Ramla Ali: 'Working With Meghan Markle Changed My Life'

I first learned about the Rage on the Red Sea boxing match between heavyweights Anthony Joshua and Olexandr Usyk in around February 2022. That's when myself and my husband, and manager, Richard had the idea to campaign my promoters and the Saudi Arabian organizers to allow me to compete there, and help create positive change. After many months of annoying Frank Smith, my promoter's CEO, we finally got the call we had been waiting for; that I would be fighting against Dominican boxer Crystal Garcia on August 20 in the first ever professional female boxing match in Saudi Arabia.

It was an amazing feeling to be part of such a historic moment and a cultural shift towards equality in the region.

This fight is the seventh since I began my professional career in 2020, and it's probably both my hardest test in terms of competition and the most important outside of the ring as well. I'm not just representing myself but also all women in combat sports; so the world can see that we deserve the same platform and opportunities as our male counterparts.

A women's fight headlining in Saudi Arabia is always the goal, but I feel that without the support of more female fans the opportunity won't exist. Boxing is still a business and those investing the money into a show need to see a return. Only when the demand exists for a female headline fight will that happen.

Facing critics of the Saudi fight

Ramla Ali Will Make History in August
Ramla Ali talks to media ahead of the Rage on the Red Sea Press Conference at Shangri-La Hotel on August 17, 2022 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Francois Nel/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia is my holy land so it is an incredible honor for me as a Muslim woman, but I have faced criticism for fighting there, and the hardest part about that is trying to educate people. Positive news or positive change doesn't seem to get the same level of engagement in the media, you only have to read research into the analytics from social platforms to see this, or the immense success of certain news outlets.

I believe that change is not fast and it's not simple. I see it as many small steps towards equality, but providing that people, countries and governments are moving in that direction then it's something that should be supported.

I would like people to remember that it was only in 2012 that Saudi women were first allowed to compete in boxing at an Olympics, and even then the number of female entries was tiny compared to the men. Slowly it has become more equal. So, I see this fight as another step towards more female equality in the region; a small step but one in the right direction.

I also connected with local women by running one of my Sisters Club sessions on August 18, in partnership with the Saudi Boxing Federation. Sisters Club is a not-for-profit organization I founded in January 2018. It provides free weekly boxing classes to hundreds of women in four locations across London. I created these classes to be specifically aimed at religious and ethnic minorities and those that have suffered domestic abuse; they help those women to learn self defense through the sport of boxing. We have recently started hosting events across other sports including rowing, running and football to give our sisters the chance to experience other disciplines. So, I hope that the Saudi women who participated in the session we held are inspired to continue on with sport and keep aspiring to achieve in the fields that are opening up within the country.

Training for the fight

Preparing for this historic fight has not been easy, my regimen is tough and I've chosen one of the hardest gyms in the world to train at. But with this comes the experience of being alongside some of the greatest talents in the sport today. My gym is located in Southgate, adjacent to Compton in Los Angeles and I work under the guidance of legendary coach Manny Robles.

Manny is regarded as one of the best in the world at what he does. He's had many world champions and many famous fighters who travel the world to train with him, but I hope to be his first female world champion. He has an incredible attitude towards female boxing and truly sees us as equal. But with that comes being pushed as hard as the Mexican fighters he trains—which is brutal at times. My life has never been easy so, naturally, I've chosen the hard path to get prepared!

I may be undefeated in my professional career, but the concept of holding onto an undefeated record is a modern day thing which means great fighters often don't fight one another. I've never been scared of defeat. I don't want it, but it doesn't scare me. Defeat is a big part of sport. I want to chase greatness and with that comes hard fights and challenges.

Inspiring others and working with Meghan Markle

I think people seem to be inspired by me because I'm not untouchable. My experiences are lived. My hardships as a refugee from Mogadishu in Somalia who took up boxing as a young Muslim woman struggling with her weight are relatable. I don't aspire to hoard wealth in a big house. Of course, this match in Saudi Arabia is a prize fight at the end of the day, but I could earn much more in other fields that I work in. Instead, I choose to continue to pursue sport because it's who I am. So the fee isn't important to me; I've spent 80 percent of it already on my training camp to get to this fight.

I want to give my life purpose through both inspiration and what I can do for others. Service to others is, as Muhammad Ali said; "...the rent you pay for your room here on earth." I'm also far from perfect but I'm always trying to better myself and I think—or hope!—that is seen and welcomed. I wasn't born with natural sporting talent but I've worked hard for everything I've achieved and earned and will continue to do so.

I'm inspired by so many people; Jackie Robinson because of what he had to endure on his journey; Venus and Serena Williams who have done so much for women of color in sport and Somali-Canadian social activist Ilwad Elman, who is a hero of mine.

Ramla Ali and British Vogue Editor
Ramla Ali and Edward Enninful attend the front row for Coach 1941 during New York Fashion Week on September 10, 2019 in New York City. Ali calls Enninful a "true visionary." Bennett Raglin/Getty Images

But being handpicked by Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex to feature in her Forces For Change issue of British Vogue in 2019 will go down as one of the greatest moments in my life. I spoke with Duchess Megan during the time it was being made but our paths have yet to cross again, although I hope they do, as I'm such a fan of both her and Prince Harry's work.

I was recently at dinner in London with editor-in-chief of British Vogue Edward Enninful, and our respective husbands, discussing this very thing and the issue. Edward is a true visionary in every sense. The release of the issue truly changed my life, it platformed everything I stood for in the way I wanted. It gave me a voice.

Fame and the future

Seeing my face on magazine covers is a strange experience—a good one though! But I've never seen myself as famous. I often just look at those magazines and think of what my future daughters will think, and that feeling brings me joy. Me and my husband have been running a hundred miles an hour for a while because the career of a boxer is a short one. so there isn't any time to take it in. Over the past four or five years, I've yet to really stop and look back at all that I've done. That's something I will do when I'm a few more years into my career.

Boxer Ramla Ali at 2020 Olympics
Somalia's Ramla Ali (red) and Romania's Maria Claudia Nechita fight during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 26, 2021. Ali tells Newsweek she now wants to see more Somali women fighting at future Olympics. Buda Mendes / POOL / AFP

Over the years, I've learnt that professional boxing is more a business than a sport. I've realized that it's a brutal and complicated business as well, and partnering with the right team can determine your whole career and life to some degree. I'm fortunate that my husband is my manager and I count myself as truly lucky to have the support of my promoters. I don't think I would have continued on if it was any other team.

My hope now is to expand my Sister's Club initiative to the U.S, Africa and the Middle East with the help of future partners. And my dream, in boxing and in life, is to see another Ramla Ali in five to 10 years time; to see another female boxer from Somalia win an Olympic medal in boxing.

I fought to become the first Somali boxer to compete in the 2020 Olympics, so I would like to know that what I had to endure with the sporting bodies in Mogadishu and politicians was not for nothing.

I want to look back and see that I made a difference to my community, my people and my family. I want my life to have had purpose.

Ramla Ali is a Somali-British professional boxer, model and founder of non-profit organization, Sisters Club. On August 20, she will participate in the first ever professional female boxing match in Saudi Arabia, as the undercard on the Anthony Joshua and Ukrainian Olexandr Usyk fight.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

Edited by Jenny Haward.