Ramla Ali – Float Like a Butterfly

Photography:
Clark Franklyn
Styling:
Grace Joel
Words:
John William

Once upon a time Ramla Ali was an outsider, feeling like she never quite fitted in. “I felt uncomfortable at school, I felt uncomfortable at home and the boxing gym was the only place that gave me a bit of peace and allowed me to escape from the world.” It’s hard to imagine looking at these photographs or watching footage of her in the ring. Ali and her family moved to England escaping war-torn Somalia, after living in a refugee camp in Kenya. The featherweight champion, cover girl and UNICEF ambassador has come a long way.

Leather shirt, tie & jacket by Gucci, leggings by Marine Serre, earrings by Isabel Marant

Left: Suit by Acne Studios, hoop earrings by Misho
Right: Trench coat by Gucci, Air Force 1 Shadow trainers & socks by Nike

Trench coat by Gucci, silk wrap skirt by Marni, Air Force 1 Shadow trainers & socks by Nike

 

JW: Have you been training today?
RA: No, so last night I was at a wedding and I didn’t get home ‘til like midnight, so everything’s starting a bit later today. After this I’m gonna go to training.
JW: As well as the physical fitness through training, what else has become part of your preparation for competitions?
RA: I’ve found having a sports psychologist is important. I’m East African and in our culture we don’t really talk about our problems, about mental health. Talking with my sports psychologist has really helped me a lot.
JW: How do you think it helps with the boxing specifically?
RA: Boxing is mental as well as physical and it’s really important to have a healthy state of mind. Anyone can be physically fit, but if your head is not right then you shouldn’t really get into the ring. You might end up hurting yourself.
JW: It was fitness that got you into the boxing gym. What kept you there?
RA: I found that what kept me going back constantly to the gym was the fact that I found peace and solace in the sport of boxing at a time when my life was really uncomfortable, when I was really uncomfortable in my own skin. I don’t envy teenage girls today, because it’s not easy for them. Society places such importance on physical beauty. On Instagram young girls and boys have made a huge amount of money because of the way they look. Boxing is an incredible sport where the colour of your skin or how you look has no bearing on your achievements or your accolades. It also saves so many young people and young people’s lives. It saves them from a life of poverty and violence and depression. The club that I go to, its community campaign is “Jab, don’t stab”, and we are getting a lot of kids off the street through these initiatives.
JW: Your success has been against huge odds, and there is a great sadness in your family history, having to flee Somalia. How does it feel to see comments on Youtube clips of you calling this a sob story?
RA: You know what I think, it’s not about sob stories. It’s about young boys and young girls looking at someone and seeing how they managed to overcome adversity and that you can transfer that into your own life. Okay, not everybody was a war refugee, but if you’re going through a hard time you can remember that there are so many people in the world that have come through adversity and you yourself can do the same. I’m not trying to sell it as a sob story, I’m just trying to inspire other people to hopefully look at themselves and go, ‘Wow. If somebody can go through so much like that, I can overcome this.’ That’s how I want people to see it.

Right: Studded jacket by Christopher Kane, leggings by Nike
Left: Wool dress & chain belt by Givenchy

 

JW: Through the club, have you seen people being able to transform themselves, transform their lives through applying themselves to the sport?
RA: Oh one hundred percent. I have a friend who got stabbed a few years back and he found boxing, boxing in turn loved him and he’s now had loads of fights for this club Double Jab and he’s gonna be turning professional very soon. That’s how boxing has helped him and I know it has helped a lot of other kids.
JW: Is that something that you’re hoping that will continue to evolve? Working with boxing clubs and local communities?
RA: Oh yeah. I volunteer once a week to teach women, Muslim women that don’t feel like they have a safe space in the community. I teach them boxing every Sunday. Not just Boxercise because you can do that anywhere in the country, but to teach them actual boxing and how to defend themselves. A lot of the women have said to me that they feel a lot safer walking alone at night by themselves. Just hearing that I’ve achieved what I set out to do. I’m a part of so many groups. Part of the boxing community, part of my own community – who have been so supportive and accepting since everything’s come out. I think that word community means so many different things.
JW: What are you looking at doing next?
RA: So I recently became an Ambassador for UNICEF which is obviously a huge honour and a privilege to have been asked. In December we are going to Lebanon to one of the refugee camps and I can help out for the days that I’m there, see what kind of work they’ve been doing and help young people and refugees within Lebanon. So that’s definitely something that I’m looking forward to this year. Every year they publish a book called ‘Words By’ and the proceeds are donated to kids affected by disasters.
JW: Will that be the first time that you’ve been back to a refugee camp?
RA: Yeah, so when we left Somalia we were in one in Kenya, but since coming to the UK it will be the first time that I’ve seen one physically. You always see it on TV. I think it will just hit me a lot more when I see it in person.
JW: And then there’s the glamour. The fashion world has really embraced you. Are you into all that?
RA: Like every girl I’m interested in fashion and glamour, I just never thought that fashion and glamour would be interested in me because I’ve always been such a tomboy and I’ve never worn the latest this or the latest that, but I really enjoy doing photoshoots because it means I can be a completely different person to the person I am in the gym or in the ring. I can be like two different people and it’s nice to see that other side of me. It’s nice to see me all done up and in a magazine. Me as a young girl could have never dreamed that, so it’s really humbling.

Leather shirt, tie & jacket by Gucci, leggings by Marine Serre, earrings by Isabel Marant

Jacket, gilet, & trousers by Chanel, hoop earrings by Misho, Air Force 1 Shadow trainers & socks by Nike

Left: Wool dress & chain belt by Givenchy
Right: Suit by Acne Studios, hoop earrings by Misho, Air Force 1 Shadow trainers & socks by Nike

Coat, gloves & earrings by Simone Rocha

JW: Do you enjoy getting dolled up?
RA: Oh of course, who doesn’t! Who doesn’t like one person doing your hair, one person doing your face, one person doing your nails and then one person deciding what you’re gonna wear? That is diva behaviour. It’s amazing.
JW: When you were a bit insecure and you said you were a bit of a tomboy, what were you wearing back then? Was it tracksuits?
RA: All the time. Tracksuits and trainers all the time. Because I’m constantly in the gym, it makes no sense to wear anything else, so all my money was spent on tracksuits and trainers. Now you can have very fashionable tracksuits and trainers like the ones I wore in the shoot. Now you can look glam even going to the gym.
JW: I’m quite ignorant about the world of boxing. What would you say to somebody who is a bit resistant to having a go, or even going to watch a match or a competition because of the violence?
RA: I don’t think there’s violence at all. I think boxing is art. Two people that have worked really hard in the gym for a few months trying to display all the correct techniques that they’ve learned, all the discipline that they’ve had to go through in those months. Months of sacrifice, the hard work, the dieting, the running. I personally believe everyone should go and watch at least one boxing fight, because there is some beauty in watching that. If not to just go and see people’s sparkly shorts. There’s art in that as well.

Suit by Acne Studios, hoop earrings by Misho, Air Force 1 Shadow trainers & socks by Nike

Photography: Clark Franklyn
Styling: Grace Joel
Makeup: Amy Wright using Fenty Beauty
Hair: Sarah Jo Palmer at D&V using Mr Smith
Photographer’s assistant: Sebastian Nieśpiałowski & Isaak Hest
Stylist’s assistant: Zainab Lunat
Hair assistant: Zoey Olechnowicz
Get your copy of issue 10 here
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