October 4, 2016, published in the Orange County Register
Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop.
A man in the corner punishes a punching bag. Another takes swings at air as if it robbed him of something.
Then there’s 16-year-old Nickie Eustace, a junior at Western High School, the youngest fighter that Thursday night at former MMA veteran John De La O’s Jiu Jitsu Training Center in Stanton.
Eustace, dressed in all black and beat-up Nikes, with the top half of his hair in a short ponytail and the bottom half shaved, warms up in the boxing ring.
He’s earned dozen of medals in mixed martial arts, wrestling, boxing, Pankration (a combination of wrestling and boxing) and jiu jitsu.
This night he’ll train by fighting a 17-year-old and a 32-year-old for two-minute increments.
Within seconds Eustace tackles his first opponent.
Eustace, who is set to represent Team USA in Eboli, Italy at the seventh World Pankration Championship in November, shuts down his second opponent.
“The boys like to call it, ‘manstrength,’” De La O said. “He’s a formidable force in that room.”
Ever since he was 5 years old, Eustace said he’s hungered to be a UFC fighter. By 9, he was competing at the state level.
Now, he competes at the national and international levels. Last week he was at the World Pankration Championship in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.
The three-time California Pankration champion and four-time National Pankration champion represented the United States in 2015 at the World Pankration Championship hosted in Turkey. Then 15 and the youngest competitor, he fought in the upper division with about 350 athletes from 20 countries, winning the gold medal as the Best Spirit Sport Athlete.
Eustace said he never cared who he was up against. When he was 11 and 120 pounds, he faced a 165-pound boy at the National Pankration Championships in Las Vegas.
“No way,” Eustace’s mother, Ana, had said. “My son is not going to fight this kid. Forget it.”
Eustace begged. Mom conceded. Eustace won.
The next year, he faced the same boy, who had grown to 195 pounds. Eustace had added five pounds. He still won again.
“I never doubt that he’ll give it his all,” said Kano Pamplona, who also trains at De La O’s dojo. “He’s constantly training.”
Eustace wakes up at 5:15 most mornings for ROTC training. He makes breakfast for himself: eggs, some form of protein, fruit. He goes to school, then wrestling practice for Western and then MMA training with De La O or with another MMA vet, Michael “Joker” Guymon, at Guymon’s Grapplers Studio in Laguna Hills. Then he finishes his homework.
When he is training, Eustace said he doesn’t have to think about pain, about his father’s condition – which has hit him harder than any blow in the ring.
Over the past year, his father, Michael, has suffered two strokes, a heart attack and triple bypass. He is paralyzed on the right side.
All his life, he never missed any of his five kids’ concerts or competitions, cutting fruit for snacks and driving to competitions, beaming with pride.
“It’s pretty rough,” said Eustace, who began training more and more as MMA became his refuge. “But I know my dad is a tough guy. He’s handling it.”
Eustace has won competitions at practically every level. But the one image he sees every day, he said, is a loss.
The MMA match went back and forth, until Eustace grew over confident and over aggressive. He had his opponent on the ground, but brought him back up.
“That’s when I got knocked out,” Eustace said.
“Not cold. He caught me right in the temple,” said Eustace, who was able to get up, but his opponent then guillotined him (it’s a choke hold). Eustace didn’t tap out, but the referee stopped the match.
In some ways, the moment haunts him. In other ways, it motivates him.
“Him taking that loss, and analyzing it the way he has,” Guymon said, “and realizing, ‘These are the mistakes I made, this is why I lost, I won’t let that happen again.’ I love seeing fighters like that. You don’t see a lot of athletes like that.”
“He doesn’t give up,” Guymon said. “He’s tenacious.”
If you didn’t see him in the ring, you might not know Eustace is a fighter. Soft-spoken and polite, he offers a bright, warm smile to anyone he is talking to. He’s open-minded: determined to become a UFC fighter, but equally determined not to become limited by that dream.
Eustace, who was named Student of the Month in his math class in August, said he wants to attend a four-year university out of high school.
He wants to try soccer, even though he insists he doesn’t have any coordination with his feet and he can’t run with the ball without tripping over it. He also wants to try surfing and photography.
Recently, Ana Eustace walked outside at 1 a.m. to the sound of a ball bouncing. It was Eustace and his soccer ball.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Mom, I got it. Look,” Eustace said. “I want to be on varsity next year.’”
“He wants to prove himself,” Ana Eustace said. “He’s always trying to do something else.”
Eustace’s main goal, he said, is to help others, including as a MMA coach.
“I want to inspire other people,” he said. “I want to push other people.”
He already is.
His father is feeling better, gaining more motion in his arm and leg. His speech is also improving.
“Nickie is an inspiration for my husband,” said Ana, whose husband is a Vietnam War veteran. “Every day he talks about him. His war is his son.”
“He does his exercises, it’s very painful,” Ana said. “But he’s thinking about Nickie.”