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Modeling Pays the Bills. But She’s Got Her Eye on a Boxing World Title

10 minute read

Ramla Ali approaches a table at a New York City hotel restaurant struggling to balance slices of orange and a 1.5-liter water bottle in her right hand. Meanwhile, she sticks her left hand in a pocket of her sweatpants, fiddling it to confirm that she has all her supplements. Glucosamine, fish oil, vitamin-B complex, coenzyme Q-10. All there.

It’s fight week—she takes on Avril Mathie in a junior featherweight bout at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 4—so Ali is ramping up her nutritional routine. “There’s loads of sh-t,” she laments, with a rueful laugh, as she sits down to discuss her unlikely rise to boxing prominence, and her goal to bring the women’s fight game to new heights. “Everywhere.”

These days, Ali’s juggling a lot more than oranges. Her athletic talent, charisma, and compelling personal journey have attracted the attention of both the boxing and modeling worlds. A Somali refugee, she represented Somalia at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, and she’s currently an ambassador for Cartier, Dior, and other brands; she even snared a Met Gala invite last May, joining the likes of Lizzo, Gigi Hadid, and Alicia Keys on the red carpet. Her careers, she knows, don’t typically complement each other—most models don’t have side hustles that involve getting pounded in the face. But she’s also aware that she has a prime opportunity to draw a crossover audience to boxing.

Women’s boxing is enjoying quite a moment. In April 2022, Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano were the main event for a sold-out bout at Madison Square Garden. More than 1.5 million people in 170 countries viewed the fight on DAZN, the global streaming service, setting a new record for women’s boxing. Later in the year, in October, an all-women’s card, headlined by the championship bout between America’s Claressa Shields and Savannah Marshall of Great Britain—Shields won—sold out London’s O2 Arena.

Read More: She Fled Somalia’s Devastating Civil War. Now She Wants to Be Its First Ever Olympic Boxer

Ali, 33, arguably has more star potential than any of these fighters, thanks to her celebrity connections. But to really pop, and raise the profile of women’s boxing in the same way that, say, Ronda Rousey electrified the UFC, Ali, better than anyone, knows what she needs to do.

“My next aim is to become a world champion,” says Ali. “And I’ll stop at nothing to achieve it.”

Ramla Ali facing Agustina Rojas
Ramla Ali facing Agustina Rojas in London on July 9, 2022.Omar Khaleel

Ali says she did not know the details of her own family history until her husband, Richard Moore, began asking her parents questions after they began dating in 2016. She was aware, for example, that she had an older brother who died Somalia’s civil war when she was a toddler. She did not know that a grenade exploded near him while he was playing outside in Mogadishu. Her father and uncle rushed him to a hospital in a wheelbarrow. Abdulkadir died, at age 12.

This incident spurred Ali’s parents to flee Somalia. The family took a crowded sailboat with filthy water and no food from the Somali port city of Kismayo to Mombassa, Kenya, some 320 miles to the south. In Kenya, where they stayed for about a year, the Alis secured fake passports and saved money to fly to Great Britain. In November 1992, they arrived at Heathrow Airport, and applied for asylum.

Looking back, Ali wishes she knew these stories earlier in her life. “So I could comfort my mom,” she says. “She went through so much trauma as a mother. A mother is always trying to be brave and show strength to their kids. But we could have been in a position that would have allowed her to be vulnerable and have no judgment from us. And we just didn’t know.”

The family settled in London, where Ali’s father worked in construction. When she was around 12, she stared taking boxing classes at a local gym, mostly to improve her fitness after she was bulled for being overweight. She didn’t spar until she was 17. “I got beat up,” says Ali. “It’s in that moment that you know if boxing is for you. I actually really liked it, as sadistic as that sounds. Because I wanted to come back and keep improving. So there would be a day where I’d beat her to get her respect.” So Ali kept coming back to the gym. And she kept taking a beating. “Then there was a moment where it flipped,” she says. “That was a very good feeling.”

Knowing her parents didn’t want her boxing, Ali tried to hide her burgeoning amateur career. But at times she’d come home with bruises, giving her whereabouts away. For years, she believed her religion drove family opposition: that her strict parents did not want a Muslim girl competing in sports. But more recently, Ali’s mother explained that her disapproval had more to do with the violent nature of the sport, combined with family’s painful past in Somalia. “My mom just said she took us away from danger, and essentially, I was putting myself back into danger,” says Ali. “She was just really scared for my safety.”

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Once Ali decided to fight for Somalia at the Olympics, her family began to support her career. No Olympic boxing federation existed in Somalia, so she and Moore had to create one from afar. For awhile, the federation was pretty much the two of them. “That was a mad adventure,” Moore says. They traveled the world to fight in tournaments and qualify for the Games, financing their quest with her earnings from her fashion work.

At first, Ali admits, her plan to represent Somalia was selfish. Qualifying as the lone boxer from the country would be easier than winning a spot in a more crowded Great Britain field. But then she started receiving messages from Somalia’s global diaspora. Because of you, people told her, my daughter took up karate, or tae kwon do. She remembers fighting in New Delhi at the 2018 World Boxing Championships, and seeing Somali immigrants in India waving the Somali flag at her match. “That’s why it was really important for me to continue to represent Somalia,” she says. Ali says she was close to traveling to Somalia a few times, but the trips were called off due to outbreaks of violence. She’s undecided about pursuing the 2024 Paris Olympics.

In 2018, she also started the Sisters Club, her nonprofit that offers boxing lessons to female populations, typically ethnic minorities, religious minorities, and victims of domestic abuse, that don’t usually enjoy ready access to fitness. “We have fully vetted female instructors who understand the sensitivities of all the women that turn up,” says Ali. “Doors must be locked. It’s completely free of men. It’s just a safe space for women to be free. To create a sisterhood, and get healthier at the same time.” The Sisters Club, which has expanded to four locations in London, now offers also basketball lessons. The nonprofit has opened a branch in Los Angeles, and will soon open one in Fort Worth, Texas.

By any measure, Ali’s modeling career has thrived. She’s appeared on the cover of British Vogue—when Meghan Markle guest-edited a 2019 issue—Elle UK, the Wall Street Journal luxury magazine, and other publications. Ali schedules much of her modeling work soon after a fight, before she begins training for the next one. In 2021, she showed up to a Dior photo shoot the day after a bout with six stitches on her face. Moore, who also serves his wife’s manager, says she had a black eye for the British Vogue cover (it’s difficult to spot).

Thus far, she’s been able to navigate both worlds. According to Moore, a major brand wanted Ali to attend a photo shoot in the Caribbean last month, for which she could have earned more than she’d receive for four fights this year, but Ali turned it down because it conflicted with fight training. Still, Moore worries that sponsor patience could wear–after all, modeling still pays the bills. “It’s still kind of working,” Moore says. “The gimmick hasn’t worn off yet. At some point they’re going to be like, you know what? F–k off.”

Ramla Ali posing in a 2022 Dior campaign
Ramla Ali models for a 2022 Dior campaignDan Beleiu

For now, her boxing career offers unique cache. Ali says a marketing executive from Cartier, along with his wife, attended her last bout in London. After her win, he raved about the atmosphere. “He’s never been to a boxing show,” says Ali. “He’s the type of guy who likes to watch tennis and polo.”

If Ali delivers that demo to women’s boxing, the result is a boon to the sport. To sustain broader cultural interest, however, she’ll have to be a better boxer. “If she becomes world champion, and she has this other life as well, the profile, the fame, the exposure of both worlds will gel into a very successful athlete,” says her promoter, Eddie Hearn, managing director of Matchroom Boxing. “We believe she can become a world champion. If she can do it, then it’s gold dust, really.”

Ali, however, must beat Mathie, an Australian, to stay on a title path. “If she loses at this level, she’ll never be a world champion,” says Hearn. “If she wins, she’s two or three fights away from fighting for the world championship.”

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Since Ali is well aware of these stakes, she grabs her water bottle—she’s already eaten her oranges and taken her pills—and takes off for a busy day of fight-week activity. She’s going to go for a run, followed by a facial. Then she’ll pick out some outfits for an upcoming press conference. “When I see the Dior girls, I’m going to invite them to the fight,” she says. Then she’ll head to another boxing training session.

Last time Ali was in New York, Dior made a custom outfit for her bout—green robe with sequins, black top, green shorts. She won’t give away any specifics, but she promises this fight kit will be equally special. “Women are not afraid to fight the best,” says Ali. “We always want and prove that we are the best. You should watch me because you should just watch me.”

“If you don’t want to tune in to watch me box,” says Ali, shifting her tone to something a more playful and mysterious, “tune in to see what I’m wearing.”

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com