She’s been a top track athlete, rower and a world combat sport champion. Now Genah Fabian is putting her heart and firepower into a boxing debut.
Major injuries and a serious car crash. Following her heart over head. And leaving behind everything she knew.
It’s all led Genah Fabian to where she is now.
The combat sport specialist and former Muay Thai world champion is preparing for her boxing debut against New Zealand champion boxer Ariane Nicholson on Friday.
But it could’ve been a completely different path for the former international track and field athlete, who was also working her way through a career in the media industry. Small, but significant, moments have kept changing the course of her life.
The first time was as a young track star in Auckland. Fabian has always been drawn to competition and sport. Her chosen code growing up, from six until 19, was track. But after suffering a major hamstring injury, she stopped participating in sport for a couple of years.
“I think mentally it was hard to come back from that. I pulled away from the sport eventually after trying to come back from injury,” says Fabian, who had already travelled the world for 100m, 200m and triple jump events including the Pan Pacific Games and Junior Olympics.
At 19, she moved to Sydney and was working at media organisation News Limited, after finishing up in a sales and marketing role at Fairfax in New Zealand.
It didn’t take long for Fabian to draw attention when she went to work out at the local rowing club. Her athletic skills were recognised and she was invited to join a crew. “I just decided to go with that. I met some really cool people and learnt a totally new sport and discipline. And that spark came back again,” she says.
“With the training, the lifestyle and the travel it allowed me to do, I realised that’s when I was my best self. That sparked the fire I always had in me to pursue those kinds of endeavours.”
She would compete in rowing for a couple of years before another moment would knock Fabian down. In 2011, the young Māori-Samoan-German athlete was involved in a serious car accident which left her home bound for about three months in Sydney.
“I got really down and depressed on myself, feeling something like that for the first time,” recalls Fabian. But then a friend told her about going to a muay thai training camp in Thailand: “And I was all for it.”
So Fabian and her friend saved up to go try it out, but she didn’t know what to expect. “I was all for a training holiday, venturing to a new country and seeing a new side of the world. But muay thai changed all of that,” she says.
“I got deeper into the training and loved the skill I was developing, and learning the art of it. A big thing is the environment and the people around you and I just remember at that time, having such a great vibe from people, trainers and coaches. It just further sparked that want and that fire in me to get better. And to pursue this fully.”
What started as a refreshing getaway in Thailand, led to winning the Women’s Muay Thai Council (WMC) world title in 2018 and then on to careers in both kickboxing and mixed martial arts (MMA).
Now, Fabian’s journey has almost come full circle. Originally based out of City Kickboxing in Auckland – before travelling and living around the world competing across combat sport codes and weight divisions in Australia, Thailand and the United States – she’s returned to the gym, home to UFC middleweight world champ Israel Adesanya (below). “There’s no other gym in the world quite like ours,” she says.
As well as her boxing debut, Fabian is preparing for her second season in the Professional Fighters League, a global MMA competition that has $1m in prizemoney for each division winner.
Fabian will fight American Laura Sanchez in her first of two round-robin matches in early May, with the fights broadcast on ESPN. Her record in the PFL stands at 2-1.
(Fellow Samoan and kickboxing and Muay Thai legend Ray Sefo is the PFL president).
“There are some that obviously have all [disciplines] under the one umbrella, but the pool of coaches and the quality and growth of our fight team… we’ve got such great depth and we’re really grateful for the stable quality specialists and the level of work [at City Kickboxing],” Fabian says.
“I’m just lucky to be at one place and not have to look outside for other specialists. We’ve got so much talent. And such amazing coaches that all have their hands in our development in certain areas of strength and weakness. So we can really go between all of them.”
One of those coaches and the mastermind behind Fabian’s boxing preparation is Olympic boxer and kickboxing champion Doug Viney.
She started working on boxing exclusively for a period last year. “I didn’t realise at that time how much of an appreciation and love for the sport of boxing that I’d developed. I really do have such a deeper appreciation for the science of boxing just by doing it first-hand and also getting in with our boxing team specifically and working with them,” she says.
It was challenging at first because it’s a different code, energy system and skillset to learn, says Fabian. “But it’s been great for my growth. Not just skill-wise and physically but mentally as well. It’s built a lot more resilience in me and my game.
“I’ve got big goals and aspirations in the sport of boxing. Once I get some time to sink my teeth into that I definitely want to box more after my PFL season. And fight a lot of the girls here in New Zealand and kind of build my way up for sure.”
Nicholson is her first challenge. A Tauranga hairdresser by day, this will be Nicholson’s second professional boxing fight. She has a solid amateur record including national titles, after coming into the sport seven years ago through the corporate boxing route.
“I just randomly signed up to one of those and fell in love with it and I’ve been boxing ever since,” says Nicholson, who won gold for New Zealand in the 69kg weight class at the Arafura Games in 2019, and silver and gold at Golden Gloves events throughout her career. She also opened her professional record with a win against Uesa Opetaia late last year.
Pro boxing is quite a different scene and a slightly different style, so Nicholson just wants to fight and see what she can achieve in the sport.
“I want to get as many fights as I can,” she says. “And hopefully the world opens up and we can go for some bigger, better things around the world. We’ll see what happens.”
For now, she’s excited for the match-up with Fabian. “I’m looking forward to it. I’ve been training really hard so I’m just ready to get in the ring and get to work,” Nicholson says.
“You could say there’s possibly that advantage, me being a boxer and her not. But on the other hand, she does have quite a lot of ring experience so it’s not like she’s a newbie coming into the ring.”
Nicholson’s goal of getting into a ring at the Tokyo Olympics was cut short because of Covid-19 disrupting the qualifying tournaments. David Nyika is New Zealand’s only confirmed boxing representative at the Games. No female boxers were given a spot.
But Nicholson already has more fights lined up this year; the next in April. “I will have a little bit of a rest for a few days and then get back into training because it’s part of my lifestyle so I can’t not train,” she says.
Fabian is also feeling good about the upcoming fight against Nicholson. They were meant to meet each other on an earlier boxing card, but their match-up was rescheduled.
“The workload has been a lot and going between the two [boxing and the PFL fight] requires a 100 percent effort,” says Fabian. “But there was no hesitation in me taking it because I want to get in there and exercise all these skills that I’ve been working so hard on over the last year. This will be a great first test for me.
“I’m super fit right now and I feel great. I’ve been counting down to this week.”
If the stars align sometime down the track, Fabian would also be keen to come up against American Claressa Shields, the first boxer in history to hold all four major world titles in two weight classes, who has also crossed codes and signed with the PFL.
“Absolutely in the future,” Fabian says. “But I’m really realistic in terms of what her skillset is in boxing and I must earn that first. I hope to see her in the MMA cage and then who knows? My mindset and my goal is not to do this to participate. It’s to be the best.”
Once Fabian has achieved what she wants in sport, she would be interested in getting back into media. “That was where I was going and what I wanted to do, post track,” she says. “I love peoples’ stories and more than their achievements and experiences, I’m intrigued with their backgrounds and how people develop and get to those points,” she says. “I’d definitely love to explore more within the fighting or sporting world.”
But that trip to Thailand changed her whole world. “The feeling was so deep and the love for what I experienced at that time just called me to be over there [in Thailand], it was a very big moment decision.
“Had I been a little bit wiser to the world or had preconceived ideas, I might’ve been more hesitant to it. But I really did follow my heart in that moment. It’s the best decision, I don’t regret it at all.”
* Also on Friday night’s card, Mea Motu will also fight Tania Reid for the New Zealand lightweight title.