Nick “The Punisher” Phillips is a kickboxing Cinderella. Hailing from a small town in the Midwest, he was an improbable victor. Nick was coming up in area without lots of training opportunities—there wasn’t a karate school in every town, a row of MMA magazines, or former champs giving seminars down the street. Nick had to make the most of his surroundings. He entered a karate school, learning that, as a novice, he could compete with people who had been training for years. Nick would join the army, meeting numerous black belts that would teach and encourage him. The army built an unbreakable confidence. Nick returned home, building his own equipment and ready to fight. He didn’t have the backing of big money, the fancy equipment, the legendary trainers, or any of the opportunities that his competition would have. Instead, Nick took what he had available, creating a self-made champion. During his kickboxing career, he would win the K.I.C.K Intercontinental Championship, fight on USA Tuesday Night Fights, and destroy Butterbean at Madison Square Garden. Nick retired, but he wasn’t finished. Dale “Apollo” Cook convinced Nick to return and fight in the XFL. Age was no obstacle as Nick won the XFL title, beating guys half his age. Nick rose above every challenge he faced, whether it was location, money, or age. He is the living, breathing definition of a champion.
Chris: What got you interested in martial arts?
Nick: I always pretended I knew Karate, even when I didn’t. I always had natural kicks. At 14, I could throw a kick over my head. I used to watch Star Trek. Seeing Kirk throw kicks was probably exposure. Robert Conrad in Wild, Wild West used to do some martial arts. I watched those two shows and pretended like I knew Karate, kicking trees and stuff. I didn’t have any knowledge. When I was 17, I heard about somebody having a school. My parents wouldn’t let me do it. I got frustrated. My friends and I would play boxing. I would throw kicks with them and they were always, “Wow!” I’d throw kicks over their heads; it was just natural. I thought, “I want to be in a school.” An acquaintance had a laserdisc of Enter the Dragon. I watched it one night after the skating rink closed. From that day forward, I was hooked. I had never seen Bruce Lee. You always heard about him, but back then it wasn’t on cable.
Chris: From the point of getting hooked, how did you go about getting started?
Nick: I heard of a school in Parsons, Kansas. I walked up and paid my own dues since my folks wouldn’t let me. I started that in June of 1982. It just all took off from there. As soon as I walked into the class, I was better than any green or brown belts from day thirty. I was lucky and gifted.
Chris: Your parents wouldn’t let you?
Nick: That wasn’t there thing to have their kid doing Karate.
Chris: At what point was it acceptable?
Nick: I paid for it myself so they had to accept it. I still give my mom grief to this day that if she would have been in with my then, I could have been a household name. I was in the 6th or 7th grade when I heard about this school. Martial arts wasn’t big then. There weren’t many schools to choose from. This teacher was a police officer, teaching a self defense class.
Chris: You were at the finals in 1982.
Nick: I participated. I was a white belt. I got second place in fighting and third place in forms. I had only been training for three months.
Chris: Three months and you’re already at an event with Cynthia Rothrock and Chuck Norris.
Nick: The West Coast Demo Team. A lot of the top fighters from the United States were at this event. It was in Oklahoma City. It was a huge event.
Chris: At what point did you go from the school to your own training?
Nick: I got my green belt and then enlisted in the military. I was gone for three years. While there, I met other martial artists. I met lots of black belts. Even though I only had a green belt, my athleticism and gift was beyond that. These guys with black belts would tell me, “You’re special. There’s something about you. You need to pursue this after the military.” I came back from the army and it just took off from there. It was for me. I still have the hips of a girl; I can throw kicks way over my head. It’s just a gift that was given to me.
Chris: You get back from the military and you return to the school. There’s a point where you designed your own training methods. What are some examples? Did you take anything from the military and integrate it into your program?
Nick: I met a lot of kung fu guys that made some of the crescent kicks and others. Tae Kwon Do is a lot of kicks but when I met some of the kung fu guys, they helped me create a better aerial spinning kick. Then, I met guys that box, which made my hands better. A lot of schools struggled with me because I had great hands to go with my feet. Also, most big guys aren’t fluid in their hips like I am. That’s what separated me once I started fighting professionally. I had a lot of speed in the superheavyweight division. One promoter told me, “You have the speed of a middleweight in the frame of a superheavyweight.” He didn’t have to say that—I knocked out two of his number one fighters. I didn’t have a trainer or promoter at the time. It was probably a hard pill for him to swallow. Eventually, he became my manager and promoter.
Chris: Describe your training process at that point.
Nick: I did a lot of sparring. I worked on my hands a lot. I ran and lifted weights a lot. I tried to alter my body because I weighed around 217, so I wasn’t small enough to fight in that cruiserweight division but I wasn’t a true superheavyweight. I could never shrink down and stay below 205. I had to make a choice; If I’m going to stay in the big boy division, I had to alter my body so I could take the punishment, yet keep my athleticism.
Chris: You had to create your own equipment, right?
Nick: Yes. I couldn’t afford a lot of the equipment when I was a novice. I bought a Century bag for $39. I stuffed it myself. I tore it apart. I taught myself how to do uppercuts and body punches by taking a weightlifting belt, pulling this Century bag in half and then it collapsed on top. You could throw an uppercut on it because it leaned over. It was the ugliest looking thing but it worked. It was very effective for the technique I was trying to learn. I always had to build stuff. I would trade stuff when I needed to. I had a cooking timer to gauge the length of my rounds. Now, I have an electronic timer in my gym. Now they have them with rest periods, breaks, and intervals. Technology is so much better for fighters.
Chris: Tell me about your experiences with the championships. You’re going from the small town guy to being a champion.
Nick: It all started in tough man contest, but they don’t allow you to kick. A couple of my friends asked me if I wanted to fight in them. I entered three or four tough man contests. I felt like I was restricted because I’m only using 50% of my capabilities. I was heavy handed and a fast striker, but I felt like I wasn’t using my full potential. I was at a tournament in Oklahoma. I knew a guy there had put on pro fights, so I said to him, “If you ever need a heavyweight, give me a call. I would like to see how I would fare.” He called me 3 or 4 months later. He offered $200 to fight Lowell Nash, which was the 5th rated Cruiser Weight in the world. I had just returned from the Gulf War. I was about 203 pounds then, outweighing him by a few pounds. They picked me as a victim. He had dropped Dennis Alexio in Denver. The rumor I heard was that his camp was trying to get him to throw kicks but dropped him with a right hand. They were saying, “Kick! Kick!” He ended up getting knocked out the next round by Alexio, but Alexio made a statement that he didn’t know who won the fight when he got back to the hotel. Alexio was still noodle from Lowell’s punch. I fought Lowell for five rounds. I had him hurt in the fourth round, but I didn’t have the ring savvy. I was punching too close. I didn’t take that extra step back to make improve my punches. I was crowding myself. He won the decision, but I had him hurt. It was a great fight. I had never done anything like that. I’ve been in two fights with him. I fought a lot of heavyweights, but he’s still the biggest punch I’ve ever taken. I still remember them. He could hit. I knocked him out the second time. I hurt him bad. I watched him slide across the ring. He landed on his chest. They threw in the towel for him because he was that hurt.
Chris: Did the success of this fight inspire you to continue.
Nick: It was hard to swallow because I had never lost before. I had been winning in a lot of tournaments. You don’t want to lose on the stage with the lights on you. When you tell people you’re 0-1, that’s hard to take. In my next fight, I got the record in Oklahoma for one of the fastest knockouts–it was 19 seconds. That victory made things more even. I got the bad taste out of my mouth. I really feel that I could have won that first fight if I would have had any training whatsoever. I had no instructions for boxing; I was just fortunate to have great hands. I didn’t learn a hook until I saw it on film. I learned trial by fire.
Chris: Were you doing more one off fights or tournaments?
Nick: I was doing more tournaments at that time. I got paid for that first fight, so I couldn’t fight as an amateur ever again by law. My only amateur background was tough man contests. I couldn’t go backwards. I got five or six victories and then I got to fight for the Intercontinental Superheavyweight title. I was picked as a victim again. I was supposed to lose. I was fighting a guy who was 25-3. I was 4-1. This guy said I wouldn’t take the fight, which just made me angry. I told him, “Not only will I take the fight, but you need to stop eating at those all-you-can-eat buffets.” I knocked him out in the seventh round. I had him beat in the sixth, but they tried to call a timeout. I had never heard of that before. There was a lot of political stuff because they didn’t want that belt to leave the town.
I didn’t just go in there, slugging on him in the seventh round. I did a triple jab, keeping him away. I landed a left hook and, click, it was over.
Chris: I have to ask for the Butterbean story.
Nick: That’s the one thing a lot of people want to talk about. They aren’t as excited about winning two world titles as they are the Butterbean fight. It’s nice that a lot of people feel I won that fight. If I had been cut like he was, they would have stopped the fight. Since he’s got big money backing him, they let the fight continue. We tried to get a rematch for over a year. I took the fight with him on three and a half day’s notice. I twisted my ankle in the fight before and probably shouldn’t have fought. It was good money, a tv fight, and in Madison Square Garden. I wasn’t worried about him being bigger than me; I’ve been in the ring with bigger guys. It was cool to be in that situation, even though I would’ve loved to have six weeks to prep. Six weeks and I would have killed him. There’s a left hook in the second round that I would love to land. That left hook was so short and sweet, but I missed him by that much. I watch the tape all the time, thinking about that left hook that missed by centimeters. Still, it took 22 stitches to fix him. Butterbean went to the hospital, while I went to the club. I didn’t have a mark on me.
Chris: How about the XFL MMA?
Nick: It was out of Dale “Apollo” Cook’s studio. I had been retired eight years. I judge fights sometimes. Dale Cook made an attempt to sit by me at some fights. When he set down, he introduced himself even though I knew who he was. He knew a lot about me. Dale asked me if I wanted to fight again, even though I was in my forties. I said, “I’m 44.” He didn’t think I was that old. We exchanged contact information. I had been working with quarterback Shaun Hill. Cook is putting on some fights at a casino. Shaun asked me if I could tickets to the fight. I called Cook and he gets ten seats for Shaun. We go and, as we’re watching, Shaun turns to me and says, “There’s no heavyweight here that scares me. You could do this.” I had been retired eight years. Those heavyweights didn’t scare me either. I started training with some schools to learn the MMA side. I wasn’t worried about the stand up part—that was going to be easy. I wanted to get some fundamentals on the ground game. I ended up choking out people. I’d hit them, put them on the ground, and then I’d choke them out. It was pretty easy for me. I ended up winning the XFL title. A couple of fights were postponed and moved around. I turned 45. Now I had two belts and I thought, “You know what? I think I’m done. They can’t take these two belts from me.” I was competing against guys in their twenties. I wasn’t as hungry as I used to be. There was a point where I would rather die than lose. Now, I’m not that guy. These young guys are what I used to be. It just wasn’t fun anymore.
Chris: What advice would you give someone starting out?
Nick: Have ten to fifteen amateur fights, a good coach, and a good school. Move to where you need to be. Don’t stay in the Midwest like I did. There are lots of great schools everywhere now. Commit to it. Don’t start a family or a career. Make a career in fighting and move on from there. Invest your money wisely, so you can have something besides the posters and bruises leftover when you’re done. Get yourself a good camp. You need a good boxing person. Find someone who’s good with standup, cardio, and MMA. Build a perfect school around you.
Nick runs his own business in Oswego, Kansas. He is currently training a future generation of fighters