In a small back corridor of the ILEC Conference Centre in Earl's Court, British-Bangladeshi Kickboxer, Ruqsana Begum, is getting ready for the fight.
She is shying away from the backstage, where her rivals, the Chinese are warming up and a dozen other tattooed British boxers are doing their best to look stiff. Begum is gradually entering "her own bubble," a phrase coined by fellow fighters at the KO Gym used to describe her mindset when she is about to fight. Her silver-haired coach, Bill, a doppelgänger of Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby, is holding the strike-shield against Begum's war dance of punches, kicks, and elbow strikes.
Outside, beyond the thick black cloth shielding the fighters, a white ring dominates the room. The DJ is rehearsing his playlist, which is basically the Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift soundtrack. A pair of ring-girls in skimpy sports underwear are getting ready; their toned bodies chiseled after hours spent at the gym preparing for this one night. Overweight bodyguards are standing with their arms crossed, waiting for instructions through their earpieces at the entrances. Waiters are opening boxes of Prosecco and moving kegs full of watered down beer.
"We'd rather have weddings and ceremonies... even dancing competitions. It is beautiful when we have dancing competitions: very elegant," a waiter tells me. Tonight is not quite the equivalent of a dancing competition, but there's an elegance to Begum's preparatory ritual. Muay Thai is known as the "eight limbs" art. A fighting that combines kicks, punches, elbows and knees. Ruqsana has complete control of every movement, rehearsed over and over back at the gym. Yet, the graceful appearance of this beautiful dance is in stark contrast with the power released when this 50 kg young woman strikes a blow with a fiery war cry.
Tonight's show has been marketed as "England vs China", a rare chance for British fighters to lock horns with extremely foreign opponents: Chinese Kickboxers and Mixed Martial Arts fighters cross paths. And it definitely sucked people in; the average ticket is around £40. Double that price for a bottle of champagne and a reserved table in the VIP area with a direct view on the ring, and 'free' peanuts. Crowds of men start flocking in, darting from the entrance to the bar to sit on the red faux velvet-upholstered chairs—pint in one hand, phone in the other. Tonight is a perfect chance for a night out with the lads. Middle-aged moms, teenage girls, and dads with their boys playing on video games are dispersed among the laddish crowd.
MMA emerged as an all-American phenomenon, a few years ago; a very popular phenomenon that outrages politicians, but galvanizes fans all around the world. US Senator John McCain once defined the sports as nothing short of "human cockfighting." In the State of New York, the sport is still illegal. But that led to a blossoming underground MMA scene. In 2013, the British Medical Association condemned mixed martial arts--specifically cage-fights--for the risks of head injuries and concussions potentially leading to permanent brain damage. But despite this, there is no shortage of fans and fighters. This trend is certainly evident tonight; many British gyms have put forward their champions to fight. Their names are scattered across the fighter's sweaters: Lumpini Gym, Cobra Gym, Valetudo, KO Gym.
Begum belongs to KO, a notorious Bethnal Green gym that has nurtured boxing and muay thay world champions for decades . Amanda Kelly, currently two-times Thai-Boxing world champion, fights out of KO. Greg "The Prodigy" Wootton, Thai Boxing World Champion for his category has trained at KO since he was 16. Begum has the British and European Muay-Thai title under her belt already. But tonight, she has the chance to become the Strawweight world champion. In the other corner of the ring, Ludivine Lasnier, the French national champion of Full-contact Muay Thay. She is from Aube, a countryside town a few hundred miles from Paris. She came all the way to London for the title belt.
The graceful appearance of this beautiful dance is in stark contrast with the power released when this 50 kg young woman strikes a blow with a fiery war cry.
When the show begins, Begum is petrified. But she knows she is not the only one—the other male fighters have been shitting themselves the whole time. Male fragility starts to manifest when they flex their muscles, but Begum only needs to prove her strength on the ring.
The first British male boxer strolls onto the ring with the swagger of a wannabe gangster. There is a specific line in his introduction song that pretty much conveys the sentiment that "I am a motherfucking beast." He goes down in a couple of rounds. Later, a female fighter that entered the ring to "Another One Bites the Dust" comes back spitting blood in a yellow bucket. The Chinese are taking out the Brits one by one.
Time is up and Begum has to fight. She stops warming up. She listens carefully to Bill and to his last words before the bout. She is ready.
The audience looks bored after two hours of fights. But when Begum enters the ring, mothers, daughters, and teens stand up shouting, "Go Ruqs, you can do it!" Two years earlier, she lost the title to Silvia Lanotte, an Italian fighter that knocked her out at the fourth round. Tonight, she needs all the support she can get. She may have also prayed before the match. She admires Muhammad Ali for his strength in a fight and the strength of his faith. Not only is Begum a woman in a discipline where men sweating testosterone are a dominant presence. She is also Muslim, and traditionally, Muslim girls don't fight. Tonight is the highest point of her 12 year career; a career built upon sacrifice, sweat at the gym, and blood spilled on the ring.
Scars of A Warrior
Begum now sits on the other side of the table, in a quiet organic coffee shop in Bethnal Green. We are far from the spectacle Earl's Court. We are at the beating heart of East London, where Begum's story as a fighter really began.
"I remember I was young. I was a little kid," she says when I ask her to tell me how it started. "I don't know why, but I always found martial arts fascinating. Karate, kickboxing... all that stuff. But I could not afford classes or courses... until I came across KO Gym."
She smiles when she looks back at the first day, 12 years ago, when she started training.
"I come from a Muslim Bangladeshi family and I am a woman" she begins, with a delicate East London accent. Her thick, raven-black hair gently falls back on her shoulders. She has it in a braid when she fights. "You can imagine, it was not easy for me to take up martial arts. It took time and effort to start fighting."
The KO Gym had to be a secret. My mum would freak out and my father did not approve. So I went my way.
Begum belongs to a generation of fighters that is breaking gender boundaries in martial arts. In the US, Ronda "Rowdy" Rousey is the MMA star of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and gradually becoming a pop-culture sensation. Rousey was lately featured in Rolling Stone, ESPN had her on the "Body Issue" cover. She also starred in Expendables 3. But before fame and glory, a pattern following all contemporary martial arts fighters is that they have had a hard time breaking into professional fighting. Rousey was a waitress with a passion for weed before becoming the "most dominant fighter" in UFC, as ESPN called her. Begum was not born into Muay Thai either.
She got to the KO Gym thanks to a trial class. It was probably a voucher that came in the mail with the menu of a Kebab shop and other junk. At 18, she stepped into the gym with a friend of hers, wearing a hijab. "I was surrounded by men. It was intimidating, of course, but since the very first moment I knew that was the place for me." Twelve years down the line, Begum does not wear a hijab anymore. Some could struggle not to see it as a symbol of the constraints she had to break to become what she is now. "The KO Gym had to be a secret. My mum would freak out and my father did not approve. So I went my way."
With secret martial arts on the side, Begum graduated in architectural engineering and found a job immediately after as a trainee architect. In 2008, the economic crisis spared England but did not leave it unscathed. "I was made redundant overnight. At the same time my sister was getting married... I was losing my best friend. The only thing I could do was training. Pushing harder and harder. I had to get my parents' blessing to carry on." Begum's parents simply turned a blind eye to her new ambition of breaking into professional fighting. "I guess their thought was 'She lost her job. Her sister is getting married. Let her have something'," she smiles. "What they didn't realize is that sports helped me going through that period."
Unemployed and not completely supported by her family, Begum could have slipped into a state of apathy and alienation. But Muay Thai saved Begum and it has the potential of saving many more young people. "I started training every day. Twice a day." Begum says. "I would go to the gym in the morning. Go back home. Cook. Rest. Go back to the gym." Begum's "go hard or go home" rule paid off soon after.
In 2009, she flew to Bangkok and won her first bronze medal in the World Amateur Kickboxing Championship. Then, 2010 brought the British Atomweight title. 2011 was the year of the gold medal in the European Muay Thai title match, fighting in Latvia. But, of course, medals do not come for free. Muay Thai leaves scars. Rare are the days, when there isn't some ache.
At the end of the day, you are not Muslim, you are not a woman. You are a fighter on the ring.
"It's incredibly hard to balance everything, put everything towards training. Getting to the end of the day, when your body screams and is about to collapse." Thin, silver scars run on Begum's brown skin around her eyes. She has a ligament injury to the right-knee—she permanently carries remnants of every single battle. Victories and defeats morphed her into the warrior she is now. "Sports shapes you. It breaks everything down: barriers, background, and limitations. At the end of the day, you are not Muslim, you are not a woman. You are a fighter on the ring. You have to be the best. Only the best one wins."
Give Back What You Got
An elevated railway cuts through East London. It lays on a structure of red bricks turned black, covered in a thick coat of smog. The KO Gym is right under the railway, between three arches, so that when a train is speeding out of London, every inch of the gym is shaking. Inside, the walls are covered in faded posters of past matches and dim pictures of fighters posing on guard. A Thai tribal mask hangs from the wall, looking down with a grin. A pile of kickboxing gear is on sale in a corner.
Bill Judd founded the gym in 1976. Bill, a Judo, Kickboxing and Thai-Boxing champion of Irish stock trained many champions over the years. When Bill saw Begum coming through his door for the first time 12 years ago, he could not help but think she was the most unlikely to become a fighter. 12 years later, when Begum stepped out of the ring in Earl's Court at the ILEC conference centre, the only thing he could say to her was "That fight was yours and yours only, Ruqs." Begum unexpectedly lost the world title on points, after leading the match she had prepared for months.
"After that night, I am not holding back anymore... not even in training," she tells me, when I met her at KO for some pictures. "I used to feel sorry if I punch somebody during training. But not anymore. I won't have mercy the next time I'll be on the ring." After the Earl's Court match, she keeps rehearsing the fight in her head to understand what went wrong. She thinks the judges misunderstood some of the dynamics of the fight. Seeing the world title slipping away isn't an easy thing to accept. But Begum is not backing down. "We will appeal and we will try to get a rematch," she says, when I ask her the one-million-dollar question "What now?" Nobody would expect anything different; the world title is a crucial achievement. But for Begum, it is not just a simple career step—it is the key to unlock what she wants to do next. She is 31. At that age, an athlete is considered well ahead in their career, and Muay Thai fighters are no exception. "I've got few years of training left. I want to get that title and then it is time give back what I got in all these years."
Outside the ring and KO, Begum is becoming some sort of role model. In East London, she is indeed a local celebrity.
East End Life, the Tower Hamlets' community newspaper features Begum in its sports page almost every two weeks. She coaches for "Fight for Peace," a charity that uses boxing as a mentoring and a rehabilitation tool in cases of youth participation in crime, gun and gang violence. She runs martial arts classes for women, in particular Muslim women. "My classes are open to anyone," she explains. "But I want to include all the sisters who are currently cut off from sports simply because they wear a hijab."
After the 2012 Olympics, when Muslim athletes were banned from wearing a headscarf, according to the Olympic regulations on clothing, Begum came up with the "Sports hijab", a headscarf to be used comfortably during training. "I want sisters to feel comfortable to step onto the ring or go for a jog when wearing my hijab." Begum has completed a prototype and is looking to launch it officially by the end of next year. She dreams of seeing an athlete wearing her sports hijab on the ring, one day.
But before all of that, there is still a world title to win. The road to it is steep and rocky. Begum may have racked up belts and medals along the way to break into professional fighting, but funding is still a problem. She has a part-time job as a science technician in a school, two days a week. Sponsors are showing interest but it is not enough—there is a British and a European title to defend. That means traveling costs to go around Europe and the world with her coach. She recently appealed for sponsors to step in, from the pages of an East London newspaper. In the meantime, this East London warrior keeps training at KO Gym, twice a day, every day. A pushing harder and harder, until the body collapses; until the next title fight.