Ramla Ali doesn't know her exact age. She was born during the height of the Somali Civil War (1981-91). Vital registration systems weren't exactly a priority for a country immersed in conflict. So she doesn't have a birth certificate.
Ali thinks she's around 28 or 29 years old.
When Ali and her family fled the Somali capital of Mogadishu in the early 1990s, she was a toddler. They arrived in England as refugees and settled in London. The U.K. became home. Ali's family learned the language and customs.
Twenty years later, in 2016, Ali became the first Muslim woman to win an English national boxing title. She has her sights set on the 2020 Olympics. Ali wants to represent Somalia at the Tokyo Games. Should she qualify, she will become the first boxer of any gender to represent her country of birth.
"[Being a] refugee has shaped everything about me," said Ali, who shares the September cover of British Vogue with 14 other "forces of change," which was guest-edited by Meghan (Markle), Duchess of Sussex. Other notables on the cover include Laverne Cox, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jane Fonda, Salma Hayek, Jameela Jamil and Yara Shahidi.
"Going through war as a child and arriving in this country as a refugee, living through poverty, through bullying in school and coaches telling me I'm not good enough," said Ali, who also holds a first-class law degree from SOAS University of London, "[now] quitting is not an option."
espnW talked to Ali about being a Muslim woman boxer, training for the Olympics and becoming a cover star.
Q: Was boxing your first love?
A: I began training quite young, at around 13, and enjoyed it. However, I didn't really fall in love with the sport until I was [about] 19. I got hooked during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, watching the likes of [Ukrainian boxer] Vasyl Lomachenko and [British former pro boxer] James DeGale. Boxing is something that grows and grows inside of you until that's all you think about.
I don't remember my first coach's name, but it doesn't really matter as he didn't pay any attention to me. The first trainer who took any interest was an amazing man named Terry Palmer when I was [about] 19. Terry made me believe in myself for the first time. It's his interest in me that allowed me to push myself even further into the sport.
Q: When did you realize you had the makings of a boxer?
A: After my first fight, it's the only thing I wanted to do for a living. But, it didn't click straight away. It wasn't until about 20 amateur fights [under my belt] that I understood properly that hard work will always beat talent. Those other boxers who were just naturally gifted but weren't willing to put in the work and learn slowly fell away from the sport. The ones who stuck with it through failure and defeat would continue to develop -- and have risen to achieve great things. I knew I had what It took because I kept looking forward even in defeat. Although the Olympics is my dream right now, I want to be regarded as a top professional with world titles around my waist. The desire to stop at nothing to get there is what I believe makes a great boxer.
I want people to know that regardless of your circumstance if you believe it and remain committed to it, it will happen for you, too.
Q: Did your community and family support your boxing career from the start?
A: I fully expected friends and family to not want me to box -- not just because of my Somali or Islamic culture, but because of the perception of females in sport in general. Combat sports historically don't look at women as fighters or athletes. Films on boxing or martial arts, in general, are all about men. So, I didn't expect much in the way of acceptance. I've been competing for over 10 years and have had nearly 60 fights. But it's only been in the last year that friends and family even think of boxing as my career. Access to sport in general needs to improve for children across a broad spectrum of demographics. Asking my family to understand that sport for a woman is a real career was a huge ask, sadly.
Q: You have an eye on becoming the first boxer to represent Somalia at the 2020 Olympics. Why is it important to represent for your home country?
A: The Olympics are the pinnacle of international boxing. To become the first boxer to represent Somalia at an Olympics would be a hell of an underdog story and something that I've dreamt about for a long time. My mother, who has never seen me fight, has agreed to come. It would mean everything to me. It would truly mean the acceptance of who I am.
Q: How are you training for the Olympics?
A: My physical training preparation started 18 months ago, which is six days on and one day off. I train twice a day, so 12 sessions a week. My training program is periodized and works based on eight-week training camps. I spend my mornings focused on conditioning, either on a track or in the Altitude Centre, a room designed to replicate conditions at 2,500+ meters above sea level for improving my cardio capability.
My morning sessions will be working on anything from plyometric work to sprint training. My evenings are spent boxing. I have two or three technical sparring sessions a week which will be theme-based, working on my weaknesses with different training partners. In the lead up to competition, we will have one week which replicates the tournament structure (five days). My coach will line up three to five open sparring sessions across five days to make sure that I can recover and perform each and every day. Otherwise, I will be working on [things like] bag and footwork drills.
Recovery also plays a huge role in my training. I'll visit a physiotherapist, osteopath and sports therapist all separately once a week each to look after my injuries.
Q: You stopped and started, then stopped and restarted boxing. What kept you going?
A: My mother. I've traveled the world and met a lot of amazing people through my job, but I've never met a fighter like her. What she went through and experienced across continents as a refugee, with poverty in England. She experienced loss but still had the fight to continue and just kept pushing on, ensuring her children had a better life and education. That will never leave me. To complain and moan so often is a privilege the majority of our society don't realize they have.
Sometimes you have to bite down on your mouth guard and keep moving forward.
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