On April 30, featherweight Skye Nicolson became the first Australian woman to box in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. It was her third professional fight in 58 days, but she betrayed no sense of fatigue. Or nerves. In her ceremonial entrance to the ring, she wore an oversized New York Rangers ice hockey jersey and a brilliant smile – and then, over the six rounds, calmly dominated her American opponent, Shanecqua Paisley Davis.
The contrast between the two fighters was stark. Nicolson was patient, efficient, almost preternaturally calm. Paisley Davis, meanwhile, was all thrashing arms and frenetic weaving. Nicolson used her superior reach effectively and, for someone in just her third pro fight, radiated enjoyment and composure. She won every round, and knocked Paisley Davis down in the final one. Having only recently turned pro, after a long amateur career, Nicolson’s record is now 3-0.
“I was happy with the performance,” Nicolson says. “And I feel like I’m getting better with each pro fight. We’re making small changes and adjustments in the gym, and I think that’s showing in the fights.
“We’re also trying to get the right opponent, so that I can learn everything I need to know about every different kind of style. So, always having a different challenge in front of me. But yeah, that last fight? I am a very cool, calm and collected fighter and I feel like I’m in my zone when I can box like that. And usually it happens on the big stage for me. I kind of thrive off pressure and expectations.”
Perhaps you know Skye Nicolson from her tearful post-fight press conference at last year’s Tokyo Olympics. Expectations were high for the fighter, but none were as high as her own. She fully expected to win gold, and when she exited the tournament in the quarter-finals, she had neither the energy or inclination to disguise her disappointment. Told that no Australian woman had progressed as far in an Olympics, Nicolson said: “It means nothing to me. I don’t care about that. I care about what I know I’m capable of, and not achieving that is just really heartbreaking. I came here with one goal and that was the gold medal.”
Nicolson is one of the most warm, genial and charming athletes I’ve spoken to. There is plenty of theatrical bravura in boxing, but Nicolson is neither conceited nor obnoxious. Far from it. But she speaks without embarrassment about her ambition, is clear-eyed about her talent, and smudges neither with false humility.
In previous interviews, she has also spoken confidently about the mental side of fighting. When athletes do this, there’s often an obscuring cloud of cliché. Things get fuzzy. But Nicolson speaks precisely. In an older interview I watched last year, Nicolson was asked about what values boxing might have instilled. Without hesitation, she nominated resilience. The world is cruel, she said, and she had first-hand knowledge. Resilience was crucial. Plus, she said, boxing can be lonely. It’s just you out there, and you can take a beating and your best laid plans are gone. It’s imperative that you know how to absorb the lessons of defeat, while not losing your hunger to keep going. You need to know how to sensibly reset your goals.
I told Nicolson her previous interviews suggested, to me, that she’d seen sports psychologists – and asked whether that was true. “Oh, yes,” she says. “And it’s been very useful. I’ll tell you something I learnt. Everyone gets nervous, but it’s what you do with that nervous energy, what kind of basket you place it in your mind – is it positive or negative? I feel a little bit concerned if I don’t feel nervous, because you should feel nervous. It’s like, this is everything you’ve worked for. If you didn’t get nervous, you probably don’t care about it that much.
“But for me, I used to have quite bad performance anxiety. So I would perform really well in the gym, against great sparring partners ... And then I would get in the ring at a competition and just freeze up, like barely throw any punches, and kind of just go in there and survive. And I couldn’t really understand it because I would feel so good sparring in the gym. And I started seeing a sports psychologist – I would have been around 17 at the time – and they kind of just gave me some different ways of looking at nerves.
“I realised that in competition I was scared of taking risks, even though I knew they worked in training. And this psychologist helped me to just box in competition as I would in sparring, to understand that what worked in one place would work in the ring. [The first time] I did that in competition, I had an unbelievable performance. And I was like, ‘Wow.’ Nothing had changed, except attitude. I didn’t do anything different. I didn’t change anything in my training. And that’s been helpful to every fight since. Having like a warm-up, and things that you do before a fight that are very similar to your daily routine and training.”
Skye Nicolson was born in Brisbane in 1995, the year after two of her brothers were killed in a car accident. Gavin was 10; Jamie was 22. Before his death, Jamie Nicolson was a celebrated boxer: an Olympian, a Commonwealth Games medallist, and the first Australian to assume the podium in an amateur World Championship meet. His amateur record was 150 wins from 178 fights, before starting a professional career. His pro record was 6-1 when he died.
Skye Nicolson doesn’t remember the first moment she became explicitly conscious of her family’s loss. But her brothers were always spoken of, she says. They were always a presence in their house. “I think about [the death of my brothers] through my little nephews now. And they know that they have two angel uncles, exactly how I knew that I had two angel brothers. And it’s just one of those things that they just get. I don’t know if they fully understand it. And I don’t know when that kind of realisation happens, or if it just happens naturally. But it was the same for me. They were just talked about in everyday life as part of the family, but obviously they’re not there and you don’t know them. But I feel like I grew up knowing them, like everyone else did. It’s really weird. And it’s really hard to explain.
“It’s a weird one,” says Nicolson, “because I obviously didn’t go through the awful experience and heartbreak that my parents or my other siblings and everyone who knew them went through. But I still feel that same kind of mourning, especially on the anniversary of the boys’ death every year. I actually used to feel feelings of almost jealousy that I didn’t know them and that I didn’t get to experience life with them that my family did. But in the same sense, they probably feel jealous that I didn’t have to go through the pain and heartbreak that they did.”
Nicolson says her parents never forced her into boxing. Not even close. They wanted her to enjoy herself, with anything, and without the burdens of expectation. But she started boxing at 12 and quickly developed a taste. She enjoyed herself in the gym, and her enthusiasm soon became a passion. That passion was followed by discipline. Now based in London, Nicolson trains six days a week while studying part-time to be a primary school teacher. And she loves it. The training, the fights, the post-fight analysis. Covid-19 meant 18 months away from the gym, so she’s very happy to take three fights in two months now.
As for her Tokyo loss? She’s dealt with that. It didn’t take long. The emotion then was real, but so too was the quick acceptance of loss and her renewal of ambition. I detect no self-pity in Skye Nicolson – but she’s very clear about her goal: divisional world champ and Olympic gold medallist.
She’s on her way.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 28, 2022 as "Punching her weight".
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