27 Mar 2021

'Fighting saved my life': Kiwi mixed martial artist on her biggest battle

8:26 am on 27 March 2021

She didn't know it, but Nyrene Crowley was already in a fight when she found combat sports.

New Zealand mixed martial artist Nyrene Crowley.

New Zealand mixed martial artist Nyrene Crowley. Photo: Supplied

These days, the Auckland mixed martial artist is happy, healthy and in a good place.

That upbeat mood was boosted even further by the anticipation of her kickboxing clash with Ayisha Abied in the latest edition of the King in the Ring series at the North Shore Events Centre on Saturday night.

Wind the clock back seven years, though, and Crowley was far from settled.

Despite having a degree in communications from AUT to her name, and everything appearing OK from the outside, she had unknowingly slipped into a dangerous spot.

"When I came into fighting I didn't really realise, at the time, just how out of control of my mind I was," Crowley told RNZ.

"I wasn't happy and I was just doing life based on pleasing other people, following society's standards or expectations, trying to keep my parents happy and trying to make money. It was a lot.

"I think a lot of people can relate. They're caught in this cycle or this web of not really realising they're unhappy. That is why there's such a focus on starting to address and look after the mental health of people in New Zealand.

"Even in this [fight] camp I've had an incredibly tragic incident that happened in the last two weeks. I can wholeheartedly say that fighting saved my life. It gave me control back of my own mind."

The origins of that renewed mental health go back to Crowley's physical prowess.

Wanting to improve her fitness for a busy sports schedule including representative tag rugby, rugby union and rugby league, she joined a boot camp.

The rest, as the 31-year-old explained, was history.

"I got into it because my [boot camp] coaches convinced me to tick it off my bucket list. I just took it way too far, got addicted and here I am.

"Fighting has this kind of magical power and I fell in love with it because it really did save me.

"It gives you this confidence and belief in yourself and this challenge - physically, mentally, spiritually, everything. It tests the entire substance of the human existence and that's why I love it.

"I'd played a lot of team sports growing up, as you do as a Kiwi kid ... but the second I finished that first fight I was like 'oh man, I love it', how am I going to tell my dad."

Having overcome that hurdle and had three years fighting in the amateur ranks, Crowley took another leap of faith.

Nyrene Crowley.

Nyrene Crowley. Photo: Supplied

At the end of 2017, she ventured to South East Asia, eventually taking up an opportunity to train at a highly regarded gym in the Indonesian holiday hot spot of Bali.

The experience exposed her to world class coaching and teammates, leading to her become the first New Zealand woman to compete on the world renowned Asian promotion One Championship.

But, once Covid-19 hit, the realities of a pandemic in a large third-world country soon left Crowley longing for home.

That return finally came in September and with it, an opportunity to join City Kickboxing, the Auckland gym which has become a household name in the combat sports world.

"It really is a well oiled machine. It's incredible.

"The place just doesn't stop from literally 5am in the morning, when they've got two levels full of classes, all the way through to the last class that sometimes could finish at 8.30 or 9pm at night. Everything works like clockwork.

"Not only is it one of the top gyms in the world at the moment but you don't lose that family vibe and real team support. That's what I feel when I'm there. I feel like I'm supported and like I'm getting the best training I could possibly get right now."

Crowley was hoping that led to a victorious return to the New Zealand fight scene in the country's biggest combat sports event on Saturday night.

Given what she had fought her way through outside the ring, though, whatever transpired she knew she had already won in a pretty big way.

"I've gone through my journey with mental health, particularly in the last two years leaving Bali and coming back home to New Zealand, but I've been completely transparent and vulnerable with that and talking about it helps.

"There were moments where it wasn't a good time [but] those experiences have led to me being as strong as I am and I'm very proud of myself for the way that I've navigated that.

"Fighting and learning the disciplines of martial arts, it's kind of like therapy for me. I've been able to move my way through it."

Saturday's King in the Ring was being headlined by an eight-man welterweight tournament.

The event, which boasted the likes of UFC stars Israel Adesanya and Dan Hooker as former champions, had also received a big boost by getting a spot on free-to-air television with TVNZ's Duke channel.