"You can’t teach someone to fight."
When you think of a professional fighter, what image comes to mind?
The image will inevitably vary from person to person, but it is unlikely that the image conjured up was that of a 5ft 3inch South Asian woman.
The reasons for this are countless, but to put it simply this person goes against traditional views of who we understand a fighter to be.
Yet this woman is a fighter in all sense of the word.
From her professional to personal life, strength, endurance, and an iron will to overcome and succeed are built into her very core.
The woman is Ruqsana Begum, a Muay Thai world champion. She has written an autobiography, aptly named Born Fighter.
Her story is not only truly captivating and inspiring but undeniably relatable.
The cultural, religious, and family pressures she has faced, are those that many from South Asian communities will be able to understand.
Along with her struggles with social isolation, bullying, exclusion, and ongoing battles with health.
Ruqsana Begum is the eldest daughter of a close-knit Bangladeshi family.
She grew up in a three-bedroom flat in Bethnal Green in the East End of London with her grandparents, parents, three brothers, and sister.
As the eldest daughter, she always felt she had a certain role and responsibilities within her family, which she carried out tirelessly and with the utmost sincerity.
In the opening chapter of her book Ruqsana states: “Outside of the ring, I was the perfect daughter.”
This simple sentence encapsulates the complicated and conflicted double life that Ruqsana lived in her earlier years. That of a Muay Thai fighter versus a dutiful daughter.
Ruqsana’s journey began at the age of eight, when she woke one Sunday morning, to find her uncle watching Brue Lee performing martial arts on TV.
Where other people may have simply seen violence, the eyes of this eight-year-old saw movement, speed, balance, and awareness. Ruqsana Begum was “captivated”.
As the years passed, her fascination with martial arts grew.
On this Ruqsana said: “I wanted to know more, but I had no idea about how I could do it, nor did I think my parents would ever really allow me to find out.”
4 pm In the Gym
The moment to find out more came several years later when Ruqsana saw a sign pinned on the notice board at her college that read: “Try Thai Boxing! Thursday 4 pm in the gym.”
To attend the session, Ruqsana had to lie to her parents, saying that she was going shopping with a friend.
She hated lying, but knew her parents wouldn’t approve of her being involved in something so “male-dominated.”
At 4 pm, Ruqsana found herself with several other school girls learning the history and basics of Thai boxing from Kru Zeeshan.
The session was over far too soon for Ruqsana, but disaster struck in form of the answer she received when she asked when the next session would be.
She was told that this was the last session, as the school didn’t have funding to continue with the classes.
Zeeshan, seeing the look of devastation on her face, told her she could attend more sessions at his Muay Thai gym.
One week later, Ruqsana having helped her mum with all the housework asked her if she could go to the gym, she just didn’t specify what type of gym. Her mum although a little surprised, agreed.
Soon Ruqsana’s whole week was spent looking forward to that one hour of training on Sunday afternoons.
Despite the joy her training was giving her, that joy was accompanied by the feeling of uneasiness about what she was doing.
Ruqsana Begum asked herself: “What if doing Muay Thai – the dress code, the mentality of being violent towards another person – was something that went against the principles of being a Muslim?”
It would take years before Ruqsana would be able to accept that she was not doing anything wrong.
Until then “it was something that ate away” at her.
KO Boxing Gym
Despite Ruqsana’s doubts, her love for the art form remained.
Her training continued and when the gym changed ownership, she was introduced to someone who would become a significant figure in her life.
This person was Bill, the new owner of KO boxing gym, Muay Thai expert, former world champion, and trainer of countless other champions.
After seven months of training with Bill, Ruqsana entered her first inter-club competition.
Before stepping into the ring Ruqsana asked Bill why he had said he was not worried about her competing.
Bill responded: “Because you can’t teach someone to fight.”
It was a recognition of her innate fighter’s instinct, that you either have or don’t. Bill’s words and belief in her gave Ruqsana all the reassurance she needed.
Although it was a no-win match Ruqsana left feeling triumphant, as everything she had been working on and learned had come together that night.
During this time Ruqsana attended Westminster University studying for a degree in architectural technology.
Ruqsana Begum also began teaching a women’s only class at KO boxing gym and Kings College.
Throughout all these changes and challenges, Ruqsana knew that it was her training that allowed her to remain sane.
The Phone Call
As Ruqsana sat in her university library working on her 10,000-word dissertation, the last thing that stood between her and her degree, she received a phone call from her mum.
When she answered, she was told that her parents had found a husband for her.
Six months later, Ruqsana became a married woman. It may not have been exactly what she had wanted for herself, but she was determined to make the next chapter of her life a positive one.
Despite her attempts to fulfil her role as a wife and daughter-in-law, she describes the first few weeks of life with her in-laws as “suffocating”.
In those early days, Ruqsana wondered if this was what her life would be now, “a life dictated by someone else”.
Ruqsana Begum hoped that securing a job at a prestigious architectural firm would help her situation.
However, she continued to find that she was receiving very little support and affection from her new family.
Ruqsana describes the effects of this as “week by week, month by month, it was wearing me down.”
In addition, her training which had been a core component of her life had been suddenly removed.
Her increasingly desperate situation is made clear by the thoughts that would come to her at her lowest moments.
“I almost wished they would hit me. Bruise me, just so I had something to show people. Just so I could say look, this is what they are doing to me. Instead, I had nothing apart from how I felt. Which was lost. Broken.”
A ray of light broke into her bleak reality when she fell pregnant.
Unfortunately, she suffered a miscarriage a couple of weeks into her pregnancy and she was left questioning if life would ever feel normal again.
Ruqsana’s situation began to further deteriorate along with her health.
When she was found by her mother-in-law lying on the kitchen floor, her whole body was shaking.
Ruqsana’s doctor described what had happened to her as the most severe case of a panic attack that she had ever come across.
Ruqsana has been trying to stay strong for so long that her “body had to find some way to release the pressure” it was being put under.
On her doctor’s order, she was told to return to her parent’s home to rest and recover.
Despite Ruqsana’s relief to be back with her family and safe, her health worsened. She began to experience panic attacks more frequently, losing consciousness for up to 45 minutes.
During this time, she received one visit from her husband. He did not return as the visit had upset his parents.
Ruqsana knew she could not return to her in-laws.
However, before she had time to decide what she should do, she found herself standing at her front door being served divorce papers.
Ruqsana Begum summed up her life at this point and said: “I was stuck at home, with no job, relying on antidepressants to get me through each day.”
Ruqsana knew things had to change. She had to rediscover who she was and what she wanted and the first words she ever spoke to Bill came back to her: “I want to be a fighter.”
Ruqsana Begum not only wanted but needed to go back to KO gym.
She also knew that she couldn’t live the double life she once had, hiding a part of herself from her family.
The time had come for Ruqsana to sit her parents down and share her story of how she had entered the world of Muay Thai.
Although her parents did not approve of the sport, they wanted to see their daughter happy and healthy again, so gave their blessing.
Ruqsana returned to the gym. She was slowly weaning herself off the antidepressants, was regaining her strength, and experiencing an improvement in her panic attacks.
She was soon able to re-join the fighters’ classes at the gym.
Not everyone was happy to see her progression.
There were a group of close-knit women at the gym who saw Ruqsana’s promotion to the fighter’s group as ill-deserved.
They began a campaign of exclusion and open hostility towards her.
Despite the relentless bullying, Ruqsana persevered and remained dedicated to her training and she was justly rewarded by winning a bronze medal in the Muay Thai World Championships in Thailand.
Ruqsana Begum felt the win had been unexpected, but she believed it had “proved not only to myself but to Bill and my peers at the gym, that I did belong.”
Ruqsana was prepared to give the sport everything she had, but that did not stop the women at the gym from treating her “like dirt.”
Now, simply walking to the gym had become an exercise in mental fortitude.
Ruqsana attempted to address the situation by speaking honestly to Bill “but he didn’t get it.” She even confronted the bullies but was simply ignored.
Ruqsana understood that she had handled the situation as best she could and she was determined not to be bullied out of her dreams:
“I was resilient. I confronted them. And I showed up to every session, making it clear that I was going nowhere.”
Since returning from Thailand, Ruqsana had been experiencing constant fatigue.
After several fruitless GP appointments where she was told nothing was wrong with her, she eventually got a hospital referral and with it a diagnosis of ME.
ME is a chronic neurological condition that can cause symptoms such as pain and fatigue and often affects the brain and body’s ability to recover.
Ruqsana’s reaction was to tell herself it was fine: “I am a fighter. I can push through this.”
When she was presented with the opportunity to compete for the British title, she seized it and won.
Ruqsana recalled: “It was the most incredible moment of my life.”
Ruqsana was keen to celebrate this momentous event, but was told by Bill “that I should stay away from the gym for a few weeks to let emotions die down.”
The emotions he was speaking of were those of the other women at the gym, who would be infuriated by her win.
A further opportunity to prove herself came in the summer of 2011.
Ruqsana Begum was selected to compete for Great Britain at the European Club Armature Muay Thai championships in Latvia.
Bill was not able to attend the championships, so Ruqsana was competing without a coach.
As soon as she arrived in Latvia she experienced a series of misfortunes.
She was not picked up from the airport, arrived at the weigh-in at the wrong time, only found out she would be competing on the morning of that very day, and had no one to assist or “corner” her in the fight.
This important role was filled at the very last moment, by a coach from Demark who unexpectedly came to her aid. Despite the odds, once again Ruqsana was victorious, she won gold.
Ruqsana soon found herself back in the ring, this time in the 2012 World Championships in Russia.
Despite putting in a strong performance she lost. This loss allowed her to reassess what she wanted and that was a title.
Six months later, she was given her shot at a world title, she had six weeks to prepare.
With only one more round to go in this momentous fight, Ruqsana took a blow to the head and was dazed for one too many seconds.
A white towel was thrown into the ring by Bill, signalling the end of the match and Ruqsana’s dream of becoming a world champion.
Ruqsana felt she could have continued and was left devastated by the result: “It haunted me for a few years. Mentally, I struggled to get over it.”
Once more this setback was treated as a moment to learn from:
“It was there to humble me and to teach me about failure. About success. About hard work and being resilient.”
She was not about to give up on her dream when she had been so close to achieving it.
Ruqsana got the opportunity to redeem herself when she was given the chance to fight the French national champion, two years later.
During that intervening period, Ruqsana had plenty to occupy her.
Whilst keeping in fighting form whilst having to manage her ME, she was once more teaching the women’s only class at KO.
From week to week, her attendees grew.
One of the reasons Ruqsana loves her class is that it gives women from different backgrounds, age groups, and cultures a place to connect.
Ruqsana also set up her own business. She was inspired by the 2012 Olympics and the performance of Sarah Attar, one of the first two women to compete for Saudi Arabia.
Sarah Attar competed whilst wearing a plain white Hijab.
Watching this Ruqsana wondered why no one had designed a hijab for everyday people to play a sport in, so that is exactly what she did.
Ruqsana Begum designed and manufactured and sold over 100 hijabs designed for sports.
After that two-year wait, fight night arrived. Ruqsana would be competing at Earls Court, on home turf.
As soon as she stepped in the ring Ruqsana remembers thinking: “I was stronger than her. I was hurting her. And I knew I could win this fight.”
When the final bell sounded Ruqsana along with everyone else knew her to be the winner.
But as she stood waiting for her name to be called out, she felt something like a whisper saying: “It’s not your time. Not your moment.”
It was her opponent’s name that was called the “judging panel had looked away at the wrong moment or missed a few shots.”
Bill went to the governing body to have the decision overturned but all they could do was offer a rematch.
Despite the injustice of the decision, Ruqsana knew that this would not be the end for her.
On April 23, 2016, she would once again be competing for the world title she knew belonged to her.
Mere days before the fight, disaster struck. Ruqsana had contracted a bug. She described her body as being in a “meltdown”.
On the day of the fight, her condition was no better and both she and Bill believed that she would not pass the medical check before the match and would be pulled out.
She sat quietly as the doctor checked her over at the side of the ring and she waited for the inevitable.
As soon as the bell rang, Ruqsana Begum unloaded everything she had onto her opponent.
She said: “The complete rest I’d had over the past week allowed me to save enough for this one last energy surge.”
That final surge was powerful enough to win the title she had waited so long for. As she heard her name called out, she was in “ecstasy”.
The Journey Continues
After becoming a World Champion, Ruqsana’s life changed in many ways.
In the weeks that followed the fight, there were appearances, interviews, photoshoots, awards, and opportunities to work with companies such as Adidas and Selfridges.
Despite the boost in her public profile, for Ruqsana the best moments “are the ones that take place away from the brightest spotlight.”
As more people heard about her story, she was asked to give talks as a motivational speaker.
On her ability to inspire others Ruqsana said: “It still amazes me that I can have that impact.
“It’s something I will never tire of and it’s the reason I’m determined to continue on my journey.”
When deciding on what the next step in her journey would be, Ruqsana knew that she needed a new challenge that would allow her to “continue to make a difference to others”.
For Ruqsana, boxing would give her a platform that Muay Thai could not.
Ruqsana is now a professional boxer, signed to Hayemaker Promotions. In the final chapter of her book, Ruqsana leaves us with the words:
“If you’ve taken anything away from my story, I hope it is to know that there is always hope, even in those moments that might seem so dark you can’t see a way out.”
Ruqsana Begum’s perseverance through her countless moments of darkness acts as a shining example of how self-belief can allow you to overcome any obstacle.