Even though Michelle Nicolini is one of the most accomplished grapplers in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, she had to battle against prejudice to have her incredible skill recognized in her homeland.
The 37-year-old – who faces “Unstoppable” Angela Lee at ONE: MASTERS OF DESTINY this Friday, 12 July in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – had to break boundaries and shatter perceptions before she got the praise she deserved.
Now, the Brazilian is deservedly regarded as an icon of her sport, and has gone on to become a highly-regarded strawweight mixed martial arts contender in ONE Championship.
Before she enters the ring to try and score the biggest win of her career in The Home Of Martial Arts and move toward a World Title shot, she explains how she discovered her passion for BJJ and became such an inspirational figure around the world.
Sport Over Studies
Nicolini was born and raised in the city of Itu in the state of Sao Paulo.
In comparison to the densely-populated state capital that is home to more than 12 million people, her hometown was quiet, and she enjoyed a very happy childhood growing up with her parents and two siblings.
“I grew up and lived there until I was 26 years old,” Nicolini says.
“My childhood and my family was very nice. I lived in a small city – nothing crazy-dangerous. I used to play outside my house all the time. [I was a] happy and healthy kid.”
Even as a small child, Nicolini was always interested in a multitude of sports.
However, her parents put a big focus on education, so she had to earn good grades to stay involved with her favorite activities.
“Since I was kid, I always liked to do sports outside – volleyball, football, cycling,” Nicolini says.
“I think my grades at school were OK – I was never the best student. So when I didn’t do good on my tests, my mom used to punish me by taking me out of sports.”
A Perfect Outlet
Though Nicolini’s academic performance might not have been outstanding, she stayed out of trouble at school, but she was constantly battling with her siblings at home.
After several physical altercations between them, Nicolini’s parents decided to enroll her in a martial arts class to give her an outlet for her aggression.
“My sisters are very calm, but I used to chase them a lot. I liked to fight them,” Nicolini reveals.
“My parents were not happy, of course. We started to look for something I could train, and we found capoeira.”
The Brazilian discipline combines elements of dance, acrobatics, and martial arts, and Nicolini fell in love with it almost immediately. Sadly, four years after she started, her instructor moved away.
Because she did not have the same connection with the other coaches at her academy, she decided to try her hand at Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu instead.
“I lost the interest in Capoeira,” Nicolini explains.
“I was 17. I was looking for another martial art, and I was thinking of judo until the day a friend who was already training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu told me about it.
“He encouraged me to give it a try, and since that first class, I have never stopped.”
Fighting for Acceptance
BJJ has become a global phenomenon, as people take up the discipline to compete, for self-defense, or just for fun and to improve their fitness and confidence
However, Nicolini says that was not the case in her hometown when she first started practicing “the gentle art” because of its association with bad things that were happening around her city.
“Back in the day, jiu-jitsu was never seen with good eyes,” Nicolini says.
“If people used to fight outside, they used to show on TV, ‘Jiu-jitsu players got into a street fight and got arrested.’ Stuff like that was common.”
As if that was not enough, Nicolini battled against the misconception that the sport was for men and women should not be involved.
“To change this bad impression about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was hard for the guys, so just imagine what it was like for us girls,” she adds.
“Everybody looked at me like, ‘Oh you do Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, this is so violent,’ or, ‘This is for guys, right?’ I think it took women many long years to change this mentality for people.”
It was a difficult obstacle for Nicolini to overcome, but with plenty of time and patience, the people of Brazil began looking at BJJ in a different light.
When the strawweight competitor earned her black belt and went on to win eight World Titles, as well as a glut of other accolades, she became as respected as any other woman to ever pull on the gi.
In 2011, Nicolini transitioned over to mixed martial arts, where she knew she would have a tough road ahead of her.
She had to learn new skills from many different disciplines – quickly – to survive, but unlike most newcomers to the sport, she had a giant target painted on her back because of her achievements in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Despite that, she has shown how well she has adapted her skills for competition in 4-ounce gloves with a 100-percent submission rate in her five wins – including three in ONE.
She has spent some time as a member of the Evolve team in Singapore, but she has now moved back to her homeland to train with another BJJ specialist who found success in mixed martial arts to take her game to a new level.
“I love the way I am still learning,” Nicolini says.“I moved back to Brazil, and I went to the best place I could go, Vila da Luta by Demian Maia. Since then, everything makes more sense to me.”
Now better equipped than ever, the 37-year-old will face her toughest test on the global stage to date where a win could put her in line for a shot at the ONE Strawweight World Title.
“I’m very happy about the fight – I think we’re going to put on a show – we both are, I’m sure,” Nicolini adds.
“She also has a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt. I don’t know what she’s going to bring to the fight, but I’m ready for all situations.”