Interview Donald McRae Interview Donald McRae
The tears of Ruqsana Begum, which splash down on the blue canvas of the ring, are not a sign of weakness. They are, instead, markers of the battles she has won over the years. As a young Bangladeshi woman from east London on her way to becoming a Muay Thai world champion, Begum endured an arranged marriage, panic attacks, depression, bullying in the gym and ravaging bouts of ME [chronic fatigue syndrome].
She cries during our long interview on a hazy summer afternoon in Bethnal Green but never loses her composure. Each time the former kickboxing dynamo wipes away her tears, laughs a little while saying sorry, and continues. “Those moments have led me to this moment,” she says after one poignant pause, “where I now manage to not look for approval from outside. Rather, I go inwards and find strength from within.”
Begum reiterates her passion for fighting and her certainty that she can still become a success in her new sport of boxing despite the odds stacked against her. “I do love it. Stepping into the ring allows you to grow because you’re putting yourself in such depths of fear. And when you overcome that there’s such a sense of accomplishment. I love that and the fact I’m constantly working towards my goal, and progressing, even if I sometimes lose.”
She is a petite 36-year-old, a warm and reflective woman who also has a degree in architecture. At 5ft 3in, she does not look like a fighter. And so it’s strange, at first, to reconcile the fact that the violent backdrop of Muay Thai and boxing have brought serenity into Begum’s often turbulent world.
“I think any creative art form, whether music or dance, Muay Thai or boxing, allows you to channel emotion and express yourself,” she says. “I was fortunate to have discovered Thai boxing when I had few other opportunities to express myself. I found my passion in life and realised I was good at it. But it’s like anything in life – talent is nothing without sacrifice.
“So when I had all those problems I didn’t blame others. I took responsibility and said: ‘OK, this is where I am. How do I move forward?’ I found the best way to heal myself is through sport. So I’m really grateful for having Muay Thai and now boxing in my life.”
Begum’s new book, Born Fighter, provides an absorbing insight into the obstacles she faced. It is written with Sarah Shephard and the two women, from Muslim and Jewish backgrounds, complement each other as we learn how Begum hid her passion for Thai boxing from her family for many years. She was torn between her desire to be a dutiful Muslim daughter and a darker yearning to discover her real self in the ring.
The KO Combat Academy, where much of the book is set, is located under an arch in a backstreet of Bethnal Green. Trains clatter overhead and it makes me think how intimidating it must have been for a teenage Bangladeshi girl to approach a gym. “The original gym was across the road,” Begum explains, “and I can’t believe I had the courage to walk in. This is now more a commercial gym whereas back then it was hardcore. It was just fighters.”
Bill Judd, who trained Begum to her world championship, welcomes us today. He was just as accepting, if initially surprised, when the 18-year-old Begum told him she wanted to be a fighter. She could cover the bruises on her arms and legs, which she took from kicks, but she became adept at avoiding blows to her face. And when she was marked up her sister helped her hide the damage or she pulled her hijab more closely around her face.
Five years later Begum was forced to abandon Muay Thai. She was coerced into an arranged marriage by her family – who meant well in adhering to the traditions of their culture. “I was 23 and it was overwhelming,” Begum recalls. “I thought: ‘Whoa, I need to take a breath because I don’t even know him.’ I felt so much pressure to go along with it so I tried to speak to my mum. She waved me away and was very dismissive. They made it clear this was going to happen.”
Begum stresses that her husband, a banker from east London, was not a monster. Her book’s most harrowing pages detail how she felt trapped and suffocated living with her husband’s family who expected her to do so many chores on their behalf. “I was oppressed,” she says. “I didn’t have that freedom to say: ‘I’m feeling a bit tired so I’ll do the washing in an hour.’ I was constantly trying to please them but whatever I did wasn’t enough. At the same time I’d started a high-pressure job as a trainee architect. Eventually it took a toll on me.”
Begum details the severe panic attacks which engulfed her after nine months. Her doctor advised her to move back to her parents. She was in a terrible state and only the eventual understanding of her parents stabilised her. What would have happened if they had insisted she return to her marriage? “I would have stood my ground and said no. But it would have been a battle to find the courage and strength – especially when I was very vulnerable. My father was in two minds. But my mum and older brother were like: ‘No, she has to go back. This is the tradition.’ I tried to explain it to my father after one of my therapy sessions. And his reaction wasn’t good. But at that point my ex-husband filed for divorce and I was thinking: ‘God, it’s the biggest relief.’ My parents understood then what I had been through.
“I was on antidepressants for four months and completely bedridden. But I didn’t want to be on antidepressants because they numb you. The only thing I remembered enjoying was Muay Thai and so I told myself: ‘Get back to the gym.’ One day I asked my parents to drop me off when they were coming to Whitechapel to shop. I then said: ‘Actually, can you come in with me?’ I introduced them to Bill.”
The trainer outlined the discipline of the sport and stressed how Begum was so respectful, and respectable, in the gym. Her parents agreed she could return. But new problems soon emerged. Begum cries when she tells me how she was bullied by other female fighters at the gym.
“It went on for five years and Bill kept saying to me: ‘Why don’t you just leave and go to another gym?’ I thought: ‘No. I don’t want to be pushed out.’ Bill hated it but his focus was on that group of girls. I wish he supported me more because I just wanted equal treatment. So it really broke my heart and that’s why I’m torn about this place. I’ve had some amazing moments here but also a lot of pain.”
Begum shocked everyone in 2011 by becoming a European champion in Latvia without having anyone in her corner. A Danish trainer in the crowd ran to help her when he saw Begum was on her own between rounds.
Over the next few years Judd worked more closely with Begum and helped her become a world champion kickboxer in 2016. In the week of her defining fight against Susanna Salmijärvi, her ME was so debilitating that Begum was stunned when she passed a medical to fight. “I was bed-bound the whole week so I said to Bill: ‘I’m too weak to even do a warm-up. Just put me in the ring. If anything happens, throw in the towel. But give me the first round so I have those two minutes to try and knock her out. This is an opportunity I’ll never get again.’ I had enough energy for two minutes which could define the rest of my life.”
She came close to an early knockout but her opponent got up and, at the end of a brutal fight, Begum absorbed sustained punishment. She had done just enough to become world champion and, as she says now, “It was a 10-year journey and my first thought was: ‘Thank you, God.’”
Her parents surprised her when they did not resist her decision to accept an offer from David Haye to switch to professional boxing in 2018. It has been difficult for Begum and she has only had two bouts as a pro boxer – both against Ivanka Ivanova. The first fight was a draw and then, in June 2019, she was hurt badly and lost a decision to her Bulgarian opponent.
“She didn’t hurt me in the first fight and so I was shocked the second time. There was just something unusual about her that night. When I hit her there was no reaction. That freaks me out because I’ve sparred with some boys, and good pros, in Vegas. I’ve made their noses bleed and if I hit someone there’s always some reaction. But there was nothing like that in our second fight. She was like a zombie.
“It didn’t help that she elbowed me in the first 30 seconds and my eye completely closed. Everyone wanted me to give up afterwards but I’ve followed my gut. It’s a learning curve and the only problem with boxing is that once you lose your unbeaten record it’s meant to be over. And it’s far harder being a female boxer because there are no journeywomen. Any woman that goes into boxing is a serious fighter because they wouldn’t get signed otherwise.”
The Covid crisis has made it even more difficult but Begum is convinced she will become a world champion boxer. She is in talks with promoters in the US and says: “I’m hopeful. I feel like my story is bigger than boxing and these challenges will make me a better fighter and a better person. For me it’s nothing new. I’ve already gone through so many challenges in a different sport and in my life.”
The world outside is reeling and we have our masks at the ready before we leave the gym. But it feels right that this born fighter should stretch out her hand and bump her fist lightly against mine. “Phew, it was emotional,” she says simply as she reflects on the story of her life, “but it was good.”
Born Fighter by Ruqsana Begum is published by Simon & Schuster