Nikki "Knuckles" Loses out on "The Ultimate Fighter" but Gets a Shot at Holly Holm
I wanted to do this interview with my friend Nikki “Knuckles” Knudsen as soon as she got home from Ultimate Fighter tryouts earlier this year, but, of course, she wasn’t allowed to tell me anything lest she jeopardize her chances of getting into the house. Now that the season is rolling, though, it seemed like a good time for the rest of the world to be introduced to this particular little ball of scrappy sunshine.
I’ve seen Nikki dress up in a giant shark costume that she made herself and snowboard straight down the mountain at Alyeska (our local ski resort in Girdwood) into a giant pool of icy water. The year before that it was a big green T-Rex costume. Pretty sure there was a giant red crab costume in there one year, too. She’s one of the town’s favorite people. Going anywhere with her, you must allot extra time for the inevitable line of people who are going to recognize her and give hugs. Recently she did a long stint on Alaska’s most-listened-to morning radio show, Bob and Mark, when Mark had to be out for a while. It was always supposed to be a temporary thing, but her goofy brand of humor had people all over the Internet asking for her to have a permanent spot. She’s 2-1 as a pro fighting in the Alaska Fighting Championship, she was chosen as an alternate for the current season of The Ultimate Fighter, and it was just announced earlier today that she’s going to fight former boxing champion Holly Holm at Legacy Fighting Championship 24 in Houston on October 11th.
I first met Nicole about three years back when Lauren Murphy (Lauren Taylor, until she got hitched a few weeks back) started doing BJJ at the Gracie Barra gym in Anchorage where Nikki trains. Truthfully, because I am a cynical weirdo, I wasn’t sure about her at first because she was so friendly. We’re a suspicious bunch, my family. It didn’t take long, though, before I realized what an idiot I had been. It wasn’t a one-time occurrence that Nikki walked into a room with that pile of (at-the-time) platinum blonde hair on top of her head wiggling as she laughed and instantly added a happy glow to the atmosphere. She’s one of only two people I’ve ever met in my life with this particular power--one that doesn’t stem from any kind of inherent charisma or practiced extroversion but from a genuine excitement about life and all its possibilities and a consistent inclination to treat every new person like a friend.
Tell me about the whole process of trying out for The Ultimate Fighter.
When the UFC announced that night that they were going to have girls on TUF everyone I knew started texting me. I didn’t even think twice. I thought, “This is supposed to happen. I am supposed to fight in the UFC.” I’ve been training almost five years now and the UFC has always been my goal, even before it was an option.
The girls only had like 50 or 55 people, which is way less than I expected, but we still had to wait in line forever. You have to hit mitts and then you had to roll in front of Dana White and it was all kind of surreal, you know, shaking Dana’s hand and there were all these people there I’ve watched forever and I was just trying not to be a total nerd. I was really stoked more than anything that it was happening. However it turned out for me, what mattered was that I was a part of something historic. The rolling was intense and I wasn’t sure I’d won the round but I made it and then we went on to interviews, which was a relief, because, man, I can talk all day; that’s easy! It was funny because they really try to intimidate you in there, especially me because I was the shortest girl and one of the younger ones, and they were like, “You’re pretty little and you haven’t been doing this as long as a lot of these girls--does that intimidate you? You’re from Alaska and you lost your fight--why’d you lose your fight?” You could just tell that they were trying to see if you were sensitive, if you were aggressive. I mean, they’re looking for character so it makes sense that they were so blunt. They were just trying to filter through personalities so I just decided to give them shit back.
And then it was over. They don’t really tell you anything except that you need to be prepared to let your work, coaches, and family you live with know you might have to leave for six weeks, but no one else. I knew they’d call because I felt like everything went pretty well, but I also wasn’t sure by that point that I wanted to be on a reality TV show. I had just felt like because the UFC is what I want, this must be the door in, but I realize now it won’t be my only shot. Just because it didn’t work out doesn’t mean I’m not going to end up there. It was honestly a blessing in disguise. They called me four weeks later and told me that I’d been chosen to be an alternate. I would get to go down there and if anyone backed out or didn’t make weight or was injured, I might be chosen to be on the show. I was really excited just to go back down because I’d made friends with a lot of the girls on the show and was looking forward to seeing them again. We’d all gone to the stratosphere and on a bunch of crazy rides. It was cool.
So, I trained my ass off while working at the Glacier Brewhouse and doing the morning show with Bob and Mark so there was very little sleep during my nights. And while I’d put on muscle mass I had also gained some other weight just being unable to monitor what I was eating, so I had a 12-pound weight cut in front of me, which was by far the worst one I’ve ever had, but I would have sooner walked out there and fallen on my face than not made weight. I was the first person at the gym the day before weigh-ins and the last one to leave, just to make sure. What was funny is that Tara LaRosa, before I met her, had been the girl I was most intimidated by. Not so much that she would beat me up, just that her personality was very strong and serious, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. I ended calling her mother Theresa because she was so incredible during my weight cut. She went to get buckets of ice, she’d dip towels in the pool and come back in the sauna and lay them on my head, she made sure I spit out the ice I was chewing, she rubbed my back down with ice. And it wasn’t just for me; she did that for lots of the people there, men and women. There were a few times I was close to crying (had I had any liquid in my body to make tears), but they kept me going. That was the hardest part. Then that night I was wide awake, freezing and burning up at the same time because I was just skin and bones, and laying there hoping that I’d be weighing in in the morning.
The next day I woke up and got showered and they called me to let me know to just hang tight and that they’d call me if anyone didn’t make weight. So of course, even though they told me not to get my hopes up, I did. And I waited and waited and I’m starving and they ended up not needing me. It’s hard to describe that feeling, being that close, and of course it was a good thing for me to go through because it made me mentally stronger, but I cried my eyes out like a baby that night and ate like a total fatty, which you are never supposed to do, but I didn’t care at that point. Eventually I made myself get up and shower and I went out and walked the strip to do a little shopping, just trying to keep my head up. The next morning they called me and said I could come to the fights if I wanted to, that a lot of the girls had been really hoping I’d make it in, which was really comforting hearing that, knowing how hard Tara and Gina had worked at helping me. So I rode on the buses with all the families and got to sit in the stands during the fights. I was sitting there with Julie Kedzie and her people, and I don’t think it was as surreal for them as it was for me. I mean, these girls train in the states at big gyms and maybe to them it wasn’t such a trip that Dominick Cruz was there and Urijah Faber, but man, it was to me. (TUF coach) Miesha Tate walked over and was talking to the girls around me and I got to introduce myself to her and she was such a sweet person. In the past, watching her videos I wouldn’t have guessed because she has kind of hard features, and I just had no idea what a sweet person she was. “Cupcake” is the perfect name for her because she is so bubbly and nice. Her encouragement meant so much to me. I didn’t get to talk to Ronda (Rousey) because she wasn’t very social, you know; she was really in the zone. She probably still feels like she has to prove herself because Miesha is such a veteran, and even though she’s the champ I think she took it very seriously that she wanted to prove she could be a great coach.
Then Urijah Faber sat down next to me about midway through the fights, and it was all I could do not to be a total creep. I had to say something. I know he’s a normal human being. I’ve read his book, I’ve watched Team Alpha Male’s training videos. I like that he seems like a humble fighter that wants the best for his team, so I introduced myself, saying how much I admired him, and his answer was “Wow, your eyes are really sparkly!” And man, it’s cool when Uriah Faber tells you something like that, and I’m pretty sure I went full idiot then so I just shut up. But he kept asking who I thought had won the fights and what I thought was going on. Once he found out I was from Alaska, we talked about some fighters from his gym from that are AK people. I told him I was looking for a gym to train at on the west coast because that’s where I’m from and it’s my favorite part of the country. You have the mountains to snowboard, the big cities, the small towns, the rivers, the ocean, the sports, the promotions, and the exposure.
So, tell me how you started fighting.
I was 20 years old and had just broken up with my high school sweetheart and that was definitely my party stage. So my friends and I had gotten pretty hammered and gone to the fights, and we’re sitting up in the bleachers during Kloiah Wayland’s fight. Bob is the announcer for the AFC, and he’s talking to Kloiah, who’s being all cocky because she won (you know how it is), and he asks the crowd if there were any girls in the audience who thought they could fight her. So I jump up and start waving my arms and my friends are mortified and trying to get me to sit down, but it’s too late. Someone comes up to the stands to get me and I had to tell him I was too drunk to walk. So he gives me a piggyback ride down into the cage and I’m in there, I’m leaning on the cage, and it’s the first time I’ve met Bob (of the Bob and Mark show and also announcer for the AFC)
Bob: Well, hello little lady! What’s your name?
Nicole: I’m Nicole
Bob: How old are you?
Nicole: I’m 20.
Bob: Have you ever heard of a breathalizer?
Nicole: Umm … yeah.
Bob: So, you think you could kick this girl’s ass?
Nicole: Oh, fuck yeah!
Bob: Whoa now, this is family event.
Nicole: Fuck, sorry.
Bob: So you think you can beat her?
Nicole: Yes ma’am!
At the time I had long blonde hair and probably a lot of make-up on. I was all done up; I mean I looked like some floozy that was not serious about it at all and they never expected to hear from me again. That happens all the time: They get drunk girls in there saying they want to fight and never hear from them again. But the next morning when my friend asked if I remembered going into the cage, it took me a minute and I had to ask what happened, but then I called in to the Bob and Mark show and was like, “Hey, this is Nicole. I told you guys that I wanted to fight last night and I actually still do, if you’ll point me in the right direction.” I harassed Bob for a week before he sent me Paul Stockler’s number who got me to Gracie Barra Alaska, and, of course, when I walk in they all know who I am because they were at the fights, so they all remember but I really didn’t. They agreed to teach me as much as they could in a few months and we started out focusing on my boxing. And it all depended on how much I wanted to train. Signing up was expensive, the lessons are expensive, the gear is expensive, but luckily I was newly single and had nothing but time.
You could tell the people at the gym were trying to scare me off, they didn’t take me seriously, and, of course, why would they? But I finished that day and then paid for five more lessons and started showing up to every MMA and jiu-jitsu class I could squeeze in before and after work every day for two months. I was partying all the time, but I showed up every single morning no matter how hungover I was. There were so many discouraging days because I am not athletic at all. I never have been. I’d skateboarded and snowboarded and gone windsurfing with my dad, but I’d never played sports. I tried cross-country running and got bad shin splints. I tried basketball and the girls were mean to me and I hated it. But this was so different! It was such a blast and totally fed my adrenaline-junkie thing. So, that’s how I started, just another drunken story … but then I trained for two months and I won my fight against Kloiah.
Didn’t you bust your hand a while back?
Yeah, that was months ago and I’m all healed up now, but it’s still a funny story. I walked into Platinum Jaxx one night to watch the fights, dead sober, and of course they have that stupid punching machine down there, and because I wasn’t drinking I was like, “Yeah! I got this.” But I’m also a klutz and I didn’t think about that part. So I go to punch the bag and I got a really freakin’ high score, which was way better than the time before that I tried it and completely embarrassed myself by missing the bag, so I really nailed this thing hard, but I hit it so hard that my hand went straight into the metal wall of the machine behind it and my hand instantly swelled up. Only me, right? All those days sparring in practice and when I bust my hand it’s when I’m sober at a bar.
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