Nadine Champion: A champion's journey

Written by Don Zander

Nadine Champion, a Blackbelt under Benny Urquidez since 1999 recalls her experience as a traditional martial artist competing as a Thai boxer, and going into a bout carrying injury and determination in equal amounts.

Nadine-Champion
Nadine Champion, a Blackbelt under Benny Urquidez since 1999

Following the recent seminar tour of Benny ‘The Jet’ Urquidez, we take an extract from the recently released autobiography of one of his many successful protégés: the former kickboxing champ — and aptly named — Nadine Champion, a Blackbelt under Urquidez since 1999. In this chapter, ‘My Time’, Champion recalls her experience as a traditional martial artist competing as a Thai boxer, and going into a bout carrying injury and determination in equal amounts.

Sensei Benny knew my bout was up next, so he held pads for me and made me move around in the dressing room. The pressure built while we were watched intensely by other fighters and trainers. As time was running out, I had my gloves taped on and checked. I felt all the familiar intense competing feelings, but this time they were pulled tight across me like the skin of a drum. My fight was about to be called. The pressure had reached boiling point. Now was the time.

Sensei, my cornermen and I all formed a line at the dressing room door. Sensei Benny stood directly in front of me, solid as a rock. As the crowd turned to look at us, he shielded me from view and talked to me in a low tone. His calm energy kept me relaxed — well, as relaxed as you can be at a time like that. Before he turned towards the crowd, Sensei reminded me that it was my time. I believed it was true. All doubt was shut out of my mind as I brought forward all my strongest feelings at full volume. I took the last precious moments for myself and turned to face the rear of the dressing room. I bounced on my toes and shook my body out. Andrew Berridge was behind me, so we were now eye to eye. In contrast to Sensei Benny’s calm, Andrew’s energy was intense. He was a great fighter and I knew he understood the specific place I went to in my mind. Andrew started talking hard at me, firing me up. ‘Go out there and show them all who you are.’ His strong words hit straight to my heart. I wasn’t sure if it was what he said or the firm way he said it. I wanted to go and show everyone outside who I was on the inside. In that instant I felt so much bigger than my small stature and stronger than my injured body. I locked onto that feeling and turned around. I put my hands on Sensei Benny’s shoulders as my walkout music started to loudlyplay. He moved forward and I moved with him. Suddenly we were walking out to the ring.

Once I was through the ropes, I shook my body out and looked over at my opponent Ashlee Pilgrim. She had a reputation for being hard as nails, but I wasn’t scared of her. I was excited as I paced back and forward, always watching her intensely. I had waited a long time for this and I just wanted them to let me at her. When the referee called us to the centre of the ring, Sensei Benny was right behind me. He stood just over my right shoulder and looked at my opponent almost as intensely as I did. We both just wanted to see what she was made of as a person. What was her energy like up close? Was she nervous? Would she show fear or aggression? I looked in her eyes to see if she knew who she was?

What I saw was a woman who had been here before and knew how to handle herself. She looked like a nice enough person, but she was clearly also ready for battle. I looked deep into her eyes and smiled at her. Not in a friendly way, but in a knowing way. On the outside it might have been mistaken for cockiness, but the feeling behind it was just that I was ready to go. I was just happy that we were both there and the night had finally arrived. I had spent months feeling like a giant rubber band was holding me back, always pulling at my shoulders while I strained against it. Now was finally the time when I got to let go and I couldn’t wait. We touched gloves to wish each other luck, then went back to our respective corners. I gave Sensei Benny what felt almost like a hug goodbye, then turned and let out a loud shout to fire myself up. I wiped my feet on the canvas to ground myself and started bouncing with my hands up in a ready position, waiting for the bell. I knew there were only a few seconds left before we would clash.

The bell sounded and I went at her like that rubber band I’d been straining against had just snapped. My strategy at the beginning of a bout was always to be first to fire. I quickly touched gloves with her and started by blasting a kick straight down the barrel at head level, followed by two punches and a leg kick. Then I circled and changed position so she couldn’t hit me back. I wanted her to be caught offguard from the first second of the fight, hoping she would be uncomfortable and start getting mentally captured.

I loved being a fast starter and it always got the crowd to be vocal from the outset, which increased the energy in the room. Sensei drew huge crowds the world over, so he viewed competition not just from the perspective of the combatants but also the fans and promoters. He knew that a good fighter was interesting to watch and became a crowd favourite. He taught me to ‘be worth looking at’. He gave me permission not just to perform, but to perform at my unashamed best in spectacular fashion. I loved dynamic techniques like spinning back kicks and superman punches because they were flashy and fun. When I launched myself at my opponent, the audience always knew I was there to fight and put on a show. I was always there to win. This was exactly the feeling I wanted my opponent to understand about me from the bell.

It was a fast and furious fight that was tough, and seemed to only get tougher. It quickly became apparent to me that Ashlee’s strategy was to clinch me and pull my head down into a knee. As the taller person, this was a smart move. I knew she was looking to knock me out, as I narrowly escaped her knee repeatedly rushing past my face. As soon as I got close enough, Ashlee would grab my head and pull down hard. By the second round my neck was out of place and painfully stiffening up, which affected my ability to resist as she drove it towards her knee. The middle rounds were a blur of frenzied attack, movement and increasingly tired arms from all the clinching.

I had hit my opponent with shots that I expected to knock her out, but she stayed standing. I half-wondered if she might be some type of zombie who just wouldn’t go down no matter what I did. I started to feel worried about how much gas I had left in the tank. As I sat down on the stool between rounds in a mini panic, I asked Sensei who was winning. He looked at me with mild disappointment and said, ‘Does it matter?’

Instantly I saw how I had lost perspective on what I was doing. The reason I was doing this wasn’t to win a bigger trophy than the other woman. I was here to share an experience and give my best, all because of this crazy life-long love for martial arts. I had to be fully present and enjoy the experience, instead of worrying about the future. That was what mattered more than the final outcome.

When the bell sounded to start the second last round, I was tired and knew the chances of me knocking her out were getting slimmer. Andrew Berridge and I had game-planned in training that if my opponent was still standing at this point, I might needto change strategy. I would use my push kick to keep her away from me throughout the round, so she couldn’t clinch.

Andrew reminded me of this and as the round started, my plan began working. Ashlee quickly became frustrated and tried even harder to get close to me, which only served to increase the impact of the straight kicks I was throwing as she rushed in. This gave me a much-needed chance to rest my weary arms and dictate the pace of the round. I knew I had to save my best effort for the last round. Last one, best one.

Sometime during the latter part of the fight, myopponent charged towards mewhile I threw a big punch andimmediately felt my right ringfinger snap in half inside myglove. It was a spiral fracture. Ihad the perfect excuse to giveup and get out of the ring if Iwanted to. Nobody would haveblamed me for pulling out withall the injuries I had coming in.Despite the pain, I just couldn’tdo it. I had come too far and thismeant too much to me. I didn’tshow what had happened on myface. Now I knew what all that training around pain was for—right this second when I was inagony but had learnt to hide itfrom my opponent. In my head,though, I was exasperatedly thinking, ‘Oh come on, this hasto happen now? Really?’ As if three sets of torn ligaments weren’t hard enough to handle in the lead-up to the bout, now I had to try to finish the fight with a broken bone in my glove. My focus shifted at that point to seeing if I could get to the end and be standing for the final bell. If I could make it that far without giving up, I hoped that at least I could be proud of myself for not quitting.

The final round started just like the first round, with meflying full speed across the ringat Ashlee, showing energetically that this was mine. Even thoughI was exhausted, I wanted her to think that I wasn’t. I had to fightlike I was fresh. I gave everythingI had until my arms were literallymoving in slow motion. I had her pinned in the corner but when I told my body to go, it looked like I was slapping her with limp lettuce leaves. This was all down to heart now, instead of cardio fitness. Sensing I was tiring, my opponent charged at me repeatedly, knowing this was her chance to win. As much as I wanted to stay still, I knew I had to move constantly. I had trained for a hard final round and I fought on with wobblylegs. Ashlee charged at me with all her might but I leant back into the ropes and let her run right into a straight kick to the body. Her momentum doubled her over my leg. As she stormed forward again trying everything she could to take me out, I moved at the last second and sent her crashing into the ropes. We were equally desperate to finish strong and pushed each other until the last bell sounded.

When the referee stepped in to stop the bout, we gave each other a tremendous hug. This had been a true test for each of us. I now knew things about this woman’s spirit and belief in herself that I could only see from my bird’s eye view of competing with her.

We had fought to the bitter end and knowing the fight was over came as the sweetest relief. There was a searing pain in my hand. Unfortunately, when my opponent took out her mouthguard after the fight, part of her front teeth went with it. No wonder I had broken my finger. It was a brutal fight where we both sustained damage, but Ashlee had very much won my respect. Without her, there was no way I could have experienced the depths of my own fear and found courage. I was so happy that I had found a way to believe in myself enough to even step into the ring that night.

The referee called us to centre ring to hear the judges’ decision on the bout. I hoped I had done enough to win but you just never know how the judges are going to see things. I bounced from side to side while waiting for the decision. I held my breath as they announced that I had won.I raised my hands and as Sensei Benny wrapped the title belt around my waist, it was one of the sweetest moments of my entire life. Not because I had achieved my goal, but because of what it took to reach it. I had taken what I thought of as being a hard challenge and multiplied it exponentially. I had been so scared to face all my fears that night, but I had quietly found the courage to do it.

Sensei Benny raised my hand to present me as the winner to the crowd and I had my very own Karate Kid moment. I could see all the people I cared about standing on their chairs and cheering for me. I was overjoyed to not have been seriously injured. The best part came when Sensei Benny looked at me and smiled, pride beaming from his face. All those years of learning hard lessons from him came down to this time in the ring, where everything else faded away and I saw that he was happy with my effort. He knew what it took to deal with pain and stare downyour own fear. Now I had the beginnings of the same.

That night was my second last fight, but that wasn’t the plan at the time. I would win another title in my next bout, this time in kickboxing. But all the while I had the strongest feeling in my gut that I’d had during that first Thai boxing championship fight. I just knew I needed to take the opportunity even though I was injured during the lead-up training. All I understood was that I had to do it right then, even though it may have seemed a little crazy and illogical to others. I didn’t know then that my whole life was leading to a day of reckoning that I could never have seen coming. A day where I would know what it truly meant to feel afraid. Terrified, even. That day came sooner than I could ever have imagined and tested me to the absolute depths of my courage.

For more info on Nadine Champion and her book, visit www.nadinechampion.com

Extract and images courtesy of Allen & Unwin


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