Nicole Malpeso stands shoulder to shoulder with ten fellow firefighters in a Terminal 5 boxing ring, waiting for the emcee to start the night’s event. It’s one of the biggest occasions for New York City’s first responders; Malpeso is about to fight in the Battle of the Badges between FDNY’s Bravest Boxing and NYPD’s Fighting Finest boxing teams. The battle is on again for the first time since 2015.
30-year-old Malpeso is about 5’6” and has a fade haircut, which is hidden before the fight by a camouflage bandana. She is incredibly stoic and composed. Her hands are wrapped and glove-ready and don’t shake one bit. Most of the skin that peeks out from Malpeso’s yellow FDNY muscle tank and mid-length shorts is decorated in elaborate tattoos– a Wizard of Oz tinman on her right arm, floral designs on both sides of her neck, more flowers and feathers right below her collarbones, a hyper-realistic depiction of her grandfather in military uniform flanking her left bicep.
Whatever happens this evening, Nicole Malpeso’s name has already been made. To know her is to associate that moniker instantly with someone who is badass– no doubt– but also so very real. She’s someone you’d want at your front door should your apartment ever go up in flames over a hair-straightener-related incident. Someone to defend you, punches and all, if things ever get heated on a dark Manhattan street.
Or someone to assure you– in her signature Staten Island drawl–that everything will be okay in the end, that things have a way of working themselves out if only you put in the work yourself.
I meet Malpeso a week after the Terminal 5 event, at her firehouse (Engine 76 on West 100th Street, just a few blocks from Central Park and adjacent to a public housing project). A rushed yet energized Malpeso waves at me and says her team just got called to do an emergency “run,” that they’ll be back soon, that she is very sorry to keep me waiting. What follows is a flurry of activity as firefighters in full gear hop into their truck and back out of the station, without the typical fanfare of sirens (she tells me later that it was a minor EMT call– an old person fell somewhere nearby).
Fifteen minutes later, Malpeso is back: leading me into a small room with a cot, desk, and bulletin board adorned with handwritten internal announcements along the lines of “MAKE SURE TO WASH YOUR KITCHEN DISHES!”
Malpeso starts talking about her athletic beginnings:
“My dad was a part owner of a boxing gym when I was a kid and I would go with him sometimes. Back then, I thought boxing could only be professional– I didn’t know there was this amateur sector of it.”
Malpeso’s father passed away when she was 16, going into her junior year of high school. She filled the space of loss in her life with classes, soccer, listening to music, waitressing at the Call It A Wrap fast-casual restaurant her family owned, going on neighborhood walks with friends– the usual coming-of-age activities. After graduating, she took a few semesters’ worth of nursing courses at the College of Staten Island, which left her dispirited and ultimately prompted her to drop out. Someone suggested EMT courses in order to work for the fire department. Malpeso pursued it. She also started toying around with the idea of restarting her boxing habit– full force this time.
It would be easy to chalk up her choices to becoming fatherless, and vulnerable, and needing a metaphorical shield to protect herself in such circumstances, but Malpeso is quick to add nuance to that– to argue life decisions are never clear-cut.
“Hindsight’s 20/20. So, looking back, maybe I ended up where I did career-wise and took up boxing… because I lost my dad at that age and didn’t have certain guidance,” Malpeso says. “Maybe I was searching for that in other ways. But I don’t think I was very conscious of it until I was older and more mature. You can’t pinpoint it until much later.”
As she began training more regularly, people at her gym started noticing Malpeso’s natural way with the sport.
“They were like, ‘oh, you’re really good. You should do the Golden Gloves.’ And I was like, ‘well, my dad did the Golden Gloves years ago.’ So I did it and I fought and I made it to the finals,” she says.
Malpeso doesn’t mention the fact that Louis J. Malpeso didn’t just “do the Golden Gloves” but was, in fact, the 2000 Golden Gloves champion.
I tell Malpeso that he would be so proud.
“He’d probably be proud,” she replies at first.
Then: “Yeah, he’d be really, really, super proud.”
The Golden Gloves of America, founded in 1923, holds annual amateur boxing matches all across the US. It’s a big deal for aspiring fighters– a chance to be put on the map, to compete at larger venues and against tougher competitors.
Malpeso’s first Golden Gloves experience was in 2017. There’s a YouTube video of her bouncing around the ring and throwing carefully calculated jabs at her opponent– Nisa Rodriguez of the NYPD, who Malpeso actually fought again in this year’s Battle of the Badges and who, at the time, “had hundreds of fights compared to [her] two or three.”
“I’m so glad that I did it. It showed me that I’m not scared. That I’ll go in there against anyone,” Malpeso recounts.
This fight was also fortuitous in that it connected Malpeso to the woman who is currently one of her biggest life mentors: Susan Reno, a coach for FDNY Boxing. Reno encouraged Malpeso to come to their gym and train with them. That same year– 2017– she ended up transitioning from EMT work to full-time firefighting.
Reno– who trains Malpeso for fights– remembers seeing her in action for the first time, turning to her husband (FDNY Boxing’s head trainer), and asking, “who is this girl? We have to have her on our team.” After they talked, the connection was instant.
Nowadays, you can spot Reno and Malpeso joking around with each other in between training sessions. They can be laughing one minute and then jumping into a focused, honest conversation on how to improve Malpeso’s performance. It’s a precious dynamic.
“I can tell her, ‘you look shit today.’ Or ‘I don’t like this.’ Or ‘hey, you look awesome,’” Reno says. “I’m very real with Nicole. And she always has a positive attitude– is always happy to make that adjustment.”
If Reno mentions in passing some minor improvement that Malpeso can implement in the next round, she is sure to try it instantly– to reflect her coach’s words in practice.
“I think the hardest thing for Nicole is making sure her excitement doesn’t get in the way too much, to take it down a notch when needed. I have the same problem!” Reno says.
During the March 31 Battle of the Badges, Reno was a self-described “bundle of nerves” as she bore witness to every single maneuver Malpeso used against her opponent. Rodriguez is taller, has boxed for thirteen years, is an eight-time NYC Golden Gloves champion, and fights for Puerto Rico’s national team. These facts worried Malpeso and Reno only slightly– on the whole, they weren’t intimidated.
Malpeso and Rodriguez hopped around the rink during the first round: sizing each other up and, no doubt, remembering the advice their coaches fed to them earlier. Both of the women’s punches were snappy and measured– their footwork light and dance-like. They were so graceful and respectful of the rules, in fact, that the bow tie-clad referee barely had to interfere.
The crowd roared each time either Malpeso or Rodriguez scored. “GO NYPD!” and “GO FDNY!” cheers seemed to alternatively drown each other out. At one point, it felt like everyone was cheering for them both: for the sheer accomplishment of being fighters and professionals in still-male-dominated settings.
Malpeso didn’t take home the championship belt that night, but Reno couldn’t be more proud of her regardless.
“We accomplished absolutely everything we wanted to accomplish that night,” Reno remarks.
I ask Reno how she would describe Nicole Malpeso in one phrase, as a person and as her student. It takes her no time at all to answer.
“Most. Fun. Ever.”
Because you can never have too many mentors, Robert McGuire (who goes by Bobby around those close to him) is another one of Malpeso’s big influences. As the FDNY Bravest Boxing team president, McGuire has had a front row seat to her progress since Malpeso first joined: though he doesn’t work with her as closely (and dissect her performance as granularly) as Susan Reno.
“Nicole is an aggressive, ‘take no prisoners’ type of boxer,” McGuire tells me on a phone call. “Intimidation is not even in her vocabulary.”
As far as Malpeso’s recent loss against the NYPD, McGuire is convinced it was anyone’s game right until the end. When recapping how Malpeso fought against a decorated champion like Rodriguez (in a series of “hard, spirited bouts”), he sounds well-pleased.
“She gave that girl the fight of her life and, in my opinion, no one would have been shocked if she would have gotten the decision. The fight was that close,” McGuire says.
Ultimately, the event was held for charity and ended up making $60,000 for the Tunnel to Towers Foundation (which provides assistance to families of veterans and first responders) and the NYC Cops & Kids program (offering free youth boxing and tutoring services).
McGuire and Reno both agree that Malpeso has a clear future as an FDNY team trainer, after another year or two of being a fighter there.
“She loves the sport and has a lot of knowledge to share,” McGuire says. “She’s also a beautiful person, pleasant, respectful, fun, determined, and– excuse my language– one tough son of a bitch. I love Nicole.”
At thirty, Malpeso still lives in a place she has called home since birth: Staten Island, which she assures me does not make for a particularly bad commute to her job in Manhattan and allows her to see family often.
A firefighter’s schedule typically consists of day or night shifts (called “tours”) and the infamous “24”s (around-the-clock duties after which Malpeso usually gets a few days off). As if that’s not exhausting enough, in preparation for fights, she has to fit in training exercises like running six days a week whenever possible– which often means at the crack of dawn, with absolutely no excuses.
“I like being on a routine. I’m a routine-oriented person. Working at the firehouse and training at the same time, it’s really kind of week by week. I have to be like, ‘okay, here’s when I’m working. Here’s when I’m going to the gym. Here’s when I’m setting up my sparring. Here’s when I do my food shopping.’”
Having rigid structure is essential to keeping up with a job like Malpeso’s, but she says that balance is just as important for the sake of sanity. This past Saturday, Malpeso went to a drag brunch with some friends (“now that the fight is over, I can indulge a bit!”). She and her boyfriend, who used to be a fireman, are major foodies and love going out to dinner. Malpeso regularly takes her dog Logan on “little adventures,” often accompanied by an audiobook (currently, she’s powering through the Game of Thrones series).
“I used to be really into true crime books, but now, as I’ve gotten older and work a job like this, I realize I need a break from that kind of genre,” Malpeso says, adding that a recent lighthearted favorite of hers was Daisy Jones & The Six.
Boxers– in order to continue fighting in a given weight category– have to ensure that their diet is well-rounded and consistent, that the numbers on their scale don’t fluctuate radically. Malpeso admits firehouse “family” meals are often unhealthy; she tries to supplement with nutritious options as much as she can.
This means she often ends up cooking for her coworkers or outside visitors (like during Fleet Week, when active military ships dock in NYC– depositing Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps service members into the city for a weeklong celebration) . Chris Russo, who also works at Engine 76 and has been close friends with Malpeso since her very first day on the job, raves about her specialty: orecchiette pasta loaded with sausage, mascarpone cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, and asparagus.
“She puts the pasta water in there at the end to thicken it up. She knows what she’s doing,” Russo says.
Beyond praising this “one-pot wonder,” which Malpeso nails every time, Russo also could not speak more highly of Malpeso’s character when we chatted over the phone.
“Nicole was very, very humble from day one. She didn’t take advantage of the fact that she was a woman, of the fact that she has her own space, her own locker room, her own bathroom,” Russo says. “She doesn’t demand authority, she doesn’t demand respect. She just walks in it and people respect her for that– for the quiet confidence she has.”
Currently, Malpeso is the only woman on Engine 76’s team.
Russo has attended many of Malpeso’s fights throughout the years (including one at Madison Square Garden’s Hulu Theater) alongside the rest of the unit; when Malpeso enters the ring, they all get up, scream, and “go nuts” to show their support. He points out that, in the thick of the fight, his coworker boxes like a chess player: “very strategic, never getting angry.”
During our call, Russo also lets me in on an insider’s secret. At the FDNY, whoever you are as a person will be revealed to everybody in the first six weeks that you work there. Senior firefighters test out how newbies react in certain stressful situations to feel out their “true colors,” which is why– at least in the beginning– you have to be ready to take on any extra shift thrown at you.
“Someone might ask, ‘hey, you want to work Saturday? And the [newbie] goes, ‘oh, Saturday’s my day off.’ It’s not a good look. It shows that maybe they’re not a team player,” Russo points out. “Nicole worked every single tour that people asked her to work. She plays the game perfectly.”
Malpeso has effectively integrated herself into the environment of her firehouse, whose workers go all out to ensure community is being fostered outside of working hours. The day after our interview, for instance, Engine 76 was hosting a dinner dance.
“We book a nice place and everyone dresses up. The wives and girlfriends and my boyfriend will be there– it’s just a nice night out,” Malpeso tells me.
On a follow-up call, she reports back that the night was a big success and everyone had a blast.
“Not to be super dramatic about it, but sometimes our lives are in each other’s hands. So I think by getting together with all the spouses and stuff like that, there is the element of, ‘oh yeah, these people are more than coworkers.’ There’s a little bit of a family dynamic there,” she says.
As part of FDNY’s Bravest Boxing, Malpeso says she is also “super, super tight” with people from different firehouses across the city, due to the one glaring similarity they all share aside from their full-time job– an honorable, fascinating passion for boxing. On weigh-in days (the very same ones which determine qualification for an upcoming fight and for which Malpeso prepares by having a thoughtful diet), the whole team sits waiting for their results– nervous, yet nervous together, which makes all the difference.
“It’s nice to have people with you that you know are feeling the same exact feeling,” Malpeso smiles.
The FDNY fighters also travel together internationally to compete. The team has been to Ireland twice and is going again this summer. Malpeso is a big fan of the “Irish mentality,” which she thinks mirrors that of New Yorkers.
“We go in there, we beat the crap out of each other, and then go to the pubs after.”
They have also fought in the World Police & Fire Games 2022, hosted in Rotterdam, Netherlands. For Malpeso, who loves to travel but wouldn’t otherwise have gone to such places, this has been one of the most exciting components of boxing for the fire department– of having that FDNY acronym stamped on her shirt, just above her heart.
I’m curious: has Malpeso had a particular standout moment on the job (a-la-Chicago Fire) when, surrounded by flames, the stakes were so high that time seemed to suspend itself briefly?
She argues it’s more complicated than that. The reaction only hits you after the chaos has been contained.
“You’re just so in the moment, you’re doing what you’re supposed to do. And then after, once it’s all said and done and the smoke clears, you realize, ‘oh my God, I felt like I was in this huge, massive room but really it was a tiny, little apartment,’” Malpeso says. “Luckily, I’ve never been in a situation where I was in danger. Knock on wood. It’s always been minimal, as far as injuries go.”
Still– every call of duty provides a spine-tingling thrill. But she knows better than to let the excitement of extinguishing fires overtake the suffering and despair felt by the person who made the “911” call in the first place.
“I try to always keep this in mind: somebody just lost everything.”
Malpeso doesn’t stop there.
“Think about how it would be if it was your apartment or your childhood home, God forbid. Think of people’s pets. Yes, it’s adrenaline and you’re doing your thing and this is what we train for. It’s exciting. But at the same time, someone just lost every picture they’ve ever owned and now they have to go live somewhere until they can fix the place. What if you don’t have enough money to fix it? What if that was your mom? How would you want your mother or father to be treated on the scene?”
Her monologue strikes an emotional chord in me. It reaffirms my first impressions of her as someone who feels deeply and possesses the kind of simple, soulful empathy that anyone would aspire to. It makes me consider, maybe for the first time ever: how would it feel to lose every picture I’ve ever owned? What would it be like to witness someone in that situation?
Malpeso hasn’t yet been in immediate danger, but that doesn’t mean her own mom doesn’t worry for her on a daily basis.
“She’s like, ‘oh, my daughter’s so crazy. She’s a boxer and a firefighter.’ She says I give her angina. But she also loves bragging to other people,” Malpeso says.
Donna Malpeso (who runs a catering business/restaurant on Staten Island and pet-sits her daughter’s dog when she’s at the firehouse) is one of seven girls, so Malpeso has a ton of aunts, uncles, and first cousins. They always put her in the spotlight for the youngsters in the family, saying things like “look, she’s a girl. And she’s a firefighter.”
“I say this all the time: representation matters. Until you see someone who is like you doing something, maybe it would never have occurred to you that you can do that,” Malpeso says.
Representation oftentimes extends beyond gender and encompasses body diversity, as well. When Malpeso was growing up, she was teased for being a little bigger than everyone else– which is to say assertively muscular. Only when she got older and grew into herself could she finally say, “I’m glad I’m not small. Especially with my job, you do need the muscle.”
Malpeso sees her extended family often, but shares an especially close bond with her only sibling: Noelle, who is two years younger and works as a nutritionist in Boston. Donna, a very religious woman, used to joke that her daughters are like Cain and Abel: so different were they from each other growing up. But a closer look tells a contrasting story.
Sure, they still look like strangers visually: Noelle Malpeso doesn’t have head-to-toe tattoos or the cropped haircut her sister currently sports. Yet, when it comes to values, both Malpeso women have been raised to stand up for themselves from day one and also to support each other endlessly.
“Nicole was always a protector, always looked out for me no matter what. Made sure that I was good to go and nobody was messing with me,” her sister shares. “You know how siblings can be: can’t live with them, can’t live without them.”
Just like their mom, Noelle Malpeso often worries for her sister’s safety in the joint pursuits of boxing and serving the FDNY. But she reminds herself of just how extensive firefighters’ training is and how well prepared Malpeso is for any given obstacle.
“I have a lot of faith and I feel like she’s always being protected,” the younger Malpeso says.
Noelle Malpeso is very upfront about the fascination she has with her sister’s natural talents.
“I remember when we were younger, she played instruments growing up. Our dad taught her how to play the guitar and she just knew how to just do it right away. She’s a very hard worker and I don’t think she emphasizes her natural abilities enough.”
When Noelle Malpeso goes back to Staten Island, she and her sister love to grab food at a favorite restaurant of theirs– Pastavino– or else just hang out with the dog; sit on the couch; occasionally have silly, spontaneous 90s techno dance parties; and enjoy each other’s presence.
“That’s all I honestly want– the luxury of doing nothing. I think she likes it, too,” Malpeso says.
The sisters have a truly strong relationship that has weathered a lot in the past. Nicole Malpeso says:
“After Dad passed, I feel like I kind of took on a more adult role. Whereas my sister? Not so much, because I think my mom always kind of felt sad for her. She felt she wanted to make what was left of her childhood a little bit better.”
Malpeso recently got into what she describes as a “tiny” fender bender, which would be enough to put the average person on edge for the rest of their week. Not Malpeso, though– not with her overarching life philosophy.
“I was like, ‘oh man, this really stinks. I didn’t need that today.’ But then I thought, maybe this saved me from something else that would happen,’” Malpeso reasons. “Everything happens the way it’s supposed to.”
Another of her life tenets: doing everything in her power in any situation, so as to minimize regrets. Or, to be more specific, realizing regret is human and inevitable, but using it as a guidepost.
“If you felt crappy after the decision you made, make a different decision,” Malpeso states in simple terms.
It’s like when Malpeso lost to Nisa Rodriguez at the Battle of the Badges.
“I was so okay with it because I performed, I stuck to my game plan, and I know I did everything I could have possibly done to do my best.”
As for her future, Malpeso seems to have a set path. For the next few months, she’s going to be teaching at the Fire Academy– training the next generation of NYC first responders. Malpeso is invigorated by this opportunity.
“There are more and more women attending and I can be like, ‘listen, you can do this,’” Malpeso says. “Maybe we have to do things a different way. Maybe, to reach something, we have to put our helmets on the floor and stand on them. I like being there to be like, ‘hey, this is what works for me, so hopefully I can pass it down and it’ll work for you, too.’”
Another looming milestone for Malpeso is her upcoming fight on June 30th– a classic FDNY boxing event called “Thrilla in Camilla” that takes place in the Rockaways, steps away from the rhythmic waves of the Atlantic. Malpeso will go head to head with the female boxer who she fought last September in Ireland. She’s starting her training for that in the next few weeks and anticipates that she’ll be able to “have a little fun with it”– a nod to her prioritization of balance, of not taking life too seriously while still remaining clear-headed.
At this point, you might be tempted to boldly declare one of two cliches: that Nicole Malpeso is a true fighter. That there seems to be nothing she’s incapable of achieving. She’d be the first one to stop you, though.
When explaining why she wants to contribute time to the Academy, Malpeso tells me:
“I want to be good at my job and good enough where I’m teaching people something.”
She is a true fighter. There really does seem to be nothing she can’t achieve. She’s not just good at her job but, frankly, already great at it. She also throws a mean and clean punch when needed.
But Nicole Malpeso is too shy to say all that, so I might just have to say it for her.