Nick Newell knows it's coming, even before he hears it. Every interview, every fight week, there's always those same few questions. Speculation about what he can't do, whether one day some right high kick is going to swing upward and crack him where his left hand would've been. What then? All that momentum, lost. Almost two decades of hard work relegated into a false self-fulfilling prophecy, like the greatest among us have never stumbled, and one loss suddenly means he's hit the ceiling to his potential as a professional fighter.
This fight week, with the savagery of WSOF lightweight champion Justin Gaethje looming on NBC, is no different. But such is life as a congenital amputee. Every time out means one more chance for people's suspicions to be confirmed.
"Whether I like it or not, it's something that I have to deal with," Newell says. "It's something that I have to live with, and it's something that, it doesn't define me. I could be 60-0. I could be the champion, number one in the world, beat everyone, and then I lose one fight and people are going to say I suck. People are going to say ‘I told you so.'
"I told you so, what? I can't explain it. I'm not a jealous person, I've never been like that. If there's something I want in this world, I always just go out and work hard to get it. Life's not fair, and sometimes you have to work harder to get the things you want. There's people who are willing to do that and there's people who aren't. I've beaten some world-class fighters. When I won the XFC title, Eric Reynolds, he's legit. My last guy was 8-2 when I beat him. The guy before that was 9-1. It's not like I'm beating these jabronis. I'm beating legit fighters. I already feel like I've proven everything I need to prove in terms of legitimacy. Whatever happens from here on out is really irrelevant in terms of my capabilities as a fighter."
If Newell carries a chip on his shoulder, it's an understandable one. Fairly or unfairly, the burden of proof that laid with him from the beginning, to prove that he belonged, to prove this wasn't another sideshow, still remains. It's surely been eased by the trail of mangled and unconscious bodies he's left in his wake on his road to the title, but even now, Newell understands the game he must play.
While he bristles at the notion that he is handicapped, if Newell gets starched by Gaethje live on national television, the spectacle and the uproar and that damn ignorant narrative comes roaring back, and suddenly he's the one-handed man who was trotted out like a lamb to slaughter for our entertainment. It's bizarre and wholly undeserved, but it's also a more tangible feeling than many would like to acknowledge.
Simply ask him, and Newell will tell you he continues to be pissed off about it, along with the UFC's reluctance to offer him a chance to shatter that perception. He'll admit that he gets angry when he sees fighters like Dashon Johnson, whose opponents held a combined 13-39 record, climb inside the Octagon while the big show just shrugs its shoulders when Newell's own name is brought up. It's fuel, motivation to continue down this path, and when the inevitable questions arise about Gaethje's supposed striking edge, the casual indifference towards Newell's own abilities just stokes that fire.
"I mean, look at me fight," Newell says. "Who have you seen outstrike me? No one can name one person that I've fought in 11 fights who's outstruck me. Maybe I beat them on the ground, but what does that mean? I don't even really get hit. If you watch any of my fights -- watch them, my last six fights were televised -- try to find someone who really hit me.
"[It doesn't bother me] because I know it's not true and I know what I'm capable of. Having people underestimate you is a good problem to have. Having someone underestimate your abilities is not a bad problem to have, and I can sit here and I can talk about how good I think I am, but if I don't go out and prove it, it means nothing. I don't talk the talk. I walk the walk."
Gaethje himself is promising fireworks, which seems fitting for a Fourth of July celebration of violence. He said on Monday that no matter how deep Newell gets on a shot, the only way he goes down is if he stumbles trying to kick Newell's head clean off. The declaration is a perfect testament to Gaethje's own flair for the unhinged, but if Newell has his way, it may also be the champ's downfall.
"His advantage is how athletic he is and how quick off the line he is," explains Newell. "He can take a shot, he's tough, he's not afraid to get hit. But I'm not the right guy to be unafraid to get hit by. I hit pretty hard, and I'm going to show that on Saturday night. Just look at my knee knockout. I think I have a technical advantage even where he's best, which is the clinch with a left hand tie and then striking from there. That's like my best position, so I hope he goes for that. I hope he goes after me there."
Truthfully, the storylines couldn't have been scripted any better. Two fighters, both 11-0, both masterful in their respective disciplines, both with 10 scalps to call their own, both with everything to prove at World Series of Fighting's prodigious network debut. Mixed martial arts has never been seen before on NBC, and even if UFC 175 and the FIFA World Cup greet the dawn with a higher profile, Newell is confident that he and Gaethje will make their mark before the sun sets.
"I think that even if people aren't watching at first, it's going to be something that, once it starts, and once me and Justin start throwing down, people are going to be like, you have to turn this on," he promises with a grin. "I feel like this is going to be World Series of Fighting's breakout show, kinda similar to 'The Ultimate Fighter 1' finale, where the fights are just so awesome that people drop what they're doing to tune in.
"I think it has the potential to be [like Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar]. I mean, that's a big fight to live up to. That's a knockdown, drag-out slugfest. But I feel like we both have the power to finish the fight at any moment, and I have the grappling to finish it in the blink of an eye on the ground. It has all the makings of a fantastic fight."