Ever heard of the saying that good things come in small packages? Ruqsana Begum may be small, but she’s an exceptional talent and she’s not to be messed with…
The reining British Champion of Muay Thai – a sport that may force itself into the next Olympic Games – is petite, quiet and friendly outside of the ring, but all those who step through the ropes with her know that things will be far from pleasant.
The talented fighter has overcome many obstacles to get to where she is, but the challenges ahead are likely to prove equally as difficult.
FitMeNow blogger Glen Walter spoke to Ruqsana to find out more…
For people who may not know who you are and what you do, give the FitMeNow readers a brief introduction to Ruqsana Begum…
My name’s Ruqsana and I’ve been the British Muay Thai Champion since 2010. I recently came back from the World Championships in Russia with a bronze medal, where there were over 130 countries competing. I have also won a gold medal at the European Club Cup.
Muay Thai is an interesting choice of sport, what made you choose it and when did you first give it a try?
I’ve always been quite interested in martial arts and sports. I was really sporty at school and I excelled at it for some reason. I really wanted to take up a martial art and it was a choice between kickboxing and karate at the time.
When I left college I did some research and found KO Gym and that’s when I started training properly. I waited until I had a part time job and started university, that’s when I found KO Gym and fell in love with it.
Were your family always supportive of you?
They didn’t actually know I was doing Muay Thai for a number of years. When I was at the end of college I started attending the gym and went once a week. I told my parents it was just for fitness purposes, they never knew it was kickboxing or Muay Thai.
I was afraid of how they would react and respond to me doing a sport like that. So I kept it hidden from them for a while, until the last five years when I started competing properly.
I took them to the gym and said ‘this is where I apply myself and am spending most of my time’. I think my dad got to see that it was a good environment, a friendly environment.
There were ‘ladies only’ sessions so he started to feel happy that I was in an environment where I wouldn’t be taken away from my beliefs and my culture, which was my parents’ biggest fear; I was taking up a sport that wasn’t even popular with western women, let alone a Muslim Bangladeshi female.
But they accepted it and I started training and I think it really helped when I got the British title because they really came round to the idea, but prior to that it was still quite a big struggle to go to the gym and compete. They understood what I was doing but they just let me get on with it.
You’re the British female Muay Thai Champion and were selected to be the captain of Team GB – did you ever think you’d make it this far when you started out on your journey all those years ago?
No way. I remember I used to be so grateful that I could even go in to the gym and train. I used to just try to keep everyone happy. I would leave before the end of the sessions because I wanted to get home in time and not betray my mum’s trust because I would tell her that I’d only be out for an hour.
When I became an instructor I thought ‘wow, i’m so happy that I’ve become an instructor’ because it’s something I enjoyed doing. I could never have thought that I’d become a champion but it’s a dream come true.
You must feel really proud.
Definitely. It’s a hobby and when you’re good at your hobby and you become a champion it’s such an accomplishment. I feel really proud.
What would you say to people that may be unsure about taking part in a sport that is so physical and one in which, essentially, the aim is to hurt the opponent?
People don’t need to see it in that light. They should see it as learning a new skill – some self-defence, it’s good for fitness; it has got many advantages.
People can just come along and they don’t have to do sparring, they can do pad work, drill work, they can just learn the techniques or do it to build confidence.
There’s many other aspects that they can take away with them, they don’t need to just jump in there and be a fighter. If they’re afraid of injury or hitting someone hard, they can stay away from that.
In our gym there’s many females who just train for fitness purposes. They can try it out and see if they enjoy it, and if they enjoy it and want to take it to a competitive level then that’s something they can decide afterwards.
Muay Thai is not an Olympic sport but you did get to play your part in the Games when you were asked to be a Torchbearer. How did that come about?
I think a few people nominated me and, to be honest, I didn’t think I would get selected. On the form they ask for your details and what your burning passion is, so I wrote a little paragraph about how I compete and the obstacles and cultural boundaries I had to overcome to achieve what I’ve achieved.
I said that hopefully I can become an inspiration to the next generation and that if I can be successful, whilst maintaining my culture, religion and who I am as a person, then other people can hopefully do the same.
I got an email saying that Dizzee Rascal really liked my profile and he even wrote ‘hope she goes all the way – best of luck to her’, and apparently that’s how I got selected. I was really overwhelmed and couldn’t believe it.
London 2012 was a great success. It must have been especially exciting for you because you live so close?
It was really exciting! The benefits of the Olympics and Paralympics are huge. All the athletes were so inspirational and made themselves heroes. Even with all their obstacles they came out performing at top levels and it’s something that we can all learn from.
Muay Thai isn’t an Olympic sport at the moment but they’re pushing it to become one. They might not get it in time for Brazil 2016, but maybe the one after.
Are you going to try to keep competing until then?
Well I’m actually cross-training into boxing as well because I do a bit of boxing and my coach thinks I’ve got a bit of potential there as well, so maybe I’ll be able to train to compete in the boxing in Brazil.
Did you manage to go to any events in London?
Yes, I went to watch Anthony Agogo in the boxing. It was a great atmosphere!
What was the most memorable/inspirational performance for you at the Olympics?
Obviously you’ve got all the big names and they performed really well. I give a lot of credit to Tom Daley because of what he has had to overcome to be there, and there was a lot of pressure on him.
Coming back with a bronze this time must have felt like a gold for him. I have a lot of respect for him because he’s so young and dealing with all the pressure and achieving great things.
Nicola Adams was so strong and amazing, and she just went out there and did what she needed to do, so I was very impressed with her.
How has London 2012 impacted you personally?
This was the first year they had women’s boxing at the Olympics, but they only had a few categories. Hopefully there will be more categories in the next Olympics if I am going to try to compete, otherwise I’ll have to jump up to 51kg when I weigh 48 or 49. I’d be giving away a big weight advantage.
I think we will see more participation in boxing due to Team GB’s success in London, which is a good.
Have you noticed any changes or improvements at this early stage of the Legacy?
I’m not sure. A lot of young people are inspired by the Olympics and probably have taken up sports. But a lot of it is up to schools to provide good quality lessons after school and not just for 10 sessions and that’s it.
It should enable kids to progress and start going to clubs and become competitors, rather than simply just taking part in something. I feel like that is what is happening a lot; people are given the opportunity to take part, but not given the opportunity to progress and excel.
You’re an ambassador for a charity called Fight for Peace. Tell us a little bit about the charity and what you do for them.
The charity is designed to help young people and give them a direction. We give them a lot of mentoring. We have a gym there and we run Muay Thai, boxing and MMA classes to get young people off the street and into sports and to channel their emotions.
It’s quite competitive, so we’ve taken them onto a competitive level and we actually have some champions in there now. I take two sessions there. I do the Muay Thai classes as well as boxing classes. We’re supporting young people, taking them out of troubled backgrounds and giving them hope.
I love working their because you see the results and there’s so much positivity. I work in a school in that borough and you see kids with attitude problems, and I thought that when I started working for Fight for Peace I was going to have to deal with worse than that, but, actually, they’re a lot more respectful than the kids in the schools I work in.
They’re more polite and I think they understand the discipline; they know what it’s about, they’re there for a reason. They just want to train and do better for themselves, and Fight for Peace gives them that opportunity and changes their lives.
Congratulations for winning a bronze medal in the World Championships in Russia. Were you proud of winning that medal, or were you hoping for an even better result?
To be honest, you just want to go out there and give it your best shot, and once you’ve given it your best shot you can always be proud of yourself. I had to get past a few obstacles. I was really struggling with my weight, plus my coach from my gym wasn’t there.
So I had to get to know a new group of people and they didn’t really know what my style is, and I had to adapt quickly to the situation. I’m proud because I’ve realised how close I was to a silver, and I know that on another day I could have won that fight.
It just goes to show the standards here – what I’ve been taught and what I’ve been able to execute. I now believe that I can progress to being more than just the British Champion. To know that out of all those people competing, I could actually become the best in the world, it’s amazing.
So what’s your next challenge?
There’s a tournament in Poland that my coach is thinking about me going along to. It’s about finding the sponsorship to finance me because I’ve just come back from Russia and I need to send out my information again and see if a company will sponsor me again.
Depending on that, everything holds back because I can’t finance it all. I’m relying on companies to support me. I’ll possibly be fighting for a European title soon, but that’s yet to be confirmed.
By Glen Walter – Follow me on Twitter: @GlenWalter27