Like any mixed martial artist just beginning his pro career, Nick Newell has big dreams.
He wants to go as far as his mind can imagine, win a few belts, make some nice paydays, fight in a big promotion like DREAM, Strikeforce, even the UFC.
But Newell won't only have to overcome opponents to get there; he'll have to overcome a physical disability. The 23-year-old lightweight fighter, who will be making his pro debut this Saturday at a Cage Fighting Xtreme show in Plymouth, Mass., was born without a left hand. His arm ends just below the elbow.
"That's every fighter's goal, you know? To fight for the UFC," he said. "I think it'd be great. Regardless of whether I have a disability or not, I always want to win and be the best."
His is a dream that started like those of many others, discovering the sport on television, realizing that his wrestling experience and athleticism could make him a natural, then finding that the thrill of competition in MMA was beyond compare.
"I went to go see my friend and some of my training partners fight live, and I thought, 'Wow, this is something I've got to do,'" he said.
Surely, it occurred to him on at least one occasion that a fighter with only one hand was at a distinct disadvantage, but Newell didn't earn his past success by dwelling on any limitations.
The Connecticut native won 153 matches during his high school days at Jonathan Law in Milford, and capped off his run with All-State honors as a senior. That led him to Western New England College, where he captained the team as a senior under coach and two-time former Olympian Anibal Nieves.
It was during his college days in Springfield, Mass., that Newell found MMA.
After seeing the sport on TV, he decided he'd try it one day, but made no concrete plans to pursue anything. A short time later, while walking around campus, he saw another student wearing a T-shirt for a local gym called Fighting Arts Academy. He took it as a sign, and soon was inside, working with head trainer Jeremy Libiszewski.
Realizing he also needed a more local trainer when he was home from school, Newell joined forces with Andrew Calandrelli of the Ultimate MMA Training Center in North Haven, Conn., closer to his Monroe home. Even today, Newell splits time between the two camps, working with Calandrelli during the week and then driving up to train with Libiszewski on weekends, all while holding a full-time job as a master control operator for the Biography Channel.
"He's just an overall great athlete," said Calandrelli. "And more important than that, he's a determined kid. Never once have I heard him say, 'If I had this,' or 'If I didn't have that.' It's not a factor with him. He's just all about getting better."
Calandrelli is himself a pro fighter, having competed in mostly regional shows like Massachusetts' Combat Zone and New Jersey's Ring of Combat. And his fight team includes other pros like Bodog Fight veteran Blair Tugman, IFL veteran Frank Latina and undefeated Renato Migliaccio, who most recently fought in M-1.
Most of the pros on the fight team are around the 155-pound weight class, giving Newell a perfect set of experienced sparring partners, and his success in those sessions points to a bright future.
"He's really done unbelievably," Calandrelli said. "Once I saw him training with our other pro fighters, I knew he'd do well. I have pro fighters here who don't like to train with him. He's one of those guys in the gym that's really tough to work with, meaning he's good. If you think you're coming in for an easy night with Nick, you've got another thing coming."
Because he's dealt with disability his whole life, Newell has learned to constantly adapt. He refuses to use a prosthetic, saying, "I've found ways around everything. And I'm not ashed of the way I am. I have nothing to hide." Whether it was playing baseball as a child, earning a filmmaking award (he was a communications major in school) or learning the intricacies of jiu-jitsu, he has found ways to succeed.
He lost 22 matches as a high school freshman, but in the next three years, he lost a combined 23 while setting a school record for wins. In his first amateur MMA fight, he lost a close decision despite having to move up a weight class at the last moment when his original opponent dropped out. Since then, he's reeled off two straight wins, with his most recent in January coming in 21 seconds due to tapout.
"Training with him, you'd never know he had the disability," said Calandrelli. "He actually has created new ways to use it to his advantage and create submissions. And he has good standup. He's got really good kicks and Muay Thai, and he doesn't have to stand and trade because of his wrestling."
Since his last amateur bout, he took time off to polish up his game and actively prepare for his pro debut. CFX has matched him up against Dan Ford, an 0-1 pro.
"I think his story is inspirational," said matchmaker Gary Forman. "It was not very hard to find an opponent to fight Nick, the challenging part was to find a fight that matched up well with him. Nick is a very well-rounded fighter so that made it much easier."
Newell knows some may oppose his participation in MMA, the way some opposed the participation of congenital amputee Kyle Maynard, who recently lost a decision in his amateur debut. But the words of the critics matter little to him. Every champion starts with a dream, and every dream sounds impossible to small minds. Having the odds stacked against him just makes him the same as everyone else; the odds say very few will make it to the highest levels. But he can hold as inspiration fighters like Baxter Humby, the "One-Armed Bandit" who has become a kickboxing champion and with whom he's trained on a few occasions.
At 23, right now is not about getting to the UFC. It's about competition, testing himself and hopefully building a base for the future. He's been through hard times before, and he's gotten through them, so how hard can a single fight be?
"My goal is to prove that people with disabilities can go out and win," he said. "It's more of a message I'd like to send, that if you have a goal, go out and do it. Try it, whether it's fighting or something else. Whether you want to be the best at your job, or at sports, just do your best. Give it everything you have. Winning is very important to me, but at the end of the day, even if I lose, as long as I know I gave it everything I had, there's no shame in that."
Mike Chiappetta can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/MikeChiappetta
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