Book reviewer Tabitha Potts reads Born Fighter by Ruqsana Begum, the Bethnal Green-born world champion kickboxer. As a long time student of Begum’s kickboxing classes, Potts gives us her insights into this ‘searingly honest’ autobiography of how Begum fought prejudice and broke boundaries in the boxing ring.
Born Fighter is the story of Ruqsana Begum, an East London girl from a traditional British Bangladeshi background who went on to become a Muay Thai world champion, a model for Adidas and Gymshark and the designer of one of the first sports hijabs.
It’s told with a great deal of honesty, verve and wit, starting with the opening lines of the first chapter when her father spotted the teenage Begum going up to her room and asked her why she was ‘walking like a boxer’. Begum ran upstairs, wondering if her father had found her first trophy (which she had hidden inside a Tesco shopping bag). ‘Fight or flight? Outside of the ring, it’s always the latter, especially when it comes to my family’.
Begum grew up in a third-generation Bangladeshi family in Tapp Street, Bethnal Green, where she lived with her parents, grandparents, sister and three brothers in a three-bedroom council flat. One of her early childhood memories was watching a Bruce Lee movie on television with her uncle and being captivated by his speed and grace, sparking off a lifetime obsession.
She writes movingly about her closeness to her sister Ane and their grandparents, who were in many ways less strict than her parents. Strong and a gifted athlete, she was the fastest girl in her year at school and nicknamed ‘Sporty Spice’, she enjoyed playing football with the boys.
She describes the pain of being overlooked by teachers as being less bright than her brothers and sister before she was finally diagnosed as dyslexic. She was also struggling with the contradictions between her Muslim faith and her Western schooling as a teenager, at one point wearing the hijab but eventually deciding it wasn’t for her.
One day, she spotted an advertisement for a free Muay Thai kickboxing class in her college gym and this brought her eventually to the renowned KO Gym in Bethnal Green run by the redoubtable Coach Bill Judd. The descriptions of her early days learning to fight are brilliant, vividly evoking the excitement of discovering the ‘art of eight weapons’. Judd supported her wish to become a fighter, allowing her to train for free until she could afford to pay him.
The book goes on to explore what it was like for Begum to lead a double life, trying to live up to the traditional ideal of what a woman should be while also exploring her potential as an athlete.
As Begum explains, Muay Thai was the main outlet for her while she finished her university degree in architectural technology and was a ‘good daughter’ at home – she won her first trophy, the one she had to hide in a plastic bag before she graduated. It kept her grounded and, she believes, closer to God.
Something had to give, and this happened when Begum’s parents arranged a marriage for her. It’s a heartbreaking story of how a marriage can begin with the best of intentions and go very wrong. Unable to train and very stressed and unhappy, Begum’s body rebelled against the situation she found herself in and she collapsed in the kitchen one day, the first of a series of severe panic attacks, which resulted in her moving back home and eventually getting a divorce.
The end of Begum’s marriage gave her freedom to be herself and finally, she got back into the ring. This time she was determined to lead a double life no longer and told her parents about her kickboxing. Finally, after taking them to meet Bill at the gym, she had her parents’ blessing.
Begum’s story, already so dramatic, becomes a real rollercoaster ride at this point. She began to fight at a high level while dealing with bullying by a group of hostile female fighters at the gym and a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome. It’s a fascinating insider account of a Muay Thai fighter’s world, the rituals of fighting, the struggles to maintain the correct weight, the importance of the relationship with the coach and the constant, terrifying risk of injury.
The wonderful moment when she won her World Championship belt was the culmination of years of hard work, dogged training, setbacks and disappointment, all vividly conveyed to the reader (a small criticism is that it would have been even better to have some more photographs).
As Begum says, the challenges she has faced in her life have helped her become who she is. She is now taking up a new challenge, learning how to box and competing internationally as a boxer.
‘I’m going to be wherever I want to be and achieve whatever I need to achieve to feel fulfilled. Freeing myself of that need to belong has opened my horizons to so much more, because I just enjoy what is good and makes me happy,’ she says.
After reading this searingly honest, moving and fascinating memoir, the reader will agree that Begum is indeed, as her book’s title states, a born fighter.
Born Fighter by Ruqsana Begum (with Sarah Shephard)
Simon and Schuster 2020 (also available as an audiobook from Audible)
Want to read more about Ruqsana Begum? Check out our interview with her.
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