When Demond Nicholson was a 6-year-old, he wanted to play contact football but was told flag football was his only option. That didn't appeal to him. Instead, his parents took him to the boxing gym at the Laurel Boys and Girls Club.
The sport fit, well, like a glove.
"I didn't know anything about it. But I went in and never left," said Nicholson, now 23 and a professional prizefighter whose record is 17-1, with all but one of those victories coming by knockout.
His latest triumph came Friday in Washington, D.C., where he beat middleweight fighter Joshua Okine, now 28-6-1, by unanimous decision on the undercard of a major show at the D.C. Armory.
This boxing match went all eight of its scheduled rounds. The only time Nicholson had been six rounds before was the one time he lost. Everyone else had failed to last very long. He'd knocked out 10 opponents in the first round, three in the second round, two in the fourth round and one in the fifth.
Not Okine. The veteran from Accra, Ghana, was able to withstand Nicholson's power. He made Nicholson miss or moved away from him. He caught Nicholson with shots of his own. Nicholson still did more than enough to win on the judges' scorecards.
"He's a tough dude," Nicholson, a lifelong Laurel resident and 2011 graduate of Laurel High, said after the fight. "Now I know what I need to work on to get prepared for whenever I get back in the ring. These are the fights that are going to make you great and make you better as a fighter and as a man."
Pro fighters tend to have easier outings in their earlier years, developing gradually and stepping up bit by bit against better foes until they are ready for a stiff challenge. So while Nicholson didn't have the best performance against Okine, he still impressed longtime observer Gary "Digital" Williams, a writer who covers boxing in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., and has followed Nicholson since his years as an amateur boxer.
"I've always thought he's very strong and a great puncher, but tonight he showed me more courage, the fact that he can get hit and keep coming," Williams said. "He has to work a little bit more on his defense now. He's facing guys who are not going to stand in front of him, or who can stand in front of him and take what he dishes out."
This was Nicholson's seventh straight win since his lone defeat, a sixth-round technical knockout loss in November 2014 to an unheralded opponent named Lekan Byfield. He blamed himself, saying he'd lost too much weight in too little time beforehand and wasn't in peak condition.
It wasn't his first disappointment. As an amateur, he came up short during the Olympic trials and did not make it to London in 2012 to compete. Although he had the privilege of being an Olympic alternate, Nicholson soon opted to turn pro, leaving his jobs, purging himself of other distractions and dedicating himself entirely to the sport.
"I have to be in the gym in order to perfect my craft," he said. "I can't eat certain things. I can't really go out to the club how I'd want to. There's not a lot of things I'm able to do. I have to make a sacrifice to be great."
It helps that he lives with his parents. He also has a daughter, Jade, who is nearly 2, and a younger brother who is 5 and enjoys tagging along. And when Nicholson's not at home or training at Headbangers Boxing Gym in Southwest Washington, he can be found in Laurel helping his father, Wilbert, teach kids how to box.
"I have to give back because that's how I came along," Demond said.
Headbangers, where he has trained for six years, is helping bring Nicholson along even further. Head trainer Barry Hunter works with Lamont Peterson, a former 140-pound world titleholder, and Peterson's younger brother, 135-pound contender Anthony. Other notable fighters have come to the gym for the hard work and tough sparring. They feed off each other.
"When I first went to Headbangers, it was like hell," Nicholson said. "You're getting the best work you can possibly get as far as conditioning and boxing. Now I'm one of the top fighters in the gym. I was like a baby lion, but now I'm walking with the pack."
Nicholson was drawn in at a young age by a biopic film about Muhammad Ali, the self-proclaimed "greatest of all time."
Competing in a sport where success doesn't come without confidence, Nicholson has his own nickname: "Dbestatit," or the best at it.
That's a lofty goal. For now, he'll settle for continuing to improve, moving up in the rankings and getting into position for an eventual shot at a world title.
"My dream is to be champion," he said. "I will be great — in life and as a boxer."