Natalia Johnson “Aces” Kickboxing Debut Trained by Baxter Humby
By STEVE GALLUZZO | Sports Editor
Most teenagers would be out with their friends on a Friday night, but not Natalia Johnson.
The 17-year-old Palisades resident was inside a ring at The Grand Theater in Anaheim trading blows with Tina Azizi in her first Muay Thai fight. At the end of three spirited two-minute rounds Johnson’s arm was raised—vindication for months of training with local legend Baxter “One-Armed Bandit” Humby.
“I’ve been working with Baxter since about the beginning of quarantine,” said Johnson, a junior at Harvard-Westlake High who lives on Swarthmore near the Village. “I was taking a class at Gerry Blanck’s Martial Arts Center and mentioned I was interested in fighting, so he brought Baxter in and I had an hour training session with him. It started from there. We’d planned on having my first fight in early June but it got pushed back. You have to sell 10 or more tickets—they’re $50 each—or you can’t fight, then you have to pay for your own physical. We wear head gear and padding, but I still felt sore afterwards. I’m glad I did it!”
Johnson credits Humby along with several senseis at Blanck’s dojo, for preparing her for the fight. She had never tried kickboxing before but a friend who had done competitive Jiu-Jitsu inspired her to consider it.
“In fact, she’s now the only girl on our school wrestling team,” Johnson said. “She’s the one who really got me into this.”
The workouts were rigorous and consisted of six-round sparring sessions, flash drills and punching the heavy bag. “We did a lot of balance training on the medicine ball. I’m so lucky to work with Baxter—he’s a world champion. He’s very good at putting a stop to any bad habit.”
Johnson is very close to her older sister Sophie, a freshman ballerina dancer at the University of Chicago who took Fancy Feet classes down the hall from Blanck’s karate studio.
“My sister was the girl who wore pretty dresses and makeup and looks amazing,” said Johnson, who adores the family pets, a Cockatiel and an Australian Shepherd. “I want to be different. Actually, we’ve only had one school dance so far this year.”
Johnson’s fight was put sanctioned by International Fight Showdown (IFC), which showcases amateurs in Muay Thai, Kickboxing and MMA.
“When she started training and took classes I noticed she listened and picked up the techniques real quick,” Humby said. “The first time we sparred I hit her and she got mad at me. I knew right then she has a fighter’s instinct.”
Being a former Muay Thai champion, Humby remains well-connected in the sport and was able to line up a fight for his new protege.
“I know all of the promoters so I called to find out when the next muay thai card was and told them I had a girl who was ready. Normally they try to match people according to weight, age and experience level but this was an Open event, so she fought someone who was 26. There were 20 bout that night and hers was the third one, so she didn’t have to wait around too long. She was nervous but I helped her warm up, I was in the corner between rounds and she was very attentive to the advice I was giving her. It was unanimous—she won every round!”
Johnson admitted it was more difficult than she thought, but having one of the most decorated fighters the sport has ever seen in her corner made all the difference both before and during the fight.
“The weigh-in was at 1 p.m. but the fight wasn’t until 6:30, so we went to the beach and watched the cargo ships in the ocean,” she said. “We got back to the arena before 5.”
Johnson learned 30 minutes prior to entering the ring that Azizi was almost 10 years older than her.
“It’s supposed to be about muscle memory and being able to focus but Baxter could tell I was feeling the nerves,” Johnson recalled. “He said ‘If you don’t trust yourself, trust me because I know you’re ready! Once the bell rang his words came back to me to hit what’s open and block what’s coming. He told me to move my head more, do more front kick and set up my shots. It was her first fight also and I couldn’t tell if I was moving forward. I thought I could be losing because when she hit me she’d knock me back. I was gassed out at the end.”
When the decision was announced and Johnson was declared the winner, she felt a euphoria unlike anything she has ever experienced.
“I was super happy because I’d been looking forward to it all month and my parents [Harry and Monica] were there, although I know it was stressful for them,” Johnson said. “My friends think it’s cool. I’d hate to get knocked out and go to class the next day, but I don’t care what anyone thinks about it. I’m not going to quit anytime soon.”
Johnson, who runs or bikes in Temescal Canyon every weekend, had barely gotten off the stage when she started receiving congratulations and encouragement: “People were coming up to me telling me I was beating up the elderly,” she joked. “Baxter said at the fight ‘If I can achieve my dreams with one arm, then you can too!’ That really resonated with me.”
Johnson was a “Little Dragon” at Blanck’s studio for two year when she was in pre-school but soon she gravitated to basketball, playing at the Palisades Recreation Center starting in first grade and winning the league championship one year. She also played club and for her school team at Corpus Christi. She also loves to surf, learning to ride the waves at Tower 15 in Malibu.
“The Palisades has everything,” she said. “The ocean, the beach, the the mountains… it’s the best place to grow up.”
Asked to name her favorite technique, her answer was telling: My favorite move is whatever hurts the most. I guess a kick in the head.”
Johnson, who stands 5-foot-5 and weighs a muscular 145 pounds, describes Blanck as “the coolest guy” and Humby as “awesome.”
“She’s a very bright girl, she takes academics very seriously and she knows it’s a rough sport,” Humby added. “No matter what, this is the first time a girl from the Palisades has been in a real kickboxing match so I’m super proud of her.”
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