Muay Thai kickboxing would be an eyebrow-raising hobby for a teenage girl in many households, but for Londoner Ruqsana Begum it proved so controversial she decided to keep the sport hidden from her family for years — even when it became obvious she was extremely talented.
“I was only training once a week in secret,” Begum says. “It’s not really a done thing for a western woman to go into kickboxing, let alone someone from an ethnic minority background.”
After revealing her secret to her parents in 2009, however, Begum, now 32, went on to win the British championship title in 2010 and the World Championship title–first in 2013 and again in 2016. The “Warrior Princess,” as she’s known in the ring, may cut a slight figure but don’t let that fool you–she fights tough and she talks tough.
Now, Begum is defying expectations once again by making the switch from kickboxing to boxing, and is set to make her professional debut on March 17 live on British television. In between her hectic training schedule, we sat her down with her to discuss what it was like to be a female muslim entering combat sports, designing hijabs before Nike, and more.
So how did you get into kickboxing?
I remember ever since I was five or six years old, I would flip through newspapers and magazines and I’d be drawn to the martial art pages–I was so intrigued by it. I’ve always loved sports, I used to play football, I used to play badminton, but this (Muay Thai kickboxing) was the one sport that I found physically and mentally challenging in every way. It’s fast and furious, but it’s also like a game of chess; you have to think three moves in advance.
I grew up in East London so my first encounter with the sport didn’t arrive until I was 17. I went along to a gym, got myself a part-time job and decided to just turn up. I wasn’t intimidated at all, I was just so focused on learning this new skillset that I wasn’t looking around to see if there were any other women.
How quickly did you realize you were ace at it and had the potential to go pro?
Well, at first I was very aware of my background. The fact that I was a petite Asian woman with Muslim ethnic background kind of held me back slightly. I thought, “Well, it’s not really a done thing for western woman to go into boxing, let alone one from an ethnic minority background.” I had a lot of inner conflict with myself, because I didn’t want to upset my family, my parents,or my community.
I battled with myself for many years, but I came to a point where, once I finished university, I realized I was only pursuing a sport, and that there are far worse things in life that I could be doing with my spare time. I brought my parents to the gym and showed them what I was doing. They decided to turn a blind eye because they knew that my values hadn’t changed. That allowed me to really dive in to the sport.
And what happened next?
Well around that time I was actually just returning to the sport following some personal problems. I was going through depression and my family just wanted to see me recover. That’s why I found the sport again, because I felt as though that’s the only thing that I felt familiar with, that I enjoyed doing.
I used the sport as a means to recover, rather than taking pills. My family were really supportive, and then in 2010 I started really excelling. I was winning competitions and then I won the British title in 2010. Prior to that, it was more that I was just doing the sport but I wasn’t really allowed to compete. Then in 2016, I became the World Kickboxing Association champion.
Do you think kickboxing, and I guess sport in general, has changed for women and particularly women from an ethnic background since you first started?
I think things have changed in the last six months, let alone last the 10-15 years. I mean, the whole era was different then. You walked into a boxing gym and it was just a certain type of man in there. Now it’s opened up to people from all backgrounds, all professions, all ages and all ethnicities–which is great to see. And, of course, women’s boxing was introduced to the Olympics in 2012.
Do you think that change comes down to a particular moment or regulation change? Or rather a wider, more gradual change within society?
I think it’s the latter. Things have to keep progressing and move forward for the better. It’s just, I mean with sport, I think women need to be valued more as sporting athletes. Women’s sport needs to be promoted through the media, and, you know, it would be nice to see women’s achievements on the back pages of newspapers more often. Tennis is perhaps the one which has come close to achieving this, they’ve done a great job, but other sports just don’t get that kind of limelight.
What do you think about Nike’s new Pro Hijab?
Well, I actually got the idea just after the Olympics in 2012 to design my own hijab, but obviously I don’t have the resources that Nike has. I just did it on my own, and I still have my sports website, where I sell my own hijabs.
So for me, anything that helps more Muslim women participate in sport without any kind of compromise is great. I know too well how hard it was for me to participate in sport, and if I can reduce one barrier for them, and keep them on an equal playing field, then at least I’ve made a difference in the world.
What advice would you give to women who are just starting out in sport, or who would simply like to get active this summer?
I guess for me, no matter what you’re doing it’s all about being the best version of yourself and what you tell yourself is what becomes reality. It starts in your mind and then you make it happen. It’s not how many times you get knocked down, it’s how many times you can pick yourself up.
The main thing I’ve learned in kickboxing is not being afraid to fail. That’s the key to success, because you have to take risks and you have to fall and you have to pick yourself back up. Nothing easy comes easily, so you have to keep pursuing what you want until you’re there. It’s a struggle, but it’s worth it.
What’s next for you?
Well, I’ve actually now left Thai kickboxing to go into professional boxing. My debut’s on March 17, an undercard for the Askins vs Simmons fight, which will be aired on Channel 5 in the UK.
Boxing is a more mainstream sport, one of the biggest sports in the world. I’m really excited to get out there and see if I can be a world champion again. It’s a new challenge for me, though. I’m having to undo what I’ve done already in terms of balance, shape and my core. I’ve had to learn positions all over again. But yeah, they are exciting times for me at the moment!
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