ramadan. Like Ali, Moore is Muslim. He found Islam when travelling around Northern Africa and said his Shahada in a mosque in Peckham. The pair continue to train throughout their fast. “It’s hard,” sighs Moore. “It’s even hard to train her because I’ll be getting dizzy doing pads, let alone some of the strength training. But it’s just about understanding how much you can push.”
Another issue was finances: Ramla’s decision to represent Somalia delighted her family but triggered a significant cash flow problem. At the time, Somalia didn’t have a boxing federation. Due to Ali and Moore, the Somali Boxing Federation was approved in February 2019, with Moore the national coach. Funding, however, still remained elusive.
“There is still no funding from Somalia for us,” says Moore. “It’s not like GB where you’re on salary, you’re looked after by these ten different coaches and nutritionists, when you go on a competition it’s paid for. We have to pay and do everything ourselves.
“I quit my job and for the first two years I funded us. For the last two years she’s funded us through her work. That’s not just our salaries, that’s everything. We needed her to get endorsements in order to keep boxing.”
Over the last four years, Ali has boxed in more than 20 countries. Moore reels them off. “Botswana, India, Serbia, Bulgaria, Morocco, Senegal. We went to Ethiopia training, South Africa, US – everywhere. Everywhere.”
Modelling has eased the financial burden, albeit at a cost. “Because she’s got a profile, and because she’s pretty good, we end up having to pay sparring partners now,” says Moore. He describes flying out a Swedish amateur champion, a hardened warrior with more than 100 fights to her name. “I wanted a week’s worth of sparring. We got 30 seconds. After 30 seconds, that’s it. She’s out of the ring.”
That jogger got off lucky.
"Meghan called me on a private number"
Sports marketing manager Dan Smith met Ramla Ali at a girls’ school in Brixton – “around 2017, 2018,” Smith tells me over the phone. Then working at Nike – “I was in charge of sponsorship in all sports outside of football” – Smith was visiting the school with Paula Radcliffe for a day of talks and general inspiration. Ali had been invited down by one of his colleagues. Smith was impressed. He recalls the power of her story, her obvious capacity to inspire.
When signing an athlete to Nike, Smith cites the combination of “performance, attributes, potential and personality.” The intangible vibe that links Serena Williams, Tiger Woods, Cristiano Ronaldo et al. “Ramla gave off that vibe, it’s tough to put your finger on it.”
Can he try? “She wasn’t just about being a great boxer herself; she was also about unlocking opportunities for other people and using sport as a positive vehicle. It’s not just about being a winner. It’s about winning and then using that to lift other people up and make positive change.”
“Everything got turbo charged out of me signing to Nike,” says Ali. “Everything just rolled off that.” A whole new world suddenly opened up. “The very first shoot I did with Nike, slash my very first photo shoot ever, was photographed by Nick Knight. I didn’t even know who he was!” At least the Fight For Your Dreams video was filmed in a boxing gym. The director was friends with a talent scout at IMG Models. A meeting was arranged. Ali was signed.
Presumably it’s not ideal for a model to be frequently punched in the face? “Oh, obviously. Boxing’s like swimming – you can’t expect to go in the water and not get wet. You can’t expect to go in a ring and not get hit.” She had black eye for the Vogue cover shoot. Its concealment required a skilful makeup artist and some crafty positioning from photographer Peter Lindbergh. “Everyone else was face on, and I’m kinda, like, sideways.”
When initially approached by Vogue, Ali was unaware of Markle’s involvement. “It was so weird!” She laughs. “I didn’t really know what it was. Fifteen inspirational women. OK, cool. Then a week before it came out they told us it’s being guest edited by the Duchess.”
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The pair haven’t met, although Markle reached out before the shoot. “She called me on a private number. I didn’t pick up the first couple of times.” Eventually, Ali answered. “She was like, ‘Hey, is this Ramla? This is Meghan...’ Meghan who?”
Typically, there is no attempt to overplay the relationship. “We’re not besties,” says Ali drily. “She called me once and that was it. She sent me a little gift with a handwritten note, which was quite nice.” Nonetheless, Ali describes Markle as “lovely”, and adds, “Those papers can fuck off. Honestly. Excuse my language. The way they treat her! Leave her alone.”
As you may have noticed, Ali is wonderfully blunt when discussing racism and injustice. Our conversation touches on the backlash against Anthony Joshua after the heavyweight champion called for people to support black-owned businesses. “They took it as ‘don’t buy from white businesses!’ He didn’t say that! And he lost so many followers because of it. So stupid.”
She is a vocal supporter of Black Lives Matter, noting: “The most important words to add are ‘as well’. If you put ‘black lives matter as well’, stupid people would be able to understand it. Because it’s just ‘black lives matter’, certain people, who are very stupid, will look it and think ‘what about white lives?’. They just don’t get it.”
It’s not just words – Ali has pledged to donate 25% of her earnings in her first year as a pro boxer to various BLM charities and causes. “I didn’t make a song and dance about it on social media because I didn’t want it to be about me.”
A recent Instagram post called out the sexual abuse of Somali women. “It’s a subject that’s quite taboo in African cultures, especially within Somali culture. I found it so lovely and refreshing to see the number of girls who are brave enough to own up about it on social media. So I had to post about it.”
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"Who in their right mind wants to get in the ring?"
What’s next for Ramla Ali? Short term is get a few pro bouts under her belt – fight a couple of times this year, maybe five the next. There’s also the matter of the Olympics, assuming Tokyo 2021 goes ahead. She has serious ambitions for a gold medal. It would make a perfect ending to the film.
The film was initially a documentary. Producer Madeleine Sanderson and Moore pitched the idea to director Anthony Wonke, who thought it deserved the feature-length, big screen treatment. “Her story just needs to be told,” Sanderson writes over email. “I believe everyone will take inspiration from her strength, honour and determination.”
Like so many people who have encountered Ali, Sanderson was deeply impressed. “Her focus is so intense that I felt I had to respond to her so precisely and with total sincerity. She is extremely wise and has the most wonderfully positive outlook on life.”
Sanderson’s fellow producer Lee Magiday was similarly charmed. “I had an immediate connection. I’ve been very moved and inspired by Ramla’s journey and how much of an important voice and role model she is, especially for young women of colour.”
The film will cover Ali’s life from her teenage years to her early 20s. They haven’t yet started casting – it’s been a tricky year for film and sport. The original climax would have taken place at the Olympics; the current version culminates with Ali’s victory at the African championships in Botswana. Whatever the ending, expect spirits to be lifted and hearts stirred.
Ali plans to win a world title, defend it a couple of times, and then get out of the sport. She no longer hides her boxing from her family (well, it would be difficult these days). They are proud of her: proud of how she represents Somalia, proud of the fact she has become an inspiration to millions of people around the world. Even her mum has come round. But perhaps this isn’t so surprising. Near the start of our interview, I asked Ali what forces drove her into the ring.
“I personally believe that there’s something wrong with every boxer. Who in their right mind wants to get in the ring and be hit for a living? There’s obviously something wrong with you. I think that’s the same with me. I feel like I’ve been a fighter all my life. Just looking at my mum and all the struggles that she’s been through. She’s the best fighter I’ve ever known.”
Ramla Ali may be a trailblazing boxer but the fighting spirit runs through her blood. Her family is in her corner, along with the nation of her birth and the city she now calls home. Her moment is coming. And just like her namesake, she’s ready to shake up the world.