Between them, Joshua Buatsi and Ramla Ali hold a handful of national titles, two fruitful partnerships with Nike, one Olympic Bronze medal, and several groundbreaking sporting firsts. Having both become infatuated with the all-consuming nature of training and competing when they were teenagers, Buatsi and Ali have both dedicated the majority of the past decade to the sport.
Since one fateful summer holiday between his GCSE years, Buatsi’s been balancing a burgeoning career in amateur boxing with obtaining a degree-level education, turning down professional contracts with the likes of Floyd Mayweather to navigate his career on his own terms. Ali also started boxing in her school days after coming across a class at her local London gym, spending the majority of her tenure as an athlete training strictly in secret against the wishes of her family.
As two of the most prominent UK-based competitive boxers in 2019, both are now directing their influence towards a long list of personal and socio-political goals – from competing in the Toyko 2020 Olympic Games and winning world championship titles, to grass-roots, infrastructure-focused work aiming to get more young people involved with sport. We spoke to both about their sporting journeys so far, the legacies they want to leave, and everything in between.
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Five years ago, whilst casually browsing sports channels one afternoon, one of boxer Ramla Ali’s brothers came across her competing live on TV. He’d had no idea where she was, and it was the first time he, and subsequently the rest of her family, found out she boxed at all.
As Ali had anticipated, most of them didn’t approve, considering it inappropriate for a young woman to be involved with the sport. Having fled the Somalian civil war when she was a baby, they staunchly priori- tised education as the most reliable avenue for long-term security within the UK. “Coming from a war-torn country, it’s the idea that you came here to be safe,” she explains. “They thought: ‘Why are you going into danger again? You came here to get a good education, and get yourself a good job.’ That was one of the main reasons I knew they wouldn’t be OK with it.” The revelation that 20-something Ali (she’s not sure of her exact age – date, month, or year), was fully immersed in the world of amateur boxing provoked a fallout and, deeply respectful of her family’s sacrifice and wishes, she stopped – for a while.
The consuming nature of training consistently drew her back, and boxing quickly became a kind of coping mechanism: when dodging punches, Ali could also evade the responsibilities of real life, and the burden of her own conflicting loyalties. “It was like an escape from reality. The only way I can describe it is it’s like you’re in Narnia; it’s a completely different universe, a place where you can escape all your troubles and everything that’s going on,” she says of her first few years boxing at her local London gym, which she joined after discovering the sport, by chance, at a standard Boxercise class. “If you’ve had a bad day, you can just leave it at the door. You can start fresh from that one training session.”
With no prominent female boxing presence at the time, Ali hadn’t considered it a viable career until five years later, when a coach noticed her practicing, assumed she was actively competing, and asked how many fights she’d had. “Literally, before then, the thought had never crossed my mind. But since he said it I thought OK, let’s give it a shot,” she laughs. “And I kid you not, that winning feeling… Only a select few people will understand it. It’s like time stands still for that split second.”
So she began to compete, strictly in secret, telling her mum she was going for runs whilst attending national tournaments. In 2016 she won the English Title Series, the Elite National Championships and the Great British Elite Championships, becoming the first Muslim woman to claim an English boxing title, and, at one point, number one in the country for her amateur weight division. Still, it wasn’t until two years later, when one of her uncles discovered an interview she’d filmed for a Somali news channel, that she could share her accomplishments with her family. “He called me to tell me he was really proud of me,” Ali says, framing the following seal of approval from her mum as a career highlight that now eclipses any medal, trophy or title. “‘He said don’t worry about your mum, I’ll make sure she’s on board. You just carry on training, and you carry on trying to be the best person you can possibly be.’ Now she’s the first person I tell before a competition, and she’s the first person I call after a fight,” she smiles. “And I’ve never had that before. It’s such a huge thrill, and such a big step for me. I can’t tell you what an amazing feeling it is – being able to talk to someone you love about something you love is just the best feeling ever.” With the Tokyo 2020 Olympics next on her radar, Ali’s hoping to represent Somalia (she switched allegiance to the country for last year’s World Championships, making her the first Somali person, male or female, to have ever reached that standard), and, should she qualify, her mum’s agreed to attend to watch her box for the first time: “The true Cinderella ending to all of this.”
Now she has her own fiercely loyal support network — including her husband and coach Richard Moore, who she married in 2016 — Ali dedicates time outside of training to helping others fight for their own space, freedom and empowerment within the sport. Currently she volunteers for registered Sport for Development charity Fight 4 Change, with whom she’s set up an female-only boxing class for strictly religious Muslim women, where doors are locked to guarantee complete privacy from men. Around 20 girls show up each week to be coached by Ali in fitness and self- defence, sneaking out of work early or sacrificing their lunch hours to make the 4pm start.
“Obviously boxing is such a selfish sport – it’s an individual sport,” she says, “but you’ve got to look at the bigger picture, and this journey I’m on is much bigger than me. It’s about inspiring other people that feel like they don’t have the opportunity to get into sport.”
Having signed a partnership as a Nike Athlete last year, Ali also sees it as a platform to access more young people on a wider scale. “They’re always engaging young Londoners, and I think that’s what it’s all about: getting young people into sport through certain incentives,” she enthuses, explaining her focus for 2019 is to extend her influence amongst women in Africa too.
In working with Nike, Ali’s joining ranks with the likes of Serena Williams, who she cites as a long-time hero, both for her personal ethos and journey as an athlete. “I love everything she stands for,” she professes, clearly proud to be compared to and aligned with the tennis legend. “She’s done so much in a sport that’s considered a rich person’s sport. And she doesn’t take any crap from anyone, she always stands for what’s right and what she believes in. If you feel like you’re being short- changed, you’ve always got to do what’s right. You can’t keep quiet in anything.”
Though Ali says she’s still working on navigating her industry with the fortitude of Williams, having established her name in a highly competitive landscape with, for the most part, no consistent source of support, it’s clear she already operates with the same steely determination. And though she openly recounts the highly personal trials of her career so far, she’s insistent she doesn’t want her past sensationalised – it might motivate her training, and it’s decisively informed her projects outside of the ring, but it’s not why she wants you to know her name. “Everybody knows I’ve got a powerful story – I literally come from nothing, but I don’t want people to just remember that about me,” she asserts. “What I want my legacy to be, is: ‘Wow, she was an amazing boxer who did X, Y and Z. And oh, did you know this is her story?’ In that order – not the other way around.”
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“Miss? The last one’s for you…” Ghanaian-born, London-based boxer Joshua Buatsi is waving a box of chicken wings in my direction, proudly introducing me to a secret Nando’s sauce that’s not even on the menu, apparently available only to those in the know. Obviously, I’m instantly charmed. Though he feigns outrage at not having claimed one of the company’s infamous, unlimited free food “Black Cards” — one of 2019’s more elusive badges of cultural prestige — if Buatsi’s career continues to progress at the pace he’s currently setting, I doubt that’ll take too long.
Today’s a rare morning off for the 25 year old, who usually kick- starts a full day of training with a 7am cardio session. “When I’m out of bed or on my way to the gym, there’s these motivational speeches that I listen to,” he shows me, when I ask how the hell he does it day in, day out. “They’re boxing videos, but there’s a voiceover: Eric Thompson, Will Smith, Arnold Schwarzenegger; all these guys talking about how you have to work hard to get to where you want to get to. They’re talking about how some people like to sleep too much. Do you like to sleep too much?”
For someone whose insistent “Never!” is betrayed by a shrill, involuntary laugh of denial, it feels inconceivable for me — and realistically, for anyone else in the room — to possess the kind of compulsive energy that’s fuelled Buatsi’s dedication to his sport since he first picked up a pair of gloves.
It all started the summer before his GCSEs, when a friend pulled up to his Croydon estate with a car boot full of boxing gear. Kids started sparring each other, messing around, thrilled for five minutes by the novelty of a brand new distraction, but Buatsi was enamoured. For the rest of the six- week period the then 15 year-old started his days at 4:30am, when he’d be picked up by a mate post- night shift to run, gym, and box for hours on end.
“I needed something that would be consuming, because at that age you’ve got a lot of time at hand literally just hanging about in the estate, up to nothing, wasting time,” he explains. “If I’d had something that wasn’t captivating, I wouldn’t have stuck to it. I wouldn’t have felt challenged or interested. Boxing had all of these things to it.”
Here’s where people usually skip to 2016, Rio de Janeiro, where Buatsi won a Bronze medal representing Team GB in the light heavyweight division at the Olympics. “You wait for them to announce your name, and I remember being so nervous I started screaming,” he recounts, visibly energised by the memory. “I was like: Is this actually happening? I’m about to box in the Olympic Games. The world is watching.”
But Buatsi knows the glory of that moment was transitory, and he’d much rather talk about the years of tediously repetitive, physically and mentally demand- ing work it took to get there. “When people just say, ‘We’ve watched you at the Olympics!’ I’m like, mate, it took eight years of grind!” He laughs, “They skip the grind. I did a talk yesterday, and I was saying to the guys that it’s eight years of working hard and not knowing where it’s going to take you. For eight years, I didn’t know if I was going to get to the Olympic team.”
He speaks of “the grind” in a sincere but matter-of-fact way, like it is and always has been the only option for him. Buatsi exhibits that rare, unwavering conscientious streak held by high achievers who’ve flourished, not because of pure luck or circumstance, but because of a relentless commit- ment to hard graft. Sometimes I do wonder if I’m talented,” he contemplates, half to me, half to himself. “It takes such a lot of grit to get through these sessions and to stay on it. But I must have some talent to be doing it…”
He credits his work ethic to the values instilled within him by his family, who moved to London from Ghana when he was nine years-old. Education was paramount in their household, perceived as integral to accessing the wider scope of opportunities available in the UK. So when Buatsi was offered a promotional contract from American boxing- legend Floyd Mayweather at the Games in 2016 (“He said he’d just come [to Rio] to see me, but I was like, ‘You’re chatting rubbish, let’s get real!’”), he turned it down in favour of completing his Management Studies and Sports Science degree at Twickenham’s St Mary’s University. “My boys said: ‘You’ve got a medal, sack off Uni.’ But I said to myself I had to finish it,” he shrugs. “It’s some- thing that I’m proud of.”
Having since signed with the same management as unified world heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua and partnered as a Nike Athlete with the sport powerhouse, Buatsi’s building a legacy beyond the ring – now working alongside personal heroes for the brands he used to save and queue for at sports outlets. Still, he’s adamant it’s the training that sustains it all. “These are day-to-day things that you never thought would happen, so I live in the moment now and I take it all in. Today I’m on a photo shoot, but I’m thinking about boxing, because that’s what got me here,” he reasons. “The equation, or the method, or the secret, is easy: it’s just to keep winning, and that comes from working hard. If I don’t win or I don’t perform, these things don’t happen.”
If the strategy’s persistence, it’s paid off – Buatsi’s never been knocked out by anyone other than his dentist. I get the sense he’s baited by the clear-cut win or lose nature of the sport – as he says, in the ring, there’s no second place: “In a race you can come second, third, fourth, fifth, but in boxing? There’s you, and him.”
He tells me he’s currently train- ing to claim the British title in his division, and after that, the ultimate aim is sustaining a long-term title as a World Champion. Then, and only then, Buatsi would consider doing the kind of motivational coaching he listens to every morning, in addition to the varied philanthropic work he’s already planned. “After I’ve achieved what I want to achieve,” he says resolutely. “Because it’s pointless talking when you’ve got nothing to show for it. In the future, when I’ve won that stuff, yeah. It’d be great to have that voiceover.”