Nick Newell: A Man in Full

Jeremy BotterMMA Senior WriterOctober 16, 2015

LAS VEGAS, NV - FEBRUARY 07:  Mixed martial artist Nick Newell arrives at the sixth annual Fighters Only World Mixed Martial Arts Awards at The Palazzo Las Vegas on February 7, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

On March 17, 1986, Stacey Newell was on the operating table, as pregnant as it gets.

She’d had an ultrasound six months earlier, but technology being what it was almost 30 years ago, she didn’t exactly have a clear picture of what to expect. Which is to say she didn't know anything. She didn’t even know the sex of the baby that was about to be removed from her womb via cesarean section. Everything was going to be a surprise, and that was just fine with her.

The doctor made his incisions. A short time later, he gently pulled a living, breathing baby from her belly.

“It’s a boy,” the doctor exclaimed.

A boy, she thought. This is great.

But then the operating room went silent—the kind of uncomfortable silence when everybody in the room except you is in on the bad news, and everyone is trying to figure out how to tell you or shrinking within him or herself so as to not be the person who actually has to tell you in the first place.

“What’s wrong?” Stacey asked.

At first, nobody responded, maintaining the silence that was growing deafening with every passing second. Stacey felt a flash of panic. Was the baby OK?

She asked again, this time in a louder voice: “What’s wrong?” Nobody responded, so she began yelling, repeatedly asking what was wrong. Why was nobody answering her?

Finally, a nurse spoke in a timid voice.

“There’s something wrong with his hand,” she said.


Photo courtesy Stacey Newell

Stacey yelled at the doctors and nurses to hand her baby over. When they did, she unwrapped the blanket he'd been swaddled in and looked at his hand. Only, there wasn’t a hand.

The baby that she would name Nick was born with a congenital amputation of his left arm, which ends just below his elbow. Of all the ways to lose a limb by amputation, the congenital variety is the least common. It is caused by blood clots forming in the fetus while in utero, or from something called amniotic band syndrome, where fibrous bands form and constrict a fetus’ limbs so greatly that they either fail to develop or fall off before childbirth.

When Stacey saw her son, she says, there was no dismay. Because of the C-section, he was missing the cone-shaped head that often happens during a vaginal birth. He had a full head of hair. He opened his eyes and looked into the eyes of his mother, and there was nothing but pure, gracious and immediate love, just like nearly every other childbirth since the dawn of history.

But for the first 24 hours after Nick’s birth, Stacey tormented herself. She wondered if she’d done anything wrong that led to Nick’s disability.

“I thought, 'Oh my god, did I do something wrong during the pregnancy that led to this? Why me?” she says.

But then natural instinct kicked in.

“I just knew that it was going to be OK. We’ll figure this out,” she says.


Photo courtesy Stacey Newell

She didn’t figure it out immediately, and things were not easy. Stacey says that Nick's father was absent and that she raised her son on her own. Just the two of them, she says, until Nick's father came back when Nick started getting some positive press later in life. And while Nick says that is true—that his mother did raise him on his own—he says that his father has been a bigger presence in his life for the past 15 years than perhaps his mother will allow, and that the only amount of press he'd received when his father came back was "maybe one story in the newspaper."

Photo courtesy Stacey Newell

On her own, Stacey couldn't exactly teach Nick how to do things, because Nick had one hand and Stacey had two and it's hard to teach someone how to do something when you can't really understand how they view the world. She could tie her arm behind her back and try to teach him with one hand, but what good did that do? Not much, it turned out, so she opted for a different approach.

What Stacey realized, and this was a big moment, was that she wasn't really going to be able to teach Nick much of anything. So she didn't. She allowed him to find his way, allowed him to fall and pick himself up again and again.

"My mom was a little worried about kids picking on me. I had a prosthetic hand when I was very young, but I didn’t like it," Nick says. "I got rid of it very young, maybe three or four years old."

Photo courtesy Stacey Newell

Stacey would attend parent support groups at the hospital, but they were awful because everyone else was miserable and angry at the world. And why wouldn't they be? They had a kid who was born with a disability and now they were forced to alter their lives to accommodate everything. Accommodating for the unexpected is often a difficult task.

But Stacey didn't want the fact that Nick had one hand when he should have had two to dictate their lives. She decided early on that she would treat him like any other kid, which is to say that his handicap would not be a handicap in their household.

"There’s nothing wrong with my kid. Is he different? Yes. But that’s OK," she says. "I didn’t treat him any differently. I don't know if I would say I was harder on him, but he had to learn to do it for himself. I can’t follow him around and teach him. Some people shelter their kids. I just didn't."

And so she created an environment of normalcy. The two of them did everything together. Nick was a massive fan of the World Wrestling Federation, so she would pack him up in the car and drive him to events whenever Vince McMahon's traveling circus came through Connecticut or New York City.

He began playing sports at an early age, beginning with soccer. "You don't need two hands to play soccer," Nick says.

Photo courtesy Stacey Newell

Then he started playing baseball, mostly because he fell in love with Yankees pitcher Jim Abbott, who was born without a right hand and yet somehow made it to the big leagues, where he appeared constantly on Nick's television set at home. Here, for the first time, was someone just like Nick, who was playing professional sports at the highest level despite missing a hand.

"He was the only guy I knew who had one hand. I was able to see him on TV," Nick says. "It was just cool seeing someone else who was like me, even though I didn’t emphasize myself being different from everyone else, this guy was out there doing it."

Stacey was right there every step of the way, cheering Nick along, a firebrand for her son.

"People would be f--king staring at my kid and I'd tell them to go to hell," she says with a laugh.

Photo courtesy Stacey Newell

Nick's first year in baseball was a struggle, but by his second year in, he began making the travel and all-star teams. But as he neared eighth grade, an issue began to spring up. Having one hand instead of two didn't really bother him. The problem was his size.

"I was so small. I was playing baseball in eighth grade and weighed 85 pounds. There were guys who were my age playing at 140," he says. "It wasn’t that my timing wasn’t good. I was just too small to play at a competitive level. It had nothing to do with having one hand."

With baseball out of the way, Nick turned his attention to another sport. He and his friend were avid watchers of the WWF and would put on scripted wrestling matches in the backyard. One day, his buddy came around and said he was going to join the high school wrestling team.

"I was like, yeah, I’ll do that too," he says with a laugh. "He and I, we would just wrestle each other. We had no idea what we were doing."

At the end of his first day of wrestling practice, Stacey pulled into the parking lot to pick him up. Nick shuffled to the car and got in. He was battered and bruised.

"It was so hard. I was crying because everyone beat me up," Nick says. "I thought I was going to do better than what I did. It wasn’t what I planned."

Nick told Stacey he was going to quit the wrestling team after one day.

"No, you are not," she replied.

Photo courtesy Stacey Newell

"I'd listened to that kid constantly say he couldn't wait to get to high school so he could wrestle. He said it all the time. And on that first day, he's sitting there, tired and all of 98 pounds, and he said he wasn't going back," she says.

"She told me I had to finish the season," Nick says. "I wasn't necessarily successful, but I learned a tough lesson to not quit just because things are rough."

Nick didn't win all of his matches, but he finished out the wrestling season. The next year, he returned. He learned to grip things with what remained of his left arm. He trained continuously in the offseason, developing a hobby that soon grew into an obsession.

"I've never been the guy who just shows up and is instantly good at something. I'm the guy who shows up to the gym first and leaves last," he says.

And so he did, day after day and week after week.

Never again, in high school or in college wrestling, did Nick Newell have a losing season.


Photo courtesy Stacey Newell

It was during high school that a friend invited Nick over to his house. The friend was buying an Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-view, and he asked if Nick wanted to hang out and watch the fights. Nick had never watched MMA before—he didn't even really know what it was—but when he found out that the main event would feature former WWF star Ken Shamrock taking on Tito Ortiz, Nick agreed to come over.

"I liked Ken because he was the WWF intercontinental champion," Nick recalls. "So I watched him versus Tito in their first fight. It was the first time I ever watched MMA. I thought, 'This is kinda cool.' But I didn’t really understand what was going on."

That date, the one that would ultimately set Nick toward a path that would define his adulthood, was November 22, 2002. He did not watch any fights for almost three years afterward, until his friend invited him over to watch Shamrock take on Kazushi Sakuraba at Pride 30: Fully Loaded. He watched, but he still wasn't a fan.

Photo courtesy Stacey Newell
Photo courtesy Stacey NewellPhoto courtesy Stacey Newell

After finishing at Jonathan Law High School, Nick moved on to Western New England College in Springfield, Massachusetts. A member of his collegiate wrestling team had a few fights under his belt, and together they began watching the UFC's new reality series, The Ultimate Fighter. Nick immediately gained some interest in fighting but not for the sake of stepping in the cage and competing. He just wanted to learn how to defend himself.

"I wanted to learn how to fight. I wanted to learn how to throw punches and kicks in case someone tried to mess with me," he says.

He found Jeremy Libiszewski, a Springfield trainer, near the end of 2005, and began working with him. Just as he was about to graduate from college, Newell decided to take his first amateur fight. His mom was not enthused by the idea, but she stuck by him, because that's just what she did.

"I'd just paid for four years of college," she says. She and Nick's stepfather told him they would support whatever he wanted to do, but that he also needed to get a job. So Nick went out and got a job working for the History Channel, and then he would go train at night, after the din of the day wore off.

"It’s not something a mother would choose for their kid," Stacey says. 


Photo courtesy Stacey Newell

From the early days, Nick's venture into mixed martial arts was not viewed all that kindly by everyone. A one-armed kid doing wrestling? That was one thing. But to put him in a cage and let him get punched in the face by an opponent? Well, that just feels plain wrong. It resonates deep down in that part of all of us where something resides that is at once mercy and pity.

Those feelings extended to Nick's potential opponents in the early days, too. Even as he began winning amateur fights—and proving that his one arm was going to be enough to beat a lot of dudes with two arms—he experienced issues with his opponents. Namely, he and Libiszewski had trouble finding people of a similar skill level to take fights with him.

And people turned down fights because, what if they lost to him? What if they lost to the kid with one arm? Then they, a perfectly fine human being with two arms, would be known as That Fighter Who Lost to the One-Arm Kid, and that didn't fly. Not with a lot of them.

One time, an opponent accepted a fight and then flat-out refused to show up at the weigh-in. Just wouldn't come. Call it what you will, but the kid just decided he didn't want to fight the kid with one arm, after all. That's the kind of thing Nick dealt with on an almost-daily basis when starting out.

Nick was finally able to get six brave souls to face him, and he ran up an amateur record of 5-1. By 2009, it was time to turn to the professional ranks, and he quickly ran his record out to 5-0 by fighting exclusively in the Massachusetts area, never going too far from what he'd always known.

After his fourth straight win by submission, Nick signed deals with both Shark Fights and Xtreme Fighting Championship.

Now, Shark Fights was a fight company (properly relegated to mixed martial arts lore at this point, and rightly so) located out in Amarillo, Texas. This was a fight promotion that—and I am not kidding about this—tried to book a fight between Kazushi Sakuraba and Rickson Gracie. In 2009. So it's no surprise that Shark Fights CEO Brent Medley took one look at Newell and decided he'd bring some good attention to his company.

Nick was scheduled to make his Shark Fights debut on September 10, 2011, in Independence, Missouri. But Nick was injured and forced off the card, so his next step up the ladder had to wait until December, when he would make his debut for XFC. The card was XFC: Tribute, and the Tribute portion was dedicated to Newell's friend Abi Mestre. Nick and Abi, teammates at Jeremy's school, tried out for XFC together, and they both made it, and then Mestre died in a motorcycle accident.

And you can imagine that making your debut in a big-ish fight promotion under such circumstances was probably quite difficult, but Nick did just that, and he won by submission. Again. After that win, he started to get a little bit of media attention. There were more cameras present. After he won his next two fights (and the XFC Lightweight Championship), he decided it was time for a bigger step up in competition, saying that he would only face ex-UFC fighters under the XFC banner from this point forward.

XFC perhaps thought Nick was bluffing and booked him in a title defense against Scott Holtzman, a fighter who most certainly had not been in the UFC (though, ironically enough, that's where he currently is). But Nick stuck to his guns and refused to defend his title, and XFC stripped him of the belt. It eventually cut him loose, and in August 2013, Nick signed with World Series of Fighting.


Photo courtesy Stacey Newell

Today, Nick is preparing to face Tom Marcellino on Saturday's WSOF card. It's happening at the Foxwoods Casino, a sprawling complex in the middle of a massive forest not too far from where Nick has spent the majority of his life. It's a bit of a home game for him and a chance to start putting together another winning streak after WSOF lightweight champion Justin Gaethje broke his first one last summer.

It was Nick's first-ever mixed martial arts loss, and it wasn't easy for his mother to see. She doesn't really like watching him fight in person. For starters, the production teams always wants to show the concerned mother's face on television.

How will she react? Is she worried about her son (who has one hand) getting hurt in the cage? Let us all watch these emotions unfold on her face in real time!

"I know this sounds horrible. But I’m not worried about him getting hurt. I want him to achieve his goals," Stacey says. "But I don't like that they want to show my face while I'm watching the fights."

Nick is in a relationship with Danielle Walsh. She is a speech pathologist, and they have been together for roughly 18 months. Being with Nick has been a learning experience for her. Oftentimes she'll say things to him that, after the fact, make her gasp. Things like "did you wash your hands?" Things that are part of everyday life, things you don't really mean anything by, that could maybe offend someone like Nick.

"He’s not the guy to jump on anything like that, when he knows people don’t mean anything by it," Walsh says. "He’s so easygoing. You don’t have to watch what you say."

Nick, she says, is among the most compassionate people she has ever met. If you only know Nick from outside the cage, there is probably no way you'd ever imagine that he's a street fighter. In fact, she says, one aspect of Nick's personality perfectly illustrates what kind of person he is, even though she fears she'll get in trouble for saying it.

"He'll hate that I'm saying this, but I look at him dealing with our cats and he’s always worried about them. He’s so caring," Walsh says. "He probably doesn’t show that. He has to give off a tough personality because of what he does. But he’s very compassionate and thoughtful. He doesn’t want to hurt people’s feelings."

They are good together, Nick and Danielle. There might be a future there, though they don't really discuss it. They've gone to a lot of weddings together, and she finds that Nick enjoys critiquing the ceremonies, as though to say he might be able to do it better if and when that time comes.

"I don’t push it, though. We haven’t been together too long," she says with a laugh."We’re living together. It's going well. I’m still young."


Photo courtesy Stacey Newell

On Saturday, Nick steps back in the cage to defy the odds once more, though he has defied the odds for so long that it seems routine. Marcellino is not a pushover by any means, but Nick has constantly refined each aspect of his game to the point where it is hard to imagine many people outside of the very best WSOF has to offer even offering him much competition.

That's actually a neat thing. Just as Nick idolized Jim Abbott and his exhilarating conquering of disabilities and societal biases, so too is Nick doing the same for an entire generation of children who, born with one hand, are looking for inspiration that they can do and be the same things that the others around them are. He receives emails from parents all over the world and responds in a way that others could not when he was growing up.

And the thing about this is that it's all he's ever known. He didn't lose his hand in an accident or in a war. He does not have the kind of phantom pains associated with losing limbs, because the limb was never really lost; it just wasn't there. He came into the world without it, and so what he has is not a disability at all. It's just Nick.

"It’s how I’ve always been. If you ask me if I’d be better with two hands, well, I don’t know," Nick says. "Would I be able to do things better? I don’t know. I’ve never had two hands."

 

Jeremy Botter writes about mixed martial arts for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.