‘When I’m losing I’m a “war refugee”, when I’m winning I’m “British boxer”’: Ramla Ali on labels, sparring and speaking out

Ramla Ali sounds apologetic. As a professional boxer and a model, her working day can span the full spectrum of dressing up and down. And today she thinks her hair looks a mess, patting the curls scraped neatly into a high bun with a sheepish grimace. “The last wash day was Saturday,” she says, when she was in Monaco for a high-stakes fight. No matter – she looks lovely, especially given she recently spent an evening getting punched in the face. Makeup-free, she is relaxed on the sofa in a fleece tracksuit at her in-laws’ in Hove, East Sussex. Her husband, Richard Moore, is also her manager and former boxing coach (a role now taken over by Los Angeles-based Manny Robles). They have decamped to Moore’s parents’ place because, “if you’re in London after you compete, no one will leave you alone!”

Ali brings up hair because hers has been the cause of some anxiety over the past few months. Since turning pro in October 2020, she had been undefeated in the ring (excluding amateur bouts). Then she lost a fight in June 2023, a shock knockout left hook landed by Julissa Alejandra Guzman of Mexico. Over the following months, Ali’s hair started to fall out. She noticed parts of it thinning during a 12-week intensive training camp to prepare for the November rematch in Monaco, which Ali won to claim a World Boxing Association international super-bantamweight (55kg) title (she earned her first pro title in February 2023).

Ramla Ali takes on Julissa Alejandra Guzman in Monaco on 4 November. Ali won the fight; it followed her previous shock defeat by Guzman in June.
Ramla Ali takes on Julissa Alejandra Guzman in Monaco on 4 November. Ali won the fight; it followed her previous shock defeat by Guzman in June. Photograph: Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing/Getty Images

She thinks she now has a type of alopecia, even though her hair is partly growing back, she says. “I saw it the other day, when I was getting my hair braided for the fight. There was a small bit of hair in the middle,” – we are talking by video call and she leans over and points towards the crown of her head. “And I was like: ‘Hmm? What is this? Did I accidentally cut my hair?’ And I realised that was where the alopecia was.” But, flashing a smile, she insists that keeping on hair masks “for hours” and taking care of herself should help.

To say Ali’s has been a life of extremes would be beyond understatement. She was born in Somalia where war broke out in the late 1980s. When she was a baby, her family fled the country’s capital, Mogadishu, after her eldest brother, Abdulkadir, was killed at the age of 12 by a grenade while playing outside.

They sought refuge, first via a treacherous boat crossing to Kenya, and eventually in the UK. This means Ali doesn’t know her exact date of birth – that sort of thing wasn’t being meticulously recorded at the time as war splintered regular life into shards in Mogadishu. At one point, she had several birth dates across different forms of ID, and has previously joked that she planned to tell everyone she was 21 for as long as they would believe her. She has said that when they arrived in the UK when she was a toddler, one of her older sisters helped her choose the date she now uses: 16 September 1989.

Her family settled in Bethnal Green in east London, after being moved from temporary housing in Paddington to a series of flats in the east of the city. Ali secretly started boxercise classes aged 12 or so, to lose some weight; she would tell her parents she was going out for a run. When she graduated to sparring in her teens, at mostly male boxing gyms, she learned to blend makeup to hide her black eyes from her parents. Her mother wouldn’t have approved of boxing on two counts: because, as a Muslim girl, her daughter had to show skin to compete, and because jabbing at an opponent seemed like a form of actively seeking out violence, after her parents had worked so hard to shelter her from the war.

But Ali continued, becoming an amateur with a string of victories after her 2012 debut: a novice title in 2015, both the English and British 2016 national titles, and the African Zone championships in 2019, when she switched to representing Somalia at amateur international level, in 2018. That she was the first British Muslim woman to win many of the UK accolades attracted significant publicity.

Ali and Moore met and got married within months in 2016, and have now bought a fixer-upper in Streatham, south London (“I call it the money pit”), which is being rebuilt while they temporarily live in LA. Her early career was erratic and hit its first hurdle when one of her brothers saw her boxing on a televised bout in 2014. Her entire family called an intervention, begging her to stop. She couldn’t ever stay away for too long, though. Eventually, in 2017, an uncle in Somalia convinced Ali’s parents that her sparring ought to be encouraged, and they have been supportive since.

After going pro in 2020 aged 31, her record was unblemished over eight fights until that fight in June. And in the midst of all the sparring, she was signed by agency IMG Models (home to Sudanese model veteran Alek Wek, both Hadid sisters Bella and Gigi, and Sabrina Elba) in January 2019 – they seemed to appreciate both her beauty and backstory. She was handpicked for the Duchess of Sussex’s September 2019 guest edit of British Vogue, invited to couture shows by Schiaparelli and Alaïa, and dressed for fights in Dior (for whom she is a global ambassador), Alexander McQueen and Off-White.

So, does that mean she has figured out her angles? “Hell, no! I sometimes think, ‘How have you not learned?’” She laughs. At events, when photographers ask her to pose with other attendees, she’ll look over at other women, “and they’re ready. They’re just rea-dy. They’re like,” and she vamps for the lens, all pouty and smouldering. “And I’m so awkward!” Chalk some of this up to modesty, because she has clearly found a way to make it work, from the covers of Elle UK, Harper’s Bazaar Arabia and Dazed & Confused to walking the Met Gala red carpet in Cartier and Giambattista Valli.

It’s funny, squaring her ferocity in the ring and often serious photoshoot stare with the smiley, thoughtful woman on the other end of the call. She’s not just the person often presented as a role model. Ali has had to turn over and retell her story so many times that she has got into the habit of using the questions she has been repeatedly asked – about the hardship of being a child refugee, or lying to her family about boxing – to help her “piece together” her past. They jog her memory, basically. Now, though, a biopic based on her life that’s in the works offers her the chance to drive her own narrative for a change. After so many years gunning for wins in the ring, she is also figuring out what she even wants to achieve next.

Portrait of Ramla Ali in white coat with hood
‘Letitia Wright came up to me and said: “I’d love to be given the opportunity to play you.”’ Photograph: Dan Beleiu

But, first, to the film. In the Shadows is due out in 2024, led by producers Lee Magiday (The Favourite) and Madeleine Sanderson. The script, by Irish playwright Ursula Rani Sarma, is not even fully finished, according to Ali – testament to the care she says Sarma has taken so far. Ali had batted away previous requests for her life rights. But Magiday was persistent. “She chased me down for years, honestly,” she says with a laugh. “You have to give it to Lee: she knew what she wanted, and she stopped at nothing to get it. And it kind of reminds me of myself.” And good on Magiday – it worked. “I remember thinking, ‘If anyone’s going to make it, it has to be Lee.’ She’s the one that stuck at it, she’s the one who came to watch me compete in shitty little club shows.” She lists examples of Magiday’s dedication in her warm, London accent: “She came with me to my cousin’s wedd-ing, she’s come and met the fam-ily.”

It was Ali, however, who secured the film’s star. “So you know Letitia Wright is playing me?” she starts, hands gesticulating from within fleece sleeves that swallow up her wrists. Ali met the Black Panther and Small Axe star at an Alexander McQueen fashion show, last year. “She came up to me and was like, ‘Are you Ramla Ali?’ And I was like – excuse my language – ‘Fuck off, as if you know who I am?’” Her face creases into laughter. Wright had heard Ali on a podcast talking about the film, and said something to the effect of, “‘I’d love to be given the opportunity to play you.’ I thought, ‘What?’” Ali’s been told her role in casting the lead should be enough to get her some sort of producer credit – “I wasn’t going to say no!”

Still, she has enjoyed taking on an active role in the writing and story. Although her mother was consulted for detail on the family’s journey from Somalia – including the boat crossing to Kenya, where she says hundreds died – Magiday and the team couldn’t include everything in the script. “I mean, so many things were taken out because it’s like, ‘Damn, you had a mad life.’ But if we included all of it, it wouldn’t be a story about me, it’d be a story about her,” she figures. Ali didn’t hesitate to send back notes so they would get the story right. Twice, she uses the word “authentic” in outlining her hopes for the script’s final form.

The film seems like an opportunity to tell the story from her own perspective. It feels strange to see Ali still framed primarily as a refugee after all this time in London, I begin, before she cuts in. “Oh my god, listennn. It’s mad. There’s certain publications, I swear to you that – excuse my language – really piss me off. If I can mention them: the BBC, I hate them. Because,” and a wry laugh, “when I’m losing, I’m ‘war refugee’ but when I’m winning, I’m ‘British boxer’. Honestly? Sorry, but I hate that. I’m like, I’m no longer a refugee. I’m a British citizen. Yeah, I came to the UK to flee war, but I pay my taxes!” She chuckles again. “Why can’t you see me as a British citizen?” Later, I look up BBC reporting on Ali and find their Africa sports site mostly tends to define her as Somali, while the UK site usually calls her a Somalia-born Briton.

skip past newsletter promotion

In any case, to her, the term “war refugee” as sometimes used in early headlines about Ali “feels like clickbait, and I think, ‘Come on – do your job properly.’ And, you’re right, there are so many things that I’ve done, even in the last year or two or three. I’m no longer the same person, and you should see me as somebody completely different.” Among other things, she competed as Somalia’s first boxer at an Olympic Games, in Tokyo in 2021. She had been passed over by Team GB in 2018, and she and Moore practically established Somalia’s Olympic boxing federation on their own. It was tough, and things didn’t get easier in Tokyo when Moore got appendicitis after they landed in Japan. He couldn’t be by her side for the fight. “I’ve said this loads of times, but my sporting career – well, my life – has been destined to be one that’s supposed to be hard. Nothing’s supposed to be easy,” she says. “But I wouldn’t have it any other way, you know, because when you end up victorious you can say, ‘That was really hard, but I pushed through it.’ So I feel like a champion.”

Ali with her husband Richard Moore, 2018 by punch bags.
Ali with her husband Richard Moore, 2018. Photograph: Hindustan Times/Getty Images

Ali lost the fight for a bronze medal at Tokyo, but wasn’t deterred. She has earned a reputation for throwing herself at causes that mean something to her, whether advocating for refugees on social media or as a UK ambassador for Unicef. In 2018, she founded Sisters Club, an all-female boxing club that she proudly says has been attended by survivors of domestic abuse, among others. Ali hasn’t spoken before about the split with former Sisters Club sponsor Sports Direct. That relationship is “no more”, she says. “I’m actively choosing not to work with Sports Direct any more. That is a conscious effort” – this she says in a clipped voice, enunciating every syllable.

Ali had what she calls a “glove-by-glove” deal signed in 2020 with Everlast, which, like Sports Direct, is owned by Mike Ashley’s Frasers Group. “So they pay me to wear the gloves for a fight.” After she lost to Guzman in June, she claims Everlast wouldn’t pay her. She walked away from them entirely. “If your slogan is ‘Greatness is within’, how do you expect an athlete to show their greatness if they have never faced adversity?” she asks, before confirming she has now chosen not to work with any part of Frasers Group (which did not respond to requests for comment). It’s a typical example of both Ali’s take-me-or-leave-me attitude and her unguardedness. After several years in the public eye, she could be a media-trained fount of soundbites but, instead, she often volunteers anecdotes, and opens up without being prodded. [An Everlast spokesperson said: “Whilst we were disappointed to lose Ramla as an ambassador, Frasers Group adhered to all contractual terms which Ramla and her management team had previously agreed to. We wish Ramla every success in the future.”]

A question about whether she welcomes the role-model halo she has been given leads her into a story about a friend imploring her to ignore her so-called haters. “Sometimes your being will just annoy someone,” she remembers him saying. “And I’m OK with that. Because if it isn’t something specific I’ve done, and it’s just because I’ve got a little bit of success or because I speak up for Black Lives Matter or for refugees or for Palestine or ceasefire, whatever. If it’s just that? I’m OK with people hating me.”

Portrait of Ramla Ali in white coat with hood.
‘The only time I feel like I’m a boxer is when I’m in the ring and I switch it on.’ Photograph: Dan Beleiu

On 15 October, Ali shared a personal call for a ceasefire in Gaza with her 117,000 Instagram followers. Was she hesitant to speak out publicly on the highly emotive, contentious conflict? “The thing is, I had to say something,” she says, picking her words carefully. “I think sometimes silence is just as bad as doing something bad. I was very conscious of being neutral. I remember saying, ‘Both sides are at fault.’ Innocent Israeli people have been killed just as innocent Palestinian people have been. Innocent people should not be killed, ever. And the only thing that needs to happen is a ceasefire.” As someone with first-hand experience of fleeing war, even as a baby too young to remember it, Ali felt she couldn’t stay quiet.

Though, of course, proud of her accomplishments, Ali is eager to be seen as more than a stereotype. Terms used to describe her, such as Muslim woman, war refugee and immigrant, all carry preconceptions. And though technically she is all of those things, she is also a Londoner, a bit of a joker, and the child of a big family (she’s one of seven). Growing up, she was often quite lonely. She was bullied in secondary school, and initially misunderstands when I ask how the bullying was eventually resolved – she thinks I’m suggesting she sought revenge at the time with her fists, and says, “The only time I feel like I’m a boxer is when I’m in the ring and I switch it on.”

The former bullies have been in touch, but not to apologise. She says, “They’ve now found me on social media, and some will message me saying, ‘You were never bullied in secondary school. What are you talking about?’ And it’s like … wow,” she says, laughing. But family kept her going, from her brothers Imran and Yahya to her cousin Sara, a confidante during adolescence. “My eldest sister, I love to bits, but I see her more like a mum because she sort of raised us. It’s hard to say, ‘Oh, we’re best friends’, because she scares the shit out of me,” she says, looking right at me, deadpan. “She scares me more than my mum. I’m more cautious about disappointing her than my mum.”

I notice she speaks about her mother more than her father – why? “My dad is just zen. He doesn’t get in anyone’s business,” and she smiles. “He’s not as vocal as my mum. In African families, let’s be honest, the mum is the matriarch, the leader. Everybody fears her – even my dad fears her.” Still, it’s her mum whom Ali calls first after any fight. The day before she defeated Guzman in Monaco, her mother said she had dreamed of their post-bout conversation, and that her child had been victorious in the dream. “That was nice. You know, dreams are dreams – you can never place too much weight on them – but hearing your mum think positively for you is amazing.”

That dream may have come true, but Ali won’t be drawn on what her own hopes for boxing currently look like. What’s next? “Honestly? I’m trying not to think about boxing at the moment.” That last training camp took so much out of her, hair loss and all, that, “I just want to think about being healthy, mentally, and being at peace for a bit.”