East London’s Bethnal Green is where you will find the fighter looming larger than life out of a community mural three storeys tall
Soon after the bell sounded to end Ramla Ali’s second professional fight, the Somali-born boxer was in a room behind the ring at the SSE Arena in Wembley crying dejectedly.
The tears were not because she lost. She didn’t. Nor were they because a doctor was stitching a nasty cut – her first ever – that opened up in the fifth round above her left eye.
“I was crying because I thought my face was not going to look the same ever again,” Ali tells media. “Nothing to do with the pain. I was thinking: ‘I’m never going to get modelling work now. It’s my only form of income. How am I going to continue boxing?’”
In that almost faultless performance, she proved her trainer’s mantra that “you can’t beat the feet’’, lightly feinting and triggering, while leading with a deft left jab.
If the stance marked her as orthodox in the ring, life beyond the ropes has been anything but.
Three decades after she claimed asylum in London as a toddler with her family, guest editor Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, chose Ali to grace the cover of the September 2019 British Vogue issue as a “Force for Change’’.
She turned up to the photoshoot a bundle of nerves and bearing one of the occupational hazards of the day job.
“I had a black eye but you can’t see it,” she says. “That’s why I’m the only one who’s sideways.
“I’ve realised that the fashion world isn’t really how people think it is. It’s not superficial, it’s amazing. They understand who I am and they celebrate it. Now, looking back on why I was crying, I feel silly knowing how much they embrace differences.”
Inclusion is important to Ali. She devotes considerable amounts of time to being an equal opportunities activist and working as a humanitarian with the aid organisation Unicef.
Perhaps her greatest labour of love is Sisters Club, the non-profit initiative founded in 2018 to give women of ethnic and religious minorities and victims of violence a safe place to box.
It is not a case of just doing exercises and then whacking a bag, she clarifies. “It is self-defence. The free weekly sessions teach vulnerable women and girls to move like a boxer and protect themselves against punches.”
Clubs in London, Los Angeles, New York and Texas offer the Sisters various sports from boxing and basketball to running, football and rowing, and Ali, currently in Dubai for the launch of the SIRO One Za’abeel fitness hotel as a brand ambassador, hopes to expand into the Middle East.
A taster event was held for 40 female participants wanting to try boxing at a media workout in Saudi Arabia before the historic fight against Crystal Garcia Nova 18 months ago. “This is the whole point,” she says.
The super-bantamweight bout on the undercard of the Oleksander Usyk v Anthony Joshua rematch ranks high in her favourites because of “how I won it” (knockout right punch after 65 seconds), “where it was” (Jeddah), “what it meant” (the first time two women had fought professionally in the kingdom), and the “celebration” (a drive to Makkah to perform Umrah).
Ali knows all too well the strength it takes to defy convention, rewrite the rules, push through obstacles, or embrace being different.
In childhood, she routinely lied about her ethnicity, inventing any alternative birthplace to better blend into the mainly Asian population where she grew up.
Then came more than a decade of hiding bruises from a disapproving family, sneaking out the window for sparring sessions, and pretending to be elsewhere while going off to compete.