If your waitress at the Ashburn IHOP asks, “Do you wanna box?” you had better make sure she is talking about your leftovers.
If that waitress is Tori Nelson, your answer could plant you in the ring with a three-time Golden Gloves and four-time professional boxing champion.
“She’s the nicest, sweetest person to talk to,” said Brian Mason, who was staffing the front counter at UFC Gym in Herndon when Nelson showed up to work out. Then, Mason nodded toward the boxing ring that takes up one side of the gym. “But when she gets in there, she’s an animal.”
Nelson – who boxes with the nickname “Sho-Nuff” – took up boxing 12 years ago at the age of 29. At that age, many boxers are having their gloves made into bronze trophies.
“She was 200 pounds when we started,” trainer Craig Fladager said. “She just wanted to compete. Now she is a four-time world champion. She is a pioneer in women’s boxing. She is quite a story.”
Fladager said Nelson didn’t look like much in terms of raw materials, but he soon something he knew he could work with.
“You can’t teach tenacity — the instincts of fighting,” Fladager said. “I could see that right away – the first time she got hit.
“Most people when they get hit, they do this,” he said, falling back and feigning fear and dishevelment. “She fought. Her instinct was to hit back.”
After winning two straight Golden Gloves titles as a boxer, Nelson had already exceeded her own expectations. But she was far from finished.
“My manager said, ‘I think it’s time. You can’t go any higher being an amateur. You need to just go pro.”
Nelson grew up in southern Virginia and moved to Ashburn about 10 years ago. She drove a school bus for Loudoun County and would waitress at night. Now she is a waitress at the IHOP in Pipeline Plaza. She had two young children – daughter Simone, who is now 22 and son Q, who is 19.
“My kids didn’t have their play time so they played in the gym,” Nelson said. “They grew up in the gym. They just loved it.
“They still come to my fights. They come to every one of my fights. The training part is boring for them, but they are still excited about it when it comes to the fights.”
Nelson said moving from amateur to pro boxing was difficult.
“I stepped up training a whole lot. My first pro fight was against the No. 1 girl in the whole United States in middleweight. I was so nervous. In amateurs, you wear headgear but in pros there is no headgear. It was very overwhelming. I got a draw. I actually beat her but I got a draw.”
Fladager said Nelson nearly lost that first fight because she was so overwhelmed.
“We went up and fought No. 1 – Shelly Sievert of Baltimore — in her own backyard,” he said. “Tori was very nervous and had butterflies and I mean I really yelled at her in the corner. I’m usually pretty calm in the corner but I had to wake her up. So from about the middle of the first round until the end, she basically won the fight but they gave her a draw. She came back a year and a half later and won a unanimous decision against Shelly – in her hometown again.
Then Shelly never fought again. It kind of shut her down.”
Since then, Nelson has compiled a 16-0-3 record with one knockout. She now holds belts in four weight classes, moving up and down to find women who will fight her.
Her next fight, Nov. 4, will be special. She will headline a card at the Silver Eagle Group Arena and it will mark her first-time fighting in front of her hometown family and friends.
“It’s the first time boxing will be in Loudoun County,” Nelson said. “I’m very excited. All of Ashburn is going to be there. Being that I drove the school bus, a lot of the kids and their parents know I’m a fighter. So. a lot of the kids and their families are so excited that now they get to see me live.”
Fladager described Nelson’s opponent, Tasha Barton, as a “journeyman” fighter, but Nelson said she has to be prepared nonetheless.
“I take no one for granted,” she said. “I train just the same for everyone. It only takes that one punch. I train hard for absolutely everybody.”
Fladager said Nelson is ultimately preparing for the biggest fight – and probably her biggest payday as well – in the upcoming year.
“We need to stay busy and be ready for Clarissa Shields, the two-time Olympic gold medal champion,” Fladager said. “That fight will happen next year. That fight will be on national television. That will be a big fight.”
Whether it’s Tasha Barton or Clarissa Shields, Nelson said the pre-fight anxiety is always the same.
“Before the fight when they call my name I get so nervous and my anxiety gets terrible,” my manager just says ‘Let’s go’ and he puts my mouthpiece in so I don’t grit my teeth. And then we just go.
“The walk to the ring is the worst, but when I get into the ring, it all lifts off me because it’s like I’m home. I feel like it’s just me, so I feel good.”
And what about the Jekyll-Hyde transformation in her personality?
“I don’t know. I just get focused and I just switch. When I get in there it’s just different. I’m just a totally different person. It’s a business. I look at it that this person is trying to knock my head off so I need to get them before they get me. That’s how I look at it.”