Sports, and particularly combat sports, have often offered the disabled a chance to compete and prove their perceived limitations are just that: imagined difficulties that ultimately do not affect performance. That assumes, however, those in power allowed all athletes an equal chance to compete on a proverbial level playing field.
In the case of Nick Newell, the XFC lightweight champion missing a portion of his left arm after a congenital amputation as a child, argues while some in the MMA industry have given him a chance, many of the most important power players keep slamming the door in his face.
And as he continues to get better, he's beginning to wonder aloud: how much longer is this going to continue?
Newell is honest with himself. He knows his condition is rare and a subject of curiosity, even among the well-intended. Even people with an open mind take time to be influenced that he can do what sounds impossible. It's even part of his identity.
"No matter how much I accomplish in this sport, it's always going to be something that gets brought up. I've come to terms with that," he told Ariel Helwani Monday on The MMA Hour. "People will always look at me as being the guy with one hand," he admitted.
But just as quickly as he is to be candid about the reality behind how he's perceived, he is pivoting to the changing dynamic of going from a novelty to a respected, proven competitor. This change has been happening slowly, but took a big leap when he beat Eric Reynolds in December to capture the XFC lightweight crown.
Reynolds, a fighter with a professional record of 16-6, has lost to Eddie Alvarez and Jorge Masvidal, but both fights went to the third round. Newell, by contrast, put Reynolds away in a mere minute and twenty-two seconds in the first round. "I feel like people are starting to look at me more as a talented fighter. I'm not just a guy who fights with hand. I'm a very talented fighter that happens to have one hand," Newell argues.
Still, as well as things are going in Florida with XFC, recent statements made by UFC President Dana White reminded Newell there are still hurdles to climb in overcoming the limitations others place on him.
"As much as I would like to be known and looked at for my fighting skill, it will always be an issue like with the whole Dana White interview. It's always going to be something that gets brought up."
After the pre-fight press conference for UFC 155 in December, White threw cold water on the idea of ever giving a UFC contract to a one-handed fighter despite Newell's obvious progress in the sport. "Never, no," White said of the possibility. "It's hard to fight here with two arms. It's tough. There's guys that we bring in that are considered top guys on The Ultimate Fighter that don't ever really pan out and make it. Will the state of Nevada let him fight? Will the state of California let him fight? Would some of these bigger athletic commissions let him fight? Maybe he can get away with that in some of these other states. I don't know, fighting with one arm is just craziness to me."
In Newell's mind, White has concerns about matters that aren't even in play. "I've already been licensed in Nevada, so that's not really an issue. At all," Newell said. "It kinda disappoints me that someone that's such a powerful figure in this sport feels that way or looks at me that way."
Newell knows his major issue in proving his worth is his resume. He needs to beat someone to answer the question of, well, who he has defeated. Reynolds was a step in the right direction, but not nearly enough. Yet, until he gets a chance to compete against the UFC's finest, Newell wonders how he is going to be able to demonstrate what he can do and some others think he can't.
"[The UFC] is where you can test yourself against the best guys in the world," he said. "I want to see where I stand among the world's elite fighters and I feel like I've earned my shot. Anyone else with my track record would be getting looked at, but it's due to outside circumstances," he lamented.
"I don't get discouraged too much about things like that. I'm not going anywhere in this sport. I'm good. A lot of those guys in the UFC, just because they're in the UFC doesn't mean they can beat me. I think I match up really well with a lot of people in there.
"[White] wants to talk about how he wants to give people equal opportunity - to women, to gay fighters and stuff like that. Well, I'd like my equal opportunity as well."
While the UFC has not dealt with many fighters with a wide range of disabilities, they have promoted and, for a time, prominently featured Matt Hamill, a fighter deaf since birth.
Newell has one fight left on his XFC contract, and believes he'll fulfill that final obligation sometime in April. In assessing his options, he is content to stay with XFC just as much as he is to test the waters elsewhere. He obviously would appreciate a crack at the UFC. And while Bellator has yet to express interest in his services, Newell said he'd be honored to fight against the Rick Hawn's and Michael Chandler's of the world.
More than anything, though, Newell just wants a chance to prove his mettle. And to get that, he needs the power players to honestly assess his record of achievement, not what others believe is missing.
So, for now, he waits. Newell is going to continue banging the drum for his case all the while. He maintains his happiness and light-hearted attitude through self-confidence and awareness of his own worth. The achievements of others who faced similar challenges in circumstances conventional or otherwise also keep a smile on his face and help him to know the barriers can be broken if you push hard enough.
"The MLB gave a shot to Jim Abbott, he did great," Newell said. "Even that chick on [ABC's] The Bachelor. They're giving her a shot."