Ramla Ali might tire of the telling of her back story, but it’s a story like few others

In 2018, she launched the non-profit Sisters Club in London with the aim to provide boxing and self-defence lessons to women in vulnerable circumstances

Ramla Ali is tired of being asked about her back story. It’s been “talked about to death”, as she told the BBC this week. But, at the risk of being decked by the 34-year-old boxer, it’s so remarkable, here’s a summary:

After her 12-year-old brother was killed by a grenade while playing outside their Mogadishu home, her family decided to flee Somalia’s civil war when she had yet to reach her first birthday.

They boarded a boat with a capacity for 200 people, but was crammed with 500 and headed for Kenya. En route, she nearly died, partly because her mother acted on the advice of a fellow refugee who recommended using rat poison to cure her head lice.

“So my boat journey wasn’t the best. A lot of people died,” she told Dazed magazine during the summer. “This is the reality of it. People have to go through that because they’re trying to create a better life for themselves, for their family, for their kids.”


She, somehow, survived. Her family spent a year in Mombassa before making their way to London in 1992 where they successfully applied for asylum. Since then, she has earned a law degree, one brother qualified as a doctor, another graduating with a degree in artificial intelligence and her two sisters have become nurses.

When prime minister Rishi Sunak began pushing his ‘stop the boats’ agenda, she penned him a letter on Instagram. “Your legacy is already one that is marred by greed and selfishness,” she wrote. “Your plans are hurtful, cruel, immoral and ineffective and I will not stay silent on this matter.”

She’s a force of nature.

In 2018, she launched the non-profit Sisters Club in London, which has since spread to four venues in the city and another in Los Angeles, the aim to provide boxing and self-defence lessons to women in vulnerable circumstances. Because it was boxing that empowered her after a hellish school experience in London when she was bullied relentlessly, not least because of her refugee status.

Her parents were opposed to her taking up the sport, but not, as she initially suspected, because she was a young Muslim girl. “My mom just said she took us away from danger and essentially, I was putting myself back into danger. She was just really scared for my safety.”

That’s what Ali told Time magazine when they chose her as one of their ‘Women of 2023′, footballer Megan Rapinoe the only other sportswoman included in the selection of 12.

By then, she had represented Somalia at the Tokyo Olympics before turning professional, her career largely funded by modelling contracts with major brands like Cartier and Dior.

Modelling and boxing can be a tricky mix. “In 2021, she showed up to a Dior photo shoot the day after a bout with six stitches on her face….and had a black eye for the British Vogue cover,” as Time reported.

Picking and choosing between the two sides of her career can be a test, Ali turning down the offer from a major brand to do a photo shoot in the Caribbean earlier this year, which would have earned her more money than she’d pick up from four professional fights, because it clashed with her training for an upcoming bout.

All along the way, she’s insisted that she needs to become a world champion to help her promote her extracurricular work, but her first professional defeat, after eight wins in a row, to Julissa Alejandra Guzman back in June, derailed that ambition.

This Saturday’s rematch against the Mexican, on the undercard of Joe Cordina’s world title defence against American Edward Vazquez in Monte Carlo, is, then, a make-or-break moment for Ali. Win and that ambition stays alive. Lose and it’s most probably done and dusted.

She can’t but smile, though, at the takes on her ups and downs in boxing. “If you’re losing, you’re a Somali-born former refugee. But if you’re winning, you’re a British boxer. It’s bizarre. It’s like, why can’t you have my back when I’m losing as well?”

She might tire of the telling of her back story, which has been turned into a movie – In the Shadows will be released next year – but it’s a story like few others. Whether the boxing side of the tale lives on depends on that rematch against Guzman. Even if she loses, though, you suspect her story won’t end there.

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan is a sports writer with The Irish Times