Bo Nickal has the genetics and the amateur background, but now must prove himself in MMA
LAS VEGAS — Sandy Nickal isn't quite sure of the exact days of the week, but she remembers for sure what she was doing the evening before her only son, Bo Nickal, was born in 1996. One night, Sandy Nickal was on the sidelines coaching a basketball game. The next day, she was in the hospital delivering Bo.
"I actually coached a basketball game on I think what was a Friday night," she said. "And then he was born on Saturday. But I know that it was coaching one night and he was born the next. Maybe I was coaching Saturday and Bo was born on Sunday.
"But on the way home, we stopped at the wrestling room."
Bo Nickal was born on Jan. 14, 1996, which was a Sunday. And by a day or so later, he made his debut on the wrestling mats.
On Saturday, he'll make another, more highly anticipated debut. He'll face Jamie Pickett (13-8) at middleweight in the main card opener of UFC 285 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. He's one of the greatest MMA prospects in the sport's 30-year history and is so highly regarded after just three fights — two of which were first-round finishes on "Dana White's Contender Series"— that he's a -1600 favorite at BetMGM to win his UFC debut on Saturday.
Not only was he essentially born into combat sports, but he comes from an entire family of athletes. His grandfather wrestled at the University of North Carolina and later became a wrestling coach. His father, Jason, played college football and became a wrestling coach. His mother, Sandy, played college basketball, did some amateur boxing, and trained at Jackson's MMA (now JacksonWink) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with the thought of taking some MMA fights.
Bo's sisters, Jordan, 25; Lexi, 23; and Shelby, 19; were all athletes. Jordan Nickal played basketball, volleyball and softball in high school and rowed for a semester in college. Lexi ran cross country and played soccer in high school, and she played soccer at the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Kentucky. Shelby played soccer, basketball and football in high school and is a soccer player at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana.
In addition, Bo's wife, Maddie Holmberg, was a three-time first-team track and field All-American at Penn State.
"We kind of always had something going on," Bo said, laughing.
His ties to the fight game were even deeper. When the family lived in Albuquerque — it had moved all over the West and Southwest — a neighbor who was a police officer asked Sandy if she would take a fight in the city's annual Police versus Firefighters boxing matches, dubbed colloquially "Guns versus Hoses."
There was a female police officer who had won her fight in the annual event several years in a row. The officer was trained by former UFC champion Holly Holm, who is a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Sandy Nickal was asked to compete for the firefighters.
"It sounded like fun and I scrapped and stuff when I was a kid," she told Yahoo Sports. "I always enjoyed fighting and stuff like that, but this was more of a sport thing. It wasn't in the street, so it was a little bit different. So I trained for a month, maybe a month-and-a-half. I ended up winning and having a blast and from there, those coaches asked me to do some amateur fights. I got about five amateur fights in and I just loved it."
Bo was destined to be a fighter, and he knew even as he was dominating collegiate wrestling and eyeing a spot on the U.S. Olympic wrestling team that he'd one day transition into MMA.
Nickal turned pro as an MMA fighter on June 3, 2022, on a show promoted by UFC star Jorge Masvidal. Nickal defeated John Noland in 33 seconds. That got him an invite to DWCS, and he won his first fight there on Aug. 9, 2022, at 1:02 of the first by submitting Zachary Borrego with a rear naked choke.
Nickal looked brilliant, and UFC president Dana White conceded there was little more he could have done. He wanted Nickal to have more experience so he didn't give him a contract. He brought Nickal back for a second fight in the series and Nickal submitted Donovan Beard with a triangle choke 52 seconds into it.
That earned Nickal his UFC contract and led him to his fight on Saturday. He's received as much hype as any UFC newcomer ever has and said that while there are nerves, they motivate him to perform better.
But unlike Bo Jackson, one of the greatest athletes of this or any generation who played both Major League Baseball and in the NFL at an all-star level, Nickal isn't so certain he is a natural.
"I don't really feel I'm exceptionally special in any way, necessarily," Nickal said. "I have a really good team around me; a lot of people I trust and a lot of people who know what they're talking about."
If that were the only answer, everyone would hire the best coaches, trainers and managers and no one would lose.
It's more than that. White said he writes notes on the bout sheet at the DWCS shows so he remembers what each fighter did. When Nickal defeated Beard, White needed only two words: "Holy f***" White wrote.
He believed that Nickal has a chance to be special. Nickal is already talking about fighting the likes of Khamzat Chimaev, who is quickly becoming a boogeyman at both 170 and 185 pounds. Nickal, though, is eager for the fight.
"What's he going to do?" Nickal asked. "Take me down?"
The pressure is on his shoulders to perform given his spot on such a star-studded card and with all the attention he's gotten.
When he was a young boy, the family moved a lot and he had to prove himself over and over. He wrestled in Wyoming and started to develop a reputation and feel good about himself. And just as that happened, the family moved to New Mexico.
"Bo got to the top when he was in fifth grade, and that was right before we moved from Wyoming to New Mexico," Sandy Nickal said. "He was really starting to get some recognition about who he was because he was pretty dominant at that time. He was getting some confidence and then we moved down to New Mexico and he had to prove himself all over again. There was nobody who was like him. He was this skinny little white kid. Nobody respected him. He didn't look like this super-strong tough kid. He looked like a goofy little somebody that nobody would be scared of.
"It wasn't that his confidence was low, but he had to start at the bottom and prove himself. And that was really helpful to him and kind of shaped him."
He's no longer a goofy little somebody, depending on one's perspective. But he has a chance to be a real somebody in the UFC and it starts on Saturday against Pickett.
"I've been through a lot and one of the things I've learned when dealing with pressure and being in a big moment, the bigger the deal, the bigger the moment, the better I perform," he said. "And that's what I'm looking forward to doing [Saturday]."