As you might expect for a Zoom call beaming you into Paris Fashion Week, Ramla Ali’s hotel room features bouquets of flowers and gilt-edged furnishings. But when Ali herself appears, she’s a refreshing contrast to the pomp of the fashion circus. Dressed in a white bathrobe, bed-crumpled hair tied back from her face, she plops down in the chair without ceremony. She’s flawless, yes – but more in a ‘woke up like this’ way.
Ali is in Paris to attend the Christian Dior show – she is brand ambassador for the house. The day before our Zoom, she looked every inch the front-row star wearing a rose-gold and copper dress with riding boots. Her fashion credits also include a front cover of Vogue in 2019, personally selected by Meghan Markle, and work with Cartier and Nike. She is the author of a novel, Not Without A Fight, and her own life is set to be turned into a film. While all this is impressive, it’s extracurricular. Ali is principally a boxer.
A featherweight, she represented her country of birth Somalia in the 2020 Olympics. Since turning professional, she has competed in, and won, seven fights. There are a lot of firsts. She is the first female Somali to go professional, and the first Muslim woman to win an English amateur boxing title. Her last fight, against Crystal Garcia Nova, was the undercard for Anthony Joshua’s rematch with Oleksandr Usyk, and it was historic: Ali and Nova became the first women to compete in a boxing match in Saudi Arabia. Even with that badge of honour, it’s one that Nova would probably want to forget. Ali secured a knock-out victory in 65 seconds.
Ring magazine’s Prospect of the Year for 2022, she is known for her sleek physique and speedy style – “her limbs are long and lean, she can look gangly, but in the ring she glides,” wrote The Guardian in 2018 – but Ali puts her winning record down to a serious and studied approach to training rather than any physical attributes. “I think boxing is one of those sports where you get out what you put in,” she says. “My coaching team always push me beyond. There’ll be days where I can’t even walk out the gym, I’m so tired. But I love that challenge, because it means that I’m going to be the best version of myself on the night… I always end up giving 100%, if not more – 101%, let’s say.”
Ali is informed about how to get the best out of her body.
“I was reading the other day that, you know, a woman’s cycle affects a lot of things,” she says. “Apparently she’s at her strongest when she’s just come off her period, so in the second week of her cycle. Her weakest is the second day of the period.”
Will she schedule her next fight accordingly? “I wish! I wish it worked like that. I remember I had a fight in July of this year, I was on my period and I felt horrible, really weak and really tired…[but] I just got on with it anyway, because I’m a professional.” It goes without saying – she won the fight.
If other boxers – Deontay Wilder, Tyson Fury, Katie Taylor – engage in the theatre of pre-fight goading, Ali won’t be drawn on who she would like to fight next. “I trust in my coaching team,” she says. “They’re the more experienced ones. I could essentially see someone and think, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t do this.’ [They say] ‘you can.’” She does add, though, that she would like to “fight for a title next.”
After the Olympics, where she lost her first fight, Ali went professional and began working with Manny Robles at his Compton gym in LA, the city where she now lives. “We [train] six days a week, two times a day, and it’s a mixture of loads of different things,” says Ali, “strength work, running, boxing, sparring bag work, pad work.”
The ‘we’ Ali refers to is her, Robles and strength coach Matias Erbin but also – crucially – Richard Moore, her husband, manager and (until she began with Robles) coach. Moore and Ali are a unit. Meeting in a gym the summer of 2016, he proposed three months later. “We’ve been married since. Everyone was against it but six years on, we proved them wrong,” she says adding, with a smile, “I’ve told them, ‘I’m waiting for my apology.’”
Ali first asked Moore to coach her because he contrasted with a previous trainer. Thinking of the Rocky-style coach/young talent archetype, I ask her if she had a mentor as a young woman.
“Yes,” she says. “But then, over the years, he became – excuse my language – a piece of shit.” This was an early experience of sexism within her sport: “He was very, very like [that] to young women. He was very manipulative, but only to women because he knew he could. He would never dare to be that way to men.”
Enduring sessions when she would go home crying, she now realises that is the exact opposite of what is effective. “You need somebody to just keep you positive because boxing is a brutal sport,” she says. “It wasn’t until I met Richard that [I realised] he was a mentor, coach, everything that I needed that I didn’t get in this other guy.”
Ali’s life story – until this point, anyway – has been well documented, and will be again when her film comes out. But it bears repeating. Born in Mogadishu in Somalia in the early 90s (she doesn’t know exactly when but estimates 1991) at the time when fighting in the country’s civil war was at its height, Ali’s brother died after he was hit by a grenade in the family’s garden. Soon after, while Ali was still a young child, her parents and five remaining brothers and sisters left the country, first for Mombassa in Kenya, then Dubai and finally east London.
It was here that Ali discovered boxing, as a teenager. Self-conscious about her weight, she explored different sports for exercise, including running and classes at a gym. “I walked into a boxercise class and I loved it,” she remembers. “It’s an individual sport, but you’re collectively training as a community. You have other people pushing you if you’re slacking.”
She had her first boxing match at around the age of 21. Although she deeply connected with boxing, and soon had a training schedule to keep up, Ali kept this side of her life secret from her family for fear they would disapprove. The uppercut came out of the bag one day in 2014, when her brother saw her fighting on TV.
“There was this show called London Live,” she recalls. “I asked them not to [show my face] and they agreed but then they did anyway. I’m glad that it happened that way because I probably would have never have mustered up the courage to tell them.”
After an initial upset, Ali’s mother is now supportive. “She asks me how my day’s going, when is my next fight?” the boxer says. “Even when I come over, she’ll be like, ‘I’m going to make you some dinner but it’s going to be a little oil, a little salt, I’m going to put in the air fryer to make it.’ It was never like that [before]. It was just like, ‘There’s food, go help yourself.’ But now it’s, ‘I’ll chop some salad to make sure you have your greens as well.’”
If Ali is getting more acquainted with a lifestyle that includes luxury items as standard, she retains connections into disadvantaged communities (she describes her household growing up as “low income”) and those like it around the world. After turning professional, she donated 25% of a year’s purses to Black Lives Matter, and also works with UNICEF. In 2018, she founded Sisters Club, a space for women to train, and learn boxing, in a safe environment. “It started because I have religious sisters who wear the hijab and my sister was complaining that she didn’t have spaces to train anywhere in London, which is such a shame because London is such a multicultural city,” explains Ali.
She made Sisters Club happen – and trained women for an hour every week – despite a schedule that most of us would balk at. In addition to her own training, she had three jobs: at Virgin Active as a personal trainer, as a receptionist in her boxing gym, and a placement in a hospital as part of her university degree. (Ali is too modest to mention that she completed her law degree at SOAS soon after, gaining a first.) Sisters Club is now a registered charity, operating in four different London locations with around 370 women training every month. It has sponsorship from Nike, Sports Direct and Everlast. A recent grant from Lululemon will see them expand into Compton, near Robles’ studio, this year, with an outpost in the Middle East planned for 2023.
This follows a Sisters Club session while she was in Saudi Arabia – a brave move in a country where women are only recently gaining basic freedoms such as the right to vote. Ali sees this session as only part of the impact of hers and Nova’s fight: “It was about 40 girls that participated, which just showed that in the space of a week, we inspired 40 women to take up boxing. Who knows what the actual fight did?”
Since Ali has been boxing, the profile of women’s fights has grown hugely, particularly since the 2012 Olympics, and stars like Nicola Adams and Katie Taylor. “Most gyms actually were boys-only gyms literally called West Ham Boys’ Club or Repton Boys’ Club,” she says. “Since the increase in demand for women’s boxing, they had to change their rules.”
This is set to increase. The fight earlier this year between Taylor and Amanda Serrano was the first women’s fight to headline at Madison Square Garden. Dubbed ‘For History’, it was viewed by 1.5m people, making it the most watched headlining women’s boxing match ever.
Ali herself is part of this change. Although her work with fashion, from front rows to front covers, isn’t in the ring, it’s helped to raise the profile of her beloved sport. She has nearly 110,000 followers on Instagram, and her fights gain up to 500,000 viewers on YouTube. “Representation is so important,” she says. “You can’t do and you can’t be what you can’t see. The first time people see women box on TV, [they are like,] ‘Wow, okay, they’re doing it. I can do it too.’” She acknowledges that people look up to her, and this may, in part, be down to things like conducting interviews in her bathrobe: “I think the reason why people look up to you is because you’re always your authentic self.”
Although Ali seems full of self-possession and poise, she says moving to the fashion world was an example of her going out of her comfort zone. “The very first time I did a photo shoot, I honestly was bricking it,” she says. “I remember walking on set and there were all these incredibly beautiful girls. I called Richard and said, ‘I can’t do this. I think I’m going to leave.’ And he talked me into staying, saying, ‘Look, there’s a reason why they’ve asked you, you’re not just a number, they’ve asked you because it’s you,’ cute little things like that.”
These days, she happily straddles different worlds: so much so that she is taking a break from her training schedule. With typically around three months between fights, her next one is likely to be in 2023. “This one is going to be a bit longer because I really wanted to do fashion month,” she says. “I kept missing it every year and I just kept scrolling through Instagram just getting FOMO.”
Part of the attraction is about the contrast with her day-to-day. “[Most days] I am in leggings, vest, joggers, I look like a 14-year-old boy,” she says. “It’s quite nice to not look like one, do your hair and your make-up and you put on really expensive clothes that I wouldn’t necessarily have been able to afford growing up.”
Of course, sometimes the two worlds come together – as they did late last year when Ali wore a custom designed boxing kit for her fight against Isela Vera at Madison Square Garden. Green with a panther to represent both Somalia and Black Lives Matter, this was the first time a fashion house has created a boxer’s kit. “I was scared to get any blood on it,” says Ali. It’s a pretty unique concern for most people donning Christian Dior but, as a model, boxer, author and activist, so is its wearer. Long may she stay that way.