Work Train Fight

One Punch At A Time:  A Conversation With Nikki Campbell

One Punch At A Time:  A Conversation With Nikki Campbell

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Work Train Fight’s badass trainer and fighter Nikki Campbell started boxing in 2012. Soon after her first class, she was rearranging her schedule to make it to the gym before work, after work, and during her lunch breaks. It wasn’t long until she gave two weeks notice at her previous job as an international account manager for a shoe company to become an instructor at WTF. Last November, for Fight Night 3, she fought her second amateur match. She sits down with WTF-er and writer Raisa Imogen to discuss how she faces her fears inside and outside the ring.


RI: I often think about how grappling with fear is part of being human. In boxing, you know the punch is going to come. How do you combat or come to terms with what scares you?


NC: It’s funny, after sparring for a year, the fear of getting punched went away. It’s not as bad as it seems. It was the first fear to go out the window.


It’s a lot harder to deal with feelings of inadequacy. In the beginning, I compared myself to people who had been boxing since they were eight. I kept asking myself, “Am I good enough?” “Do I want it as much as other people?” “Do I really want it, or am I just doing it because I think it’s what I should be doing?” I started boxing when I was 24, which is late in the game, and I didn’t start fighting until I was 27 or 28, which is really late.


Of course I’m afraid of failure, but not failure in the sense of losing the actual fight. At the end of a match, I want to say, “I fought my heart out.” I want my coach and friends and family to be proud of me. I want my clients to feel proud saying, “I train with her, I learn from her.”


Letting people down is the biggest fear that I grapple with on a daily basis. But it also fuels me. I don’t always want to work out. But if I don’t, I’m going to lose, and I don’t want to tell people that I didn’t fight or train my hardest. I guess I think about that a lot, but I’ve never said it out loud before.


RI: So you’re saying fear can be a positive force? 


NC: Absolutely. Instead of turning and fleeing from what scares me, I use fear as fuel to train harder. I know that sounds cliché, but when I step into the ring, I’m not afraid. I just know I have to work. When I feel moments of slight panic, I remind myself how hard I’ve been training—it’s six minutes and then I can move on.


RI: Watching your most recent fight, I was struck by your ease and grace. To me, it felt like you won, even though I know technically you didn’t. I wonder if you could talk a bit about Fight Night, what it felt like to be in the ring. 


NC: At the end of the night, I was happy. I did what I needed to do. This is my second time facing [my opponent]. Last time it was a unanimous decision [that she won] and this time it was split. She’s a hard competitor and it was a hard fight. When they announced the winner, and I finally allowed myself to look out into the crowd, I felt proud. I couldn’t look before the fight was over because I knew I would lose my focus. If I made eye contact with anyone, that would be it. So when I took off my head gear, and I saw everyone…


RI: I got chills watching…


NC: I know! Even now, it’s hard to talk about, it all rushes back to me. I was in front of everyone I loved. I have a team here. We all support each other, physically, mentally, emotionally. That sense of community has empowered me. Just having people here to remind me of how hard I’m working, to say, “I believe in you,” during moments of doubt.


RI: Do you feel like in boxing, there is a different expectation for how women experience and handle fear versus how men do?


NC: Men deal with the pressure of,“be a man, get out there and fight.” In basketball there’s a common saying: men want to DUNK and women want to play the game. I think the same applies in boxing. Men get in the ring and they want to brawl. They want to go for the knockout. Women go for the points, for the silence between the punches: moving, slipping, weaving.


I’ve also learned to deal with the stigma—is that the word?— of being a woman who boxes. Sometimes it feels like I have something to prove: that I can be feminine and box, too.


RI: And on the other hand, women boxers are sexualized.


NC: Exactly! Men have said to me, “I would love for you to beat me up,” and I’m like, “You say that, but do you? Do you really want that? Because you wouldn’t….” [laughs]. People joke around with me, like, “You must love beating up guys.” I don’t… I just want to get BETTER.


RI: It’s crazy how in this sport, you have to go towards danger, which is initially pretty counterintuitive.


NC: Yes. Five years ago, I avoided conflict. I didn’t like fighting or yelling. Now I work in arguably one of the most combative fields. Today if I get into a confrontation, I usually feel like it’s not worth it. I feel more at peace. My energy is meant for boxing.


RI: Has training influenced the way you live outside the gym?


NC: Just like how I take a fight one punch at a time, one move at a time, one round at a time, I try to do the same in the rest of my life. One punch at a time.


My mom used to tell me when I was a kid: concentrate, focus, finish. CFF. There were signs all over the house. When you do a difficult task, it’s short pain. It’s not going to last forever. I take CFF into the ring with me. It’s how I get shit done. Because time is important. Time is the most important thing I can give to someone. And I try to give 110%.

The fact that clients invest their time in me makes me want to do better. It makes me want to be stronger for them. I needed to fight initially to legitimize myself. How could I ask others to do the work, to slip or throw a punch, when I hadn’t ever done it myself? It was a motivation in the beginning. Now my motivation is to win.


RI: Any final words?


NC: At the end of the day, I just want to be a grandmother who says to my grandkids, “Did you know your grandma used to be a badass amateur boxer?”

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