WATCH VIDEO: Boxers Ariane Nicholson and Michelle Nuku are used to sideways glances when people find out what they do with their evenings. And they won’t let others’ opinions define them – setting their sights on fighting at the next Commonwealth Games.
Ariane Nicholson’s reputation both in and out of the boxing ring is one she is intensely proud of.
It’s come through years of hard graft in her gym in Tauranga and standing toe-to-toe with a string of other women in boxing competitions up and down the country. Every accolade she’s achieved, she’s earned.
Quick hands, soft touch, precision and discipline.
These traits that make Nicholson a successful pugilist have also served her well in her vastly different career – as a hairdresser.
“One is making someone feel good, the other not so good,” Nicholson laughs.
Her clients – and opponents – are usually shocked to hear about the other side of her personality, and their questions are usually along the same lines.
“As a female and being a fighter, there are a lot of people who have two cents to add to it. They always talk about how they’re worried. ‘Are you not scared of your brain?’” Nicholson laughs. “Lots of people are quite against fighting overall.”
But Nicholson doesn’t see the way she spends her evenings and weekends as violent – “despite the fact we hit each other in the face”.
It’s the science of the sport that she thrives on, not hurting her opponent. Early in her career, Nicholson had to stop herself from apologising for landing shots that staggered the woman in the opposing corner.
She’s quickly got over that hurdle, and it’s seen her rise through the ranks in different weight classes for success at Golden Gloves and national championships.
Nicholson had her first taste of representing New Zealand in March, winning gold in the 69kg division at the Arafura Games in Darwin.
It lit a fire inside the 35-year-old, who’s now allowing herself to dream big.
“I love it,” she says of wearing the silver fern. “It makes my heart so full. I really just want to go as far as I can.
“My age kind of restricts me to a point, but it doesn’t stop me for sure.” The 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham are definitely in her sights.
Nicholson and TGA Box and Fitness team-mate Michelle Nuku, who won bronze in the 60kg division in her international debut in Darwin, were both relative latecomers to the sport, after finding their way there through the much-maligned path of corporate boxing.
Nuku admits it’s not an avenue she would have considered 10 years ago. But with the growing profile of women in sports that were once considered the domain of males, boxing’s gender balance is being challenged.
Much as there has been a surge in interest in women being recognised in rugby, sevens and league, Nuku has noticed a change in perception in her sport.
“Last year at nationals there were more females competing than there were males,” she says. “I think they’re just feeling empowered and inspired to give something a go that they can be in control of.”
But just because the shackles of stereotype have been broken – there are still plenty of judgments cast.
“When I first started, it was like ‘Woah, what are you doing?’” Nuku explains.
“But I’m actually a big softy on the outside, other than being in the ring. I don’t like to fight. Like they say I’m a lover not a fighter, but I’m a fighter at the same time.”
But for all the sideways looks and disappointed expressions, Nicholson and Nuku have discovered they’re helping others pluck up the courage to follow in their footsteps.
“I used see a girl down at the gym here, I would just watch her and be like ‘man, she’s so cool and I want to be like that one day’,” Nicholson says. “I guess I see people looking at me like that a little bit more now, which is mind-blowing. It’s just the weirdest feeling.”
If both can achieve their Commonwealth Games dream in three years’ time, these hard-working and hard-hitting women could leave an even greater legacy of inspiration.