In this story, the one-armed man is the hero.
And yet, even from that near-unanimous starting point, Nick Newell’s narrative is a delicate one to tell. There’s a fine line to walk. Newell wants to be a star in MMA in spite of—not because of—the disability with which he was born. But disentangling the two is a fool’s errand.
Newell probably understands that, of course; it’s his line to walk. Perhaps that’s why he seems to carefully premeasure every move he makes and syllable he says, like a shopper in the produce section tapping and squeezing in a neverending quest for the perfect bag of avocados.
“I’m always going to be known as the guy with one hand,” Newell said. “I don’t hide it, but I’m not out there saying ‘hey, look at me.’ I’m a fighter who happens to have one hand. I’m focusing on my skills now more than anything.”
Put another way, the high hurdle he is constantly hurdling is an indispensable part of the Nick Newell story. It’s what makes the story unique, compelling and important. But the last things Newell wants are sympathy or negativity. Therein lies the fine line.
Now that he has a high public profile—at least compared with your garden-variety MMA prospect and regional promotion champ—that tension may be Newell’s newest battle. As much as his own limitations or The Guy Across The Cage, pity and acquiescence are the enemies.
Fighting provides the perfect, and perfectly irresistible, backdrop for all of this. It’s almost too lazy of a metaphor. Except it’s not a metaphor.
If you don’t know, Newell, 27, is a congenital amputee, born with a left arm ending just below the elbow. Despite that, he found and excelled in high school and college wrestling, and he eventually entered MMA. He is a perfect 9-0 as a pro, and that includes capturing the lightweight title in the Florida-based XFC promotion. No matter how you slice it, no one gets to 9-0 and a title in pro MMA without having some skills. Newell has plenty, combining powerful kicks and physical wrestling laced with submissions and ground-and-pound.
Following a messy exit from that organization, Newell announced in May that he had signed with World Series of Fighting. Earlier this week, WSOF made their first match with Newell, an August 10 date with Keon Caldwell.
“I like the moves they’re making and the way they promote,” Newell said of WSOF in an exclusive interview with Bleacher Report. “They’ve only done a few shows, but people are already looking at them as one of the biggest leagues in the world. People slid them in where Strikeforce left off. [WSOF broadcast home] NBC Sports is a big network.”
After departing XFC, Newell said he was being courted by “everyone but the UFC.” That’s interesting, as the UFC is Newell’s unabashed Emerald City. Newell sees the WSOF’s lightweight division—stocked with Octagon veterans like Jacob Volkmann, Dan Lauzon and T.J. O’Brien—as a proving ground at MMA’s highest levels.
“Wherever I fit, I know I’m good,” Newell said. “I’m coming for the top of the division. I’m down to fight anyone. Getting to the top wouldn’t be hard with that kind of roster.”
At the same time, Newell demures when asked if he has his sights set on any one fighter, labeling it “disrespectful” to call out an opponent. He even refuses to name a fighter he enjoys watching. But his verbal diplomacy is no clearer than when he talks about that split with XFC. At the time, Newell explained his departure by saying he and the XFC had “different visions” for his career trajectory. XFC President John Prisco and potential title challenger Scott Holtzman reacted by implying Newell was ducking Holtzman while demanding bigger-name opponents.
Now well clear of that promotion and given an opportunity to vent, Newell remains deliberate in his words, diplomatic—though not disingenuous—to the very end.
“I wish XFC the best of luck,” Newell said. “They put on good shows. I do want to put it behind me because I think it was ridiculous and silly. When emotions are going, you’re going to say things that are a little crazy. I know the truth, and if I wasn’t looking for top fighters, I wouldn’t have come to World Series of Fighting.”
Regarding those top fighters: Earlier in his career, Newell found himself the victim of a Catch-22. He had difficulty finding opponents because, thanks to his disability, beating him could be perceived as an unfair or unimpressive win, while defeat could mean a major black mark on a resume. But with an assist from that perfect record and blossoming notoriety, the scenario is a little different now.
“I think I’m a lot more wanted as an opponent now that my name’s out there a little more,” Newell said. “People are calling me out now. Things have changed. I was a little bit unknown before.”
As his professional evolution unfolds, Newell keeps busy not just with training but also working with other congenital amputees. In particular, he’s involved with the Lucky Fin Project, a nonprofit that supports people born with limb differences.
Newell knows that no matter where the evolution goes, good or bad or both, the path can never be conventional. That fine line will never fade away, no matter how fast or high his star does or doesn’t grow. Newell certainly isn’t the first person to fight metaphorically against adversity. But in a literal sense, he’s in uncharted territory.
“I’m in World Series of Fighting now, and I’m excited about the future,” Newell said. “I can’t wait.”
The Beaten Path is an article series profiling top MMA prospects. Read the previous installment here. Scott Harris is a featured columnist with Bleacher Report. Find him on Twitter @ScottHarrisMMA. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.