Nicola Barke: “Something just made me laugh for like half a second and that was all the hope I needed.”
Nicola Barke suffered a false start to a new life. Barke quickly realised the life of a professional boxer will not always run in straight lines. In truth, it rarely does.
The troubled and uncertain times have travelled over to the world of boxing. Finding opponents is problematic, getting them to the ring even more so. Even Tom Cruise would struggle to make things possible in a sport that is rarely simple.
A planned debut fell by the wayside hours before the first bell. Kirstie Bavington filled the void, albeit in exhibition form. Despite the disappointment, it still served a purpose.
But last month, Barke finally got to play for real. Tereza Dvorakova the willing and valuable veteran lost on points to Barke and her new career was finally up and running. Over Zoom Barke told FightPost both exhibition and fight were valuable learning experiences:
“The exhibition was good and it felt like it happened for a reason, especially when I have had a kickboxing background. It’s such a different dynamic and of course, boxing is a lot more professional, so it was nice to experience how the nerves feel and to get a feel for it. It was just good to get out there after such a hard camp and you are working towards something. My preparations were exactly the same and it was good to have some reflections and think right this is what we need to work on.
“And for the fight itself, I thought it went quite well. There are obviously things to work on and I still feel like a bit of a white belt in boxing compared to kickboxing which is my bread and butter.”
After finally making the first tentative steps into the world of professional boxing, Barke was hoping to fight again before the year ends but she told FightPost her next fight has been delayed until next year:
“It was supposed to be in December but it has been pushed back to next year now.”
Boxing is now her immediate future, a new martial art to learn and conquer. She has been here before. A veteran of numerous combat sports, and ones with less restrictions in the way of weapons to use.
But her past was initially hard to leave behind. The early behind closed doors sparring sessions left her gym mates having to cope with a little more to deal with than just a few punches coming their way. Barke told me the early days had temptations to revert to type:
“Definitely with elbows, especially when people get close in the clinch. But the minute I put my shoes on I don’t feel as though I want to kick because I have always trained martial arts barefoot. So in a bizarre way, in my mind when I have shoes I know that is not the correct etiquette. So yeah it is mainly with elbows, it has been quite comical sparring, especially with the boys when it was all still quite fresh I think I landed a few too many elbows. In the end, I don’t think sorry was cutting it anymore.”
Like many in boxing Barke has to combine her training around a day job. But the Luton super-featherweight hopeful is luckier than most, a flexible employer, largely working from home, but spare time is still a luxury:
“I don’t have any spare time. I work full time for HSBC project managing. But they have been really good with me in terms of flexibility, as long as I get the job done. I have to go in the office one day a week so that ends up being my rest day.”
Many boxers have come from a dance background of some description. Barke is no exception. Most if not all of her youth was spent with ballet pumps on, but by her own admission and in her own words, she was useless, all those years and not a single trophy or medal to her name:
“I was absolutely shocking I couldn’t tell you what foot was right. I was a bit of a shy child and I felt I would disappoint my parents if I said that I hated ballet. I was literally terrible at it and it took me 16 years to build up the courage to tell them I didn’t like it. When I told them they just said what do you want to do, and I said really, that’s it. I just thought what a waste of 16 years, all that anticipation of fear that they would just blow their heads off with fury.“
Nothing in her background hinted at her future life:
“It was a bit of a mad switch probably more so because I was a bit of a wuss as a kid, if you stole my hairband I would just have cried and not even asked for it back. I think my parents probably didn’t think I’d stick at it, the moment I got punched in the face they must have thought I would choose swimming or something. But I ended up really enjoying it. I started out in Taekwondo and got a world title. I then moved over to kickboxing and got a British title and became the UK number one. And when I started doing Lethwei which is the Burmese bare-knuckle boxing which includes knees, elbows, headbutts then they said ok we are not 100% sure we support it. It’s a very strange dream and they asked are you sure that’s what you want to do.
When she found the bravery from within to end her ballet life, Barke could have chosen many a different road. A move into the world of combat sports was a million miles away from the past. With no natural dancing ability, a move to a new dangerous world would seem improbable, stupid even:
“My logic was if I was bad at ballet, I would choose the complete opposite sport then that is my gift, that was literally going through my head. If I was no good at ballet then no problem I would be good at something else. I could have chosen something much safer but there we go.”
Barke has found success at every juncture in her life of trading punches, elbows, kicks and headbutts, but it was an injury in sparring which prompted the switch, albeit by accident, to boxing:
“I actually had a knee injury after my last Lethwei fight. I was sparring at the gym and someone went to sweep me but they trod on my foot and it tore my knee out of the socket. I tore my ACL, MCL and my hamstring, so I was in a knee brace for ages and I couldn’t do any kicking at all. So I started training with one of the professional boxers who lived in Luton. We started doing pads together, we were not doing any footwork at all, just because it was something to do. From there I went to the local boxing gym and I just felt at home, and they said we can turn you over to boxing if that’s what you want to do. I just fell in love with another martial arts.”
Life has taken many twists and turns for Barke. A sleeping disorder in her early years hampered many things, until her new life seemed to miraculously resolve the problem:
“I had narcolepsy really badly as a kid, we could be in the middle of a conversation and I could just fall asleep and I would be out for about 4 or 5 hours. If I was walking home from school, which I wasn’t allowed to do, I would fall asleep in a bush for 4 hours and wake up and think where am I. But it was quite comical as a kid growing up, I was oblivious, I didn’t realise nobody else did it. I used to tie my ponytail to the back of the chair while I was eating so I wouldn’t fall asleep in my food. But martial arts seem to help and I got fewer and fewer episodes. By the time I was 21 I didn’t have any narcolepsy episodes anymore.”
There is a documentary on Barke in the works and will cover a distressing part of her life:
“It is covering my story from moving to boxing from Lethwei. But in the middle of that, I had a life-threatening car crash in 2020. We were coming down on the dual carriageway and it was super icy, a car had already come off the road. We skidded and spun and hit the car that had already come off the dual carriageway and they went flying and hit a tree, we then flipped and went headlong into a tree. I smashed all my face, lacerations from the seat belt, internal bruising and bleeding. I literally couldn’t get out of bed, I couldn’t even sit up for a month. I just went into absolute shock, I just didn’t want to do anything, I thought what’s the point.
“I suffered from PTSD from the effects of the car crash. Then my grandad passed away who basically brought me and my sister up as kids. Looking back now the leg injury probably ended my kickboxing career, but having gone through the PTSD and the mental trauma it made the injury so much more manageable because I was in such a dark place. I’m usually so optimistic, happy, I’m usually full of life and enthusiasm and I didn’t really have an appreciation for mental health and depression until I was there. It was hard to ask for help because unless you have been there you wouldn’t know and I was that person who would say just put a smile on your face. But it just feels like a mask and it is just making it worse. Even with all the physical injuries, by far the worse thing was the mental side of it.”
The inner darkness can be deep and long-lasting, often much darker than even the person suffering even realises. Recovery is slow, acceptance of the problem is the first turn on the road to the normal that many take for granted. Even talking about the past you can visibly see Barke fighting back the emotions, but the fighter in her has won perhaps her biggest battle.
Even over Zoom Barke now radiates happiness, the bubbly nature oozes that Barke is back where she needs to be. It was one little moment, a split-second that changed everything:
“Something just made me laugh for like half a second and that was all the hope I needed.”
When you have been through the inner turmoil, that internal suffering where there is seemingly no escape, there is a greater appreciation of life itself:
“Now I just feel far more grateful. I’m so much happier with the little things in life. I make an effort to make sure I don’t get stuck in any ruts, I know what to do to put a smile on my face. I’m now the positive bundle of energy I was before.”
The last few years have seen change coupled with much hurt and pain. But in many ways, Barke is one of the lucky ones. Many would have crumbled with what she has been through. But the past is now exactly where it should be and Barke can look forward with much hope. Her life has changed multiple times in her 28 years, boxing is now her focus.
Barke has achieved much success in previous steps into the world of martial arts, and she now wants to replicate that in boxing. There are no bold promises about world titles, it is just about seeing where the latest journey takes her, past glories indicates it could be far.