Ramla Ali, the 32-year-old boxer born in war-torn Somalia who came to the UK as a refugee when she was a child, became Britain’s latest history-maker on Saturday night.
The featherweight fighter met Crystal Garcia Nova in the first sanctioned women’s fight in Jeddah on the Oleksandr Usyk-Anthony Joshua undercard, facing as much criticism as praise for the ground-breaking moment.
“No one else will be the first after us,” said Ali, 10 years older than her opponent Nova, from the Dominican Republic. “There are always world records to be broken on the track, in the high or long jump, but nobody will ever replace us as the first.”
And Ali took just 65 seconds to win the fight, landing a huge overhand right in the opening seconds and a body shot to send Nova to the canvas.
Ali was chosen by promoter Eddie Hearn as a representative of change, in a delicate move in Jeddah. But the fearless Ali said she was just getting started. When she is away from training, she has worked in fashion, appearing on the cover of Vogue, and has been a Unicef ambassador.
In 2018, Ali set up Sisters Club, her own charity that offers free weekly boxing classes for women in London, described as “a safe space where Muslim women can train” without the threat of discrimination. “There is so much work still to be done inside the ring and out, but I am proud of my resilience in getting this far and ensuring I grab as many opportunities as I can,” she told CNN.
Last week in Jeddah, Ali attended a workout clinic for young local women, organised by the PR team working for the boxing event underwritten by a reported £98 million fee, a part of the billions of dollars being invested in sport by the Saudi government.
The delicate position Ali is in has been commented on by Felix Jakens, Amnesty International UK’s head of priority campaigns, which was not all positive. Amnesty International’s statement read: “Ramla Ali’s historic fight in Jeddah is obviously a considerable personal achievement but, like the Joshua-Usyk contest, this is primarily about sportswashing. In recent years, Saudi women who’ve been brave enough to call for reforms have been jailed, tortured and completely silenced.”
Jakens added: “Away from the glitz and spectacle of the boxing ring, the reality for women in Saudi Arabia is that they face serious discrimination in marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody.
“We wish Ramla Ali well but there’s nothing even faintly progressive about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.”
Ali countered: “I feel the way the media portrays Saudi Arabia is not entirely accurate. When I came here I expected to have to be covered up, so when I went to the beach on Sunday I went covered up in leggings and a baggy T-shirt. But everyone was in a bikini. Most women walking down the streets are not wearing hijabs either. And the fact that they are pushing female sport here and have allowed two girls to compete here for the first time shows how progressive the country is becoming.
“What I have seen here is that women are free to do whatever they want, train alongside men if they want, they don’t have to wear hijabs if they don’t want to. So, I just see this as a very progressive country.”
Ali’s family fled war-torn Somalia after the death of her brother, who was struck by a grenade while playing. Taking up boxing as a hobby in London – primarily to lose weight – she found an appetite for the sport, which transformed her. At Tokyo last year she became the first Somalian – man or woman – to compete in boxing at the Olympics. “Nothing is done overnight, and it takes many steps in the right direction to ensure equality,” she said.
“The West only has to look at the last 400 years of its own past to see what it’s done to other nations, races and religions before passing judgment. The region has to do much better, and I don’t condone actions against women’s inequality, but I also believe in pushing for greater inclusion.”