Ramla Ali had no hesitation in putting her professional career on hold when she was handed the chance to box at the Olympic Games, but she admits that her main ambition remains to become a professional world champion.
The 31-year-old Londoner, who was born in Somalia, had attempted to qualify representing the land of her birth. But she thought her chance was gone when she was beaten in the African Olympic qualifier in February last year and the world qualifier, which gave a second chance to everyone who did not make it through, was scrapped.
Last month, though, she was awarded a tripartite place at the Games, however, effectively a wild card for under-represented nations, giving her a place in the featherweight draw on Thursday. She had extended her unbeaten professional record to three fights in Las Vegas in May and had two more fights lined up, but that can wait for now.
“The reaction among family and friends has been really heart-warming,” she said. “A lot of them seem to now understand the reason behind me not socializing and attending parties or weddings over the last decade as I’ve focused so much of my time on my training.
“I’ve had an amazing reaction from fellow Olympians and world champion sports people as well who have all been rooting for me and sending me messages. Even a handful of girls in my own weight division in boxing at Tokyo messaged me to say how happy they were to see me attend the games. A lot of them are friends now as we’ve done so many international competitions and training camps together.
“In terms of media though, I have found very few news outlets covered my attendance but nearly everything single one of them were chasing me over the last few years to write a story on how I was a refugee or a Muslim boxer or supported black lives matter, which really goes to show the editorial decisions these publications make and the agenda or angle they choose to report on. I guess positive news is less engaging and less provoking.”
Ali has not been in Somalia since she was a baby. Her family fled the country at the height of its Civil War after Ali’s brother was killed by a bomb. They fled on an overcrowded boat to Kenya and ended up in East London. She found boxing at 12 and then took up modelling to subsidize her sport, proving quite a success at it and appearing on the cover of Vogue.
“I might not have been back to Somalia since I was young, but my family still live there and Mogadishu is very much our home,” she said. “Representing Somalia is not about the politicians or clan leaders or the terrorist groups that I disagree with. Representing Somalia is about showing my people that anything is possible for them.
“It’s about sending a message to the world to say we are here and we can shine anywhere we want and when we want. You have the likes of Ilhan Omar in the US who is an incredible congresswoman. Ilwad Elman, who was nominated for the Nobel peace prize. Countless supermodels across the world who come from Somalia. Somali women are changing the image of the country and reshaping it for the greater good of our future and that is what representing Somalia is all about.”
But competing for a country as impoverished as Somalia is a different experience to being chosen for richer nations. The country has never won an Olympic medal. She is the first boxer ever to represent the nation at the Olympics and is part of a team of two, along with a runner who is based in Ethiopia. There had been due to be a UK based taekwondo fighter too, but there was a mistake in her paperwork.
She had to buy her own kit and her back-up team consists of just her husband, Richard, who is also her trainer.
“We don’t have any kit but perhaps it’s still coming,” she said. “I know Richard was running around London last week trying to find someone that would print the NOC code on the back of my competition vest as that was an essential requirement to compete. It’s fair to say the process of getting here has not been how I imagined but I’m still grateful to be here.”
Her chances of making the podium depend very much on the draw, but featherweight seems an open division, although she doesn’t believe her professional experience will give her any advantage.
“Professional boxing is a whole different sport in my opinion,” she said. “I felt I had started to build momentum in the pros. Fighting three-threes (3 x 3 minute rounds) is really less about the better boxer and more who can perform to that format. I’ve done everything I could to prepare over the last five years in terms of competitions and training camps so I feel confident going into the games that I have a great chance.
“I’ve beaten girls who are in my category before and the couple others that I have fought I lost on 3-2 splits, which I also disagreed with anyway. Some of the others I’ve sparred as well. Winning an Olympic medal in the past has been about how much you bribed the judges and referees, you only have to watch Roy Jones Jr or Michael Conlan bouts to see this, but I do think that this Olympics will be corruption free and the IOC boxing task force have done an incredible job, so all praise needs to go to them.”
But if she had a choice about whether to win an Olympic gold or a professional world title, she would take the latter.
“Not to take anything away from the Olympics because it is really special, but I would have to say world champion,” she said. “It also depends on how you win it though. If I boxed for a vacant title that really wouldn’t do it for me. I would need to feel like a true world champion and go to their country and box someone special to feel deserved.
“Both Olympics and winning a pro world title is all about navigating the system but at the end of it you still need to be able to sleep at night knowing you’re the best.”
Ron Lewis is a senior writer for BoxingScene. He was Boxing Correspondent for The Times, where he worked from 2001-2019 - covering four Olympic Games and numerous world title fights across the globe. He has written about boxing for a wide variety of publications worldwide since the 1980s.