Box­ing clever

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Meet Ruqsana Begum, the Mus­lim Thai-box­ing world cham­pion who trained in se­cret through­out her teens. By Sally Wil­liams

Last April, Ruqsana Begum, who grew up in east Lon­don and stud­ied ar­chi­tec­ture at West­min­ster Univer­sity, be­came the Muay Thai world cham­pion af­ter beat­ing Su­sanna Salmi­järvi from Swe­den. She had been se­lected from a pool of 10 elite fe­male box­ers from around the world to com­pete for the ti­tle, and the fight was held in the cir­cu­lar au­di­to­rium of The Round Chapel in Hack­ney.

At first glance it was a straight­for­ward fight: two young women at the height of their ca­reers in a sport grow­ing in pop­u­lar­ity. Muay Thai (or Thai box­ing) is a form of kick-box­ing where fight­ers strike with their fists and their legs (specif­i­cally the lower part of the shin, which if de­ployed cor­rectly, has the force and im­pact of a base­ball bat). It has a big fol­low­ing among mil­len­ni­als and was re­cently granted pro­vi­sional Olympic sta­tus (fi­nal ac­cep­tance can take up to seven years).

For women, gain­ing the right to box has been a bat­tle – they weren’t al­lowed to com­pete in con­ven­tional box­ing in the Olympics un­til 2012. And for Mus­lim women, in par­tic­u­lar, the problem is com­pounded. By the time Begum won her first com­pe­ti­tion at 19, she had spent sev­eral years con­ceal­ing the fact that she was a mar­tial-arts fa­natic from her par­ents, on the grounds that they wouldn’t ap­prove of her train­ing in a gym wear­ing re­veal­ing clothes while hit­ting and be­ing hit by men. Not that she isn’t re­spect­ful of her faith: in the world-ti­tle fight she wore red leg­gings un­der her shorts; her op­po­nent had bare legs.

Her fight­ing ca­reer was also de­railed by an ar­ranged mar­riage in her early 20s, which proved dis­as­trous. And the fi­nal com­pli­ca­tion is that she suf­fers from ME, or chronic fa­tigue syn­drome, which is a long-term ill­ness where the sever­ity of symp­toms can vary from one day to the next.

‘ When my ME cuts in I can barely climb the stairs let alone go into the ring and have a worldti­tle fight,’ she says. She was struck down a week be­fore the fight. ‘I woke on that Saturday morn­ing and I spoke to my coach. I said, “I’m sweat­ing, I’ve got a fever.” And he said, “Rox take a cab, get to the venue, and we’ll make a de­ci­sion then.”’ To­wards the end of the fight she felt so weak she thought her legs would give way. ‘I re­mem­ber my coach held me and he said, “How are you feel­ing?” I said, “I’m dead, I’m gone.” And he goes, “Rox, this is a worldti­tle fight! Wake up!”’ She kept go­ing un­til the bell went. ‘Thank­fully, it was enough.’

We meet at the KO Gym, a cav­ernous space be­neath three rail­way arches in Beth­nal Green, east Lon­don. Revered in Thai-box­ing cir­cles, the gym is Begum’s home-from-home where she trains six times a week, for up to two hours a day. It’s a sub­ter­ranean world of locker rooms, flu­o­res­cent lights, thump­ing mu­sic, mir­rors and the stink of sweat. City boys, Bangladeshi kids from the estates, mus­cu­lar black dudes, im­mi­grants from Lithua­nia and Poland; some pro­fes­sional fight­ers, some here sim­ply to keep fit – all thump­ing punch bags, sweat­ing sit-ups, beat­ing the hell out of each other in the ring.

‘It isn’t very fe­male-friendly,’ Begum ad­mits. ‘But if I can hold my own with the guys, I know that when I step into the ring I will have the edge.’

It’s 10am when we meet and she has al­ready done her warm-up: press-ups, sit-ups, skip­ping, build­ing up her quads – you need pow­er­ful legs for Thai box­ing. She is tiny, 5ft 3in; weighs in at 48kg (7st 5lbs) and fights as a light fly­weight, one of 19 cat­e­gories in the Muay Thai di­vi­sion.

Now it’s time for some con­ven­tional box­ing – to ‘sharpen’ her Muay Thai. A bell goes and Brian O’shaugh­nessy, one of her coaches, bounces on the spot, as she stalks around the perime­ter of the ring. Then she comes in, ham­mer­ing him with dou­ble jabs, hard rights, hooks, up­per­cuts. When she’s not box­ing, Begum is sweet, oblig­ing, with an open, smi­ley face that makes her look much younger than 33, but in the ring she hard­ens into el­e­men­tal ag­gres­sion. ‘She has that kill or be kille d in­stinct,’ O’shaugh­nessy tells me later. ‘A lot of box­ers have got the tal­ent, but they haven’t got the in­stinct. When she’s out­side the ring you’d never know, it’s only when she’s in­side that you re­alise.’

‘I have two sides to me,’ she ad­mits. ‘I hate con­fronta­tion, even now at home, but I love fight­ing.’ Ever since her early teens these two sides have been in con­stant ten­sion. On the one hand obe­di­ence, on the other re­bel­lion. And her sport takes the strain out of that ten­sion. ‘Sport is my re­lease,’ she says.

Ruqsana Begum was born in Beth­nal Green, where her fa­ther worked as a tai­lor-cum-ma­chin­ist in a fac­tory mak­ing leather jack­ets for high­street fashion stores. Her mother was a house­wife and Begum is one of five. It was her pa­ter­nal grand­fa­ther who moved to the UK from Syl­het, Bangladesh, to fight for the Bri­tish in the Sec­ond World War.

The fam­ily lived in a coun­cil flat among the pre­dom­i­nantly Bangladeshi com­mu­nity and Begum, who was ‘sports mad’, went to the lo­cal pri­mary school, and then to Swan­lea, a mixed sec­ondary in Whitechapel. She de­scribes her fam­ily as ‘close-knit’ and talks of­ten of be­ing ‘a good daugh­ter’. In other words she went to Ara­bic classes af­ter school; she learnt to read the Ko­ran; she dressed mod­estly in a sal­war kameez

(trousers with a knee-length tu­nic); she helped her mother with the chores.

In fact, she says her fa­ther was open-minded in the sense that he sup­ported her ed­u­ca­tion and al­lowed her to play in the park when she was young. ‘My friends’ fa­thers were stricter.’ Her par­ents even let her have school swim­ming lessons and go on a week’s trip to the coun­try­side when she 10.

How­ever, once she hit pu­berty it changed. No more rid­ing her bike in the park or play­ing foot­ball with the boys. ‘Even if we were seen talk­ing to a guy my mum would ask so many ques­tions, “Why are you talk­ing to him? What’s go­ing on?”’ No sleep­overs with the girls, no af­ter-school vis­its to friends’ houses, un­less she needed help with home­work and then only for an hour or so.

The tra­di­tion­al­ist in Begum – the part of her that wanted to be good and do the right thing – went along with it. ‘I just ac­cepted that this was their be­lief: that you’re a young woman now, you should learn how to cook, help your mother at home, so that is what I did.’

In 2001, when she was 17, do­ing her A-lev­els (art, his­tory, Ben­gali, me­dia stud­ies) and set on univer­sity (in Lon­don; liv­ing away from home was out of the ques­tion), she saw a no­tice at col­lege for kick-box­ing classes.

As a child she had been in­tro­duced to Bruce Lee films by an un­cle who was a fre­quent vis­i­tor. Begum was fas­ci­nated. ‘But we never had the op­por­tu­nity to do mar­tial arts at school.’ And the cost of pri­vate lessons, even if her par­ents had agreed, was out­side the fam­ily bud­get. This was her chance. She told her mother she was go­ing shop­ping. ‘I just loved it. They didn’t teach you much, just jab, cross. But I knew I wanted to do more.’

Un­for­tu­nately that was her first and only les­son. ‘The school didn’t have the fund­ing to con­tinue the ses­sions.’ But the in­struc­tor handed Begum his card with the ad­dress of a gym about a 10-minute walk from her home. A few weeks later, this time with the cover of vis­it­ing her grand­fa­ther, who was in hos­pi­tal (the visit wasn’t a lie; just the amount of time she spent at his bed­side), she went to the gym. And it was here – at the KO Gym (then in Pun­der­son’s Gar­dens, Beth­nal Green), where many years later she would cel­e­brate be­com­ing world cham­pion by tak­ing the en­tire gym out to din­ner – where she found, as she puts it – her ‘life’, and also her Muay Thai coach.

Bill Judd is some­thing of a hero in the world of Thai box­ing, hav­ing trained and nur­tured many world-class com­peti­tors. ‘Bill saw some­thing in me,’ Begum says. ‘I was de­ter­mined to learn and ab­sorb ev­ery­thing he was teach­ing.’ And so be­gan the pe­riod of subterfuge. ‘When my younger brother was 16 he was scouted by Ar­se­nal [for a train­ing camp] and my fa­ther said, “No.”’ As he saw it his son’s ed­u­ca­tion should come first. ‘My brother was quite stroppy for a cou­ple of years be­cause he felt like he’d lost his op­por­tu­nity. And that playe d in my head. I thought if they’re not let­ting their son par­tic­i­pate in sport, why would they let their daugh­ter?

‘I would wake up ex­tra early on a Sun­day morn­ing,’ she ex­plains, ‘help my mum with the cook­ing, make sure I’d hoovered the house, done all the chores so she was pleased with me and in a good mood, and then I’d po­litely ask, “Mum, can I go to the gym?” And she would say, “OK, you can go for an hour, see­ing as you’ve done ev­ery­thing else.”’

The Sun­day-af­ter­noon class started at 2pm and ac­tu­ally lasted two hours, but Begum knew she couldn’t push it. ‘My coach was aware I had to be home at a cer­tain time, so he’d let me leave early.’ Of course when Begum said ‘gym’, her mother pic­tured run­ning ma­chines and ex­er­cise bikes. ‘I felt too ner­vous to re­veal any more,’ she says.

She paid for the classes (£5 a ses­sion) and for the kit – gloves, wraps, mouth­guard, kick-box­ing trousers – with a hol­i­day job in JD Sports, and week­end work in a chemist. She would wash her own kit and dry it as sur­rep­ti­tiously as pos­si­ble. But de­ceiv­ing your par­ents must have made you feel ter­ri­ble, I say. ‘Ac­tu­ally, it made me a much bet­ter daugh­ter,’ she replies. ‘I didn’t care about go­ing out with my friends, or wear­ing fancy clothes. I didn’t want to stay out late. All I wanted was to go to the gym for that hour, so I would make sure I was on my best be­hav­iour for the rest of the week.’

Study­ing ar­chi­tec­ture at univer­sity opened up an­other op­por­tu­nity. ‘I had evening lec­tures. So I knew my fam­ily wouldn’t be ex­pect­ing me home at a spe­cific time. I started to be­come a lit­tle bit braver and train on Tues­day evenings, too.’

In 2006 she was in her fi­nal year at West­min­ster, think­ing about her fu­ture ca­reer, when her par­ents broke the news: she was to get mar­ried. ‘I was just fin­ish­ing off my dis­ser­ta­tion. I said, “Can this not wait?” And my fa­ther said, “No. They’re a nice fam­ily, you will be re­ally happy there.”’ And so, at 22, she found her­self mar­ried to a man who worked in bank­ing and liv­ing with her in-laws in Bark­ing. She was also now work­ing at an ar­chi­tec­tural firm, com­mut­ing every day to Ep­ping For­est. Thai box­ing faded away. ‘It was a new life­style,’ she says.

The com­fort of her in-laws be­came her pri­or­ity. ‘If my fa­ther-in-law wanted tea I would have to be the one to make it. If they had guests I would have to be happy and cheery and do the snacks and the food. And if they stayed late, I’d have to stay up and help with the wash­ing-up, even though I had work the next day.’

She hoovered, cleaned and helped fi­nan­cially. ‘I was try­ing to please ev­ery­one.’ She could no longer, for ex­am­ple, just switch on the TV and watch Easten­ders. She felt ‘suf­fo­cated’.

Eight months later, she had a break­down. ‘I re­mem­ber go­ing to work on a Monday feel­ing more tired than I had done on the Friday. It came to the point where I couldn’t keep it up any more.’ One Sun­day af­ter­noon, ‘just when I thought I’d have to ac­cept this is my life’, she col­lapsed on the kitchen floor. She spent two days in hos­pi­tal and was later di­ag­nosed as suf­fer­ing from se­vere panic at­tacks. A kindly woman GP told her to pack her bags and move back to her par­ents’ house. ‘She was In­dian, she un­der­stood what was go­ing on.’

Begum went home to re­cu­per­ate and her hus­band filed for di­vorce in 2008, and that was the end of the mar­riage. But some­thing good came of it: it led to a seis­mic shift in her re­la­tion­ship with her par­ents. ‘I think my fam­ily felt I had done ev­ery­thing they wanted me to.’ A good daugh­ter – and a good daugh­ter-in-law. ‘They couldn’t fault me on any­thing. I never raised my voice at my in-laws, I never swore, they knew I couldn’t have done any more. And when they re­alised what the other fam­ily were like, and what I was go­ing through, they felt very up­set and sad for me. On top of that I’d lost my job be­cause of the re­ces­sion, so ev­ery­thing was crum­bling.’

Her GP pre­scribed an­tide­pres­sants, but she knew what would make her happy. ‘I said to my fa­ther that I wanted to show him some­thing.’ She brought him to the KO Gym. ‘He sat with my coach and they spoke for an hour.’

Three years later, Begum won a gold medal in the European Club Cup Am­a­teur Muay Thai Cham­pi­onships in Latvia. ‘My fa­ther was so proud, he showed it to my grand­mother. We turned a cor­ner on that day I took him the gym,’ she says. ‘I didn’t have to live a dou­ble life any more.’ Within the lo­cal Bangladeshi com­mu­nity, Begum says peo­ple only re­ally be­came aware of her suc­cess when she be­came the Bri­tish cham­pion in 2011, and the me­dia gave her such good press that she was up­held as an ex­am­ple of what Bangladeshis can achieve. She re­mem­bers go­ing to a func­tion with her fa­ther at that time and be­ing asked to speak: ‘I had been so fear­ful of this, my fa­ther’s gen­er­a­tion, but they were proud of me.’

She has since moved into her own flat in Gants Hill, Il­ford, but still spends half the week with her par­ents, who live nearby. She is now a full-time ath­lete (un­til last year she worked part-time as a school sci­ence tech­ni­cian). Her aim is to switch to con­ven­tional box­ing – ‘Women’s box­ing is re­ally tak­ing off. I want to see what I can do’ – and pur­sue bu s i n e s s in t e r e s t s . I n 2 01 2, sh e launched a line of sports hi­jabs that are made of Ly­cra and don’t re­quire a safety pin to hold to­gether. ‘I want to help more Mus­lim women par­tic­i­pate in sport.’ Begum her­self only feels the need to wear a hi­jab at prayer and in the mosque; she also wore it on a re­cent pil­grim­age to Mecca in He­jaz, Saudi Ara­bia .

She has to work around the ME which was di­ag­nos ed i n 2 01 0. Sl e e p he lp s – e i ght hours a night is es­sen­tial – and a tai­lored train­ing regime. ‘It’s all about per­for­mance, not too much on fit­ness.’ She does yoga and works closely with a nu­tri­tion­ist. She eats like an ath­lete: lots of pro­tein ( grilled chicken, salmon), veg­eta­bles; not so many car­bo­hy­drates. ‘The im­por­tant thing is to avoid too much sugar, so I don’t have spikes in my blood-sugar lev­els.’

‘I am very happy and proud of my­self,’ she says. Emo­tions that Begum has only re­cently al­lowed her­self to ac­knowl­edge. ‘Quite of­ten I’ve for­got­ten to give my­self a pat on the back for what I’ve achieved and what I’ve had to over­come.’

‘Women’s box­ing is tak­ing off. I want to see what I can do’

Went to the gym in se­cret Has a kick like a base­ball bat And is a Thai-box­ing world cham­pion

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