Everyone told her she was crazy for taking a short notice fight against Holly Holm, but my friend Nikki "Knuckles" Knudsen saw it as her big chance.
Holly had just recently moved to MMA and her record was 4-0, which doesn’t sound so scary until you realize that her boxing record is 33-2, that she is a 14-time world boxing champion, and that she’s been Mike Winklejohn’s protégé since the age of 16. Nikki was so excited when she told me about the fight I didn’t have the heart to say that I wouldn’t fight Holly Holm if I were 50 pounds bigger, 10 inches taller, armed with two large blunt instruments, and wearing full body armor.
Nikki called my best friend, and fellow fighter, Lauren Taylor and asked her to drive up to Allen, Texas, just north of Dallas, to be her corner in the fight at Legacy Fighting Championship 24 on Oct. 11. Of course I had to go. How often would I get a chance to see three of my friends from Alaska all in one place? It sounded like a ball, and for the most part it was. But come fight night everything went south.
I flew into Houston, where Lauren and I picked up the rental car and drove to Allen early on Thursday morning. Since Nikki had told me that she’d taken the fight with Holly, I’d been checking in on her every once in a while, waiting, I admit, for her to have a moment of panic, or several. I’d seen Holly once in person, briefly, at Jackson’s MMA about a year back. She looked 10 feet tall and built of molded brick. I watched her spar with one of the guys there and by the end of it I was both awed and terrified. When she threw those blurred barrages of punches and kicks she let out this sound that kept reminding me of the character I used to play in Mortal Kombat when I was a kid.
When Lauren is in the midst of a fight camp, she goes back and forth with increasing frequency between confidence and terror, and she’s really the only person I had to compare Nikki to. For several days Lauren is cool as a cucumber, and then out of nowhere I will be fielding freak-outs. I figured Nikki’s panic had to be showing up any day now but it never did. Every time I checked in with her she told me she was excited, happy, feeling strong and confident, in better shape than she’d ever been. When Lauren and I rolled into Allen an hour before weigh-ins, Nikki was hungry and a little loopy, but there was still no sign of fear. She was just happy to be there, taking it all in, joking with Holly here and there, acting as though she was about to enter a knitting competition instead of a cage fight with a world champion boxer.
The most unexpected thing to me, aside from Nikki’s puzzling lack of nerves, was how friendly Holly was. I knew that Nikki would be a peach because she always is, but I’ve been around several of my friend’s opponents and opponents’ teammates and coaches before and I’ve never met a single one of them who was as warm and sweet as Holly. I was incredibly relieved. I knew of course that it would all be different in the cage, but I much preferred that Holly be attacking my friend because it was business and not out of some strange personal animosity.
After weigh-ins, Lauren, Nikki, Jared Mazurek (our friend and the other coach/corner Nikki had brought with her from Alaska), and I went out to dinner with Nikki’s mom, brother, and two cousins. Before too long, as conversations with moms go, we were hearing stories about Nikki as a kid. That she’d moved to a small town in Texas for some time, away from her friends and everything familiar, so that she could care for her grandfather when he was sick. That people wondered aloud to Nikki’s mom if she had any “normal” friends in high school because she was so often seen hanging out with the mentally challenged kids. Those kids needed a friend and she’s just that kind of person. I wondered to myself if I could have been selfless enough as a teenager to spend much of my free time being a friend to the special needs kids at my school instead of running around like a hooligan, which was what I did. I doubt it. At 16 I can’t say that unrewarded acts of kindness were high on my list of priorities. Nikki tried to brush it all off, though, mildly embarrassed to be the center of attention.
Everyone we’d met so far at Legacy loved Nikki. I overheard the announcer ask another man if he’d met her yet, adding, “She’s got a ton of personality, that one. A real sweetheart.” Mick Maynard, the owner of the promotion, had asked Lauren, “So… pretty much everyone loves Nikki, huh? I can see why.” It’s true--she has that effect on people. And I was getting more and more nervous about what she was about to face. We stopped into Siam Star MMA in Allen around 3 on fight day, where the owner had been kind enough to offer us the mats while there was no class going on. Nikki’s cardio was on point. There would be no way she’d get tired in this fight. Glimmers of hope started to shine through my fears. Everyone loves an underdog story. I figured that even if Nikki didn’t have much, she had a shot in hell, and stranger things have happened in the world.
It was hard to be nervous even later, there in her warm-up room at the back of the arena. Where I’ve seen lots of other fighters throw on rowdy music to amp themselves up, Nikki had on a playlist consisting entirely of mellow stuff. Old Sublime, Iron and Wine, like that. She paced around slowly until it was time to start warming up, speaking introspectively about how happy she was to be there with her friends, how crazy life is. At one point, as we sat cross-legged across from one another on the floor and she fidgeted absentmindedly with her wraps, I listened to her explain why she felt sympathy for Holly, of all people, more than anyone at the moment--that Holly was under a lot more pressure: If she won, no one would be surprised; if she lost, she’d have lost to someone no one thought should be a challenge. Nikki said she could tell Holly was nervous when we’d seen her right before leaving the hotel, “the poor thing.” I was floored by this speech. There was nothing in her voice or eyes that indicated anything other than genuine empathy. That’s Nikki, even in moments of stress that bring out the worst in people. Still not nervous, even the tiniest bit. Not even when we heard Holly start to warm up in the adjacent room and it sounded like she was kicking through two-by-fours instead of Thai pads. Nikki was Zen. It was hard not to hope.
* * * * * *
They lined Nikki up to walk out first, right behind the curtain. When I looked around, I could see Holly standing behind us. She looked scared and I’ll be damned if that didn’t make me like her even more. For such a powerful fighter, that transparent emotion was so endearing. At the same time, she was all but sprinting in place, bouncing high off the ground on the balls of her feet, the muscles in her neck tense. She looked terrifying. My hope flickered.
I heard them call Nikki’s name and she walked out to James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s World” as coolly as she’d been all evening. The announcer explained to the crowd that she’d taken the fight on short notice and that she was a four-stripe white belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I cringed. Holly was a 14-time boxing champion and Nikki was just a white belt. The odds in Vegas were far, far out of Nikki’s favor, and it felt like Legacy was apologizing in advance for what was about to happen. It wasn’t until I watched the fight again on TV later that I heard announcer and former UFC champion Pat Miletich’s reaction to this experience difference between Nikki and Holly. He sounded shocked. He sounded like he didn’t like this fight at all. But maybe I was projecting my own feelings.
When Holly got into the cage, my heart plummeted. At weigh-ins, she hadn’t looked but a few inches taller than Nikki, and not that much thicker either. But I swear she’d grown half a foot overnight and her muscles had swollen to twice their dehydrated size. She towered over Nikki even from across the ring, springing up and down in place, her heels never close to touching the mat, or bolting back and forth in her corner like she couldn’t have stood still if you’d clamped a vice around her.
The bell rang. I watched the first minute and a half of the fight looking into the cage at my friend as her game plan backfired and Holly moved her straight up against the cage in the clinch and then in short order landed three hard front kicks to Nikki’s body. Then I turned away. I watched the rest of the fight on the screen because that somehow made it seem less real. It did not stop me from covering my mouth and heart with my hands and letting out an occasional quiet sob that the security guards next to me politely pretended not to hear. The shot in hell I thought Nikki had evaporated before my eyes. It wasn’t until later that I realized how many chances Holly had early on to finish the fight, but for some reason she kept backing off and letting Nikki breathe. There could be any reason for that. Maybe because she wanted to put on a longer show for the fans. Or maybe it’s hard for a sweet person to keep inflicting damage on someone who poses no threat.
To Nikki’s credit, she never stopped trying, never broke, never gave up. She took combination after combination, hard punches, head kicks, all of which had knockout power, and she just shook her head and kept coming. I’ve heard it said about her before: She isn’t brimming with raw talent, but you can’t teach heart, and Nikki has heart by the truckload.
It was a brutal fight. Finally about halfway through the 2nd round, Holly landed a hard side kick to Nikki’s ribs. Nikki cried out in pain and stumbled backwards. That was the single most awful MMA-related moment I’ve ever experienced in my life. I felt sick. I felt … angry. Whose fucking idea was it to let this fight happen?! I thought. Nikki stumbled sideways into the cage, and Holly was on her. The fight was called quickly, thank god, because any more of that would have seen me passed out in the aisle. I felt worse for Lauren Taylor than myself, though. Nothing she screamed from the corner could stop what was happening.
I had three messages on my phone by the time we made it back to Nikki’s warm-up room, all of them asking how many of her ribs were broken. I didn’t know what to say to make Nikki feel better, but Lauren did. She’s good at that stuff. She consoled Nikki as she struggled to move around the room wincing in pain. It hurt when she walked, when she sat down, when she laughed or cried. We could have gone to the hospital then, but I think she was just too tired to bear it. The athletic commission guy urged her to go anyway. “At least go get yourself some good painkillers,” he reasoned. Nikki shook her head. “I think some shots will do just fine.”
Later, we walked to the nearest bar to have some drinks and reflect. Maybe not the wisest choice for an injured person, but hey, who could blame her? We got seated near the back in a corner by the TV, and within a few minutes the Legacy broadcast appeared on the screen. It was behind Nikki’s head so she hadn’t noticed yet. I was busy thinking of ways to get her out of there before she figured it out when Lauren turned her eyes toward the screen for just long enough that Nikki looked to see what she was watching. That was it. We couldn’t talk her into leaving. We thought maybe it would be better for her to watch it later. Not with Holly, her husband, and all her crowd sitting right nearby. This is going to be bad, I thought. Holly’s people are all going to cheer. Nikki is going to hear the commentary and see herself get beat up.
I silently wished the bar would close before Nikki and Holly’s fight came on. It didn’t. When the fight finally came on, it was 2am and there was some country-sounding song playing, the chorus of which was “Get the fuck outta here. Finish up that beer.” Woulda made me laugh if it weren’t for the circumstances.
Part of my fears proved unfounded when I realized that no one at Holly’s table was making a big deal out of it. They knew we were sitting there. One of Holly’s teammates Bubba McDaniel came over at the end of the fight to say, “Hey, I know I’m on the opposing team and all, but I just wanted to say that you have got real heart, girl. You’re tough as hell. Thank you for taking the fight on short notice.” It was sweet. Lots of people had said similar things, including Holly’s coach Greg Jackson. I’d stopped him to say thank you for the fact that Holly and her whole team had been so kind and he said, “Nikki is tough. I thought she was done for but she just kept moving. She’s got a future if she keeps training.”
For a minute it seemed like we were about to get more of the same as we were walking back to the hotel and saw an SUV slam on it’s brakes right in front of us. One of the Legacy bigwigs came barreling out of the passenger seat, after getting stuck in his seatbelt, and ran straight for us yelling, “Nikki! Hey Nikki! I just wanted to say good fight and congratulations. You’re real tough, girl, real tough.” He then said to the man next to him. “We’re bringing this one back for sure,” he said, gesturing at Nikki. “Look at her, she’s cute. She’s real cute.” Wonderful.
Check out part 2 tomorrow.
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