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Nick Newell on unrelenting injuries that forced retirement: It was 'overwhelming for me'

Mike Chiappetta, MMA Fighting

Every fighter knows retirement is inevitable, but few seem to know when or how that moment or circumstance will prevent itself.

For Nick Newell, that moment came on Saturday at WSOF 24 after his unanimous decision victory over Tom Marcellino. Newell, a congenital amputee on his left arm since birth, cited a series of debilitating injuries that both prevented strong performances in the cage and caused him concern over the future quality of life.

"It was the right decision for me, I feel. In the end, time will tell. For me, it's been really tough training for these fights. I feel like I underperformed my last three fights and I felt like, really, it was out of my control," he told Ariel Helwani on Monday's The MMA Hour. "I've been dealing with a lot of injuries throughout my fight camps. Every time, it just seems like I get some momentum going, I get hurt and I can't do anything, so I gotta take it easy and I gotta not train and I gotta step back.

"Then when I fight, my cardio becomes an issue because I haven't been train as hard as I should be when I have these important fights coming up. It just seems like I have a bunch of things that keep coming back even if I take care of them proper. It's just a little overwhelming for me. I don't want to treat my fans or anyone that likes me to a watered-down version of me. I want the best version of me possible. I just felt like it was time to step away."

According to the now former WSOF lightweight, the decision to call it quits had been weighing on him for some time, although he shared his decision with no one on Saturday prior to the contest.

The injuries that forced his hand, he said, were something he initially thought he could deal with. This was a condition he thought was either temporary or manageable. He said he hurt his back badly before his title fight with Justin Gaethje in July of 2014, but told himself it would be a "one-time thing."

As it turns out, it would happen two more times including prior to Saturday's fight.

"Really for this fight, I only got to train a week and a half, two weeks for it because I completely hurt my back. I couldn't even move. I looked like a 90-year-old man walking around. I really wanted to do this fight and I really thought I would be able to perform and my performance was not to my standards. It's not the type of performance I would want people to remember me for. It's not the type of performance I have shown in the past, that I'm capable of much better. I just don't want to have my career be like that. I want to be an entertaining fighter.

"At the end of the day, it is about winning and doing your best," he continued. "I don't feel like I can perform at my best anymore."

It's an early retirement with Newell at 29. Some have wondered whether in a year or two or even three, if he feels better and has healed, would he ever return to the cage?

"I never say never because we don't know. Only time will tell, but for now, I have a bunch of things that I need to take care of that I need to set up for my future, things that I need to do to make sure that as I get older that I'm financially set," he explained. "I need to see how my body heals. I need to see how I can handle training."

That is where Newell's concern for his present situation bleeds into his apprehension about a future gone wrong as well. Part of his decision is motivated by his need to improve now. Another part is driven by a worry about what things should never look like.

"I just want to listen to [my body]. I don't want to be that guy that goes out there and fights and gets his ass kicked by someone that shouldn't be beating him up just because I want to collect a paycheck."

As for what he'll do now, he's not entirely sure. He's thinking of opening his own gym. If WSOF has any PR work for him to do, he's open to that. There are other small projects in the works as well.

Newell didn't explicitly say he's leaving the game without having accomplished what he set out to do. He's mostly satisfied with his career. For Newell, though, the bigger issue was the inability to recognize just who was competing in there. As he tells it, that wasn't him, but a cheap, injured, beat-up and lesser version of what's actually there. That's a version he couldn't stand to look at.

"Obviously, there's a couple more things I'd like to accomplish and things I'd like to do. I feel like I've done a lot. My type of personality is I'll never be satisfied. There will always be more than you can do. But for me, my body just isn't listening anymore. It's just a very hard things. It's very emotional these past couple fights, going through and doing it.

"If you watch the fight, you can see I got tired in the third round and I got tired in the third round in the fight before that. I got tired in the second round against Gaethje and it's like, that's not how I am. I've always been a guy with good cardio. I've been finishing these fights in the first round before this because I've had such great cardio that I can push a pace like that for the entire fight. I'd be a quick starter. I just can't do that anymore because I can't train like that. I feel like I'm not the same savage, young kid. I know I'm only 29, but I've been going since I was 14 years old."

But what about his one-time quest to get into the UFC? For years, but especially in 2013, Newell made public pushes to get signed by the world's top-fighting organization. He was ultimately rebuffed with UFC brass saying he'd 'never' be allowed be in the Octagon. Does he wish he'd climbed that hill before hanging up the gloves?

"For a while that really was what I wanted and I thought that was what I needed to justify a good career, was to get in there," he admitted. "Really, I don't need anyone to say whether I'm good enough or not. I know I'm good enough. I know that I could beat most of the guys in there. If they didn't want me, they didn't want me. I'm not going to resent that. That's going to be the least of my worries or things I think about in retirement.

"They had a chance and World Series took me and they took good care of me. I'm fine with them. I'm not going to beg anyone to hire me or have me fight for them. World Series gave me a chance, I went 4-1 in their organization. They're one of the biggest organizations in the world. I'm OK with fighting for them."

As for what's left undone or unaccomplished, Newell is candid. Still, he's proud of what he did manage to do.

"My biggest moment probably was winning the XFC title. That was pretty cool. I was a big underdog at the time. Eric Reynolds beat a bunch of good fighters, he was on a hot streak. It was just kinda cool, the environment and everything was super cool.

"I really like my first hometown fight, which was my last one versus Joe Condon. The experience was really cool. The crowd was really live. I didn't know that many people from Connecticut really appreciated what I did and supported me. That was awesome.

"Then there was a lot of little things like my pro debut, all of my friends that came out," he remarked. "It's just cool seeing how my friends and family supported me."

Newell also acknowledges his physical condition has made him something of a role model or inspiration to others. Through fighting, he's served as a very public example of what can be achieved through belief. In service of that role, he's found a degree of satisfaction.

"Then all the people I meet through the Internet that have been able to encourage me and support me; the kids I've gotten to speak to that have one hand. People that have cerebral palsy a lot reach out to me and ask me for advice, I give them advice. I help kids learn how to tie their shoes and stuff like that.

"It feels good giving back," he said. "If I wasn't beating people up, I wouldn't be able to do stuff like that. It's kinda weird how the world works. I hurt people in the cage, but I help people as soon as I get out of it.

"There's just so many things. I owe a lot to MMA. I have nothing to say about anyone who I've ever fought or anyone that I fought for, any organizations. I'm just very grateful."

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Newell's career and life to this point has simply been his attitude. He admits he's never been naturally good at anything, but always doggedly determined to get better. More than that, though, is his belief that what made him special to others - a man with a congenital amputation fighting in mixed martial arts professionally - was never a big deal. His missing hand just wasn't that important to him. He was going to do what he wanted.

That, it seems, was his secret to success all along and why he'll likely be remembered now that it's over.

"The world's a perfect as it can get. This is the way the world is. I think overall I'll be remembered as a good fighter. This is, it's a part of who I am. It's not who I am, but it's a part of it and it's a big part and it makes me stand out. If that's how I'm going to be remembered, it's how I'm going to be remembered. When I started fighting, I kinda figured that's how I'd be remembered, but it wasn't why I did it. I've never gone out to be, 'I'm going to show the world!'

"To me, it's not a big deal," he claimed, speaking of his physical condition. "It's always been possible for anyone to do anything if they put their mind to it. It's always been nothing to me. It's something to a lot of people, though. That means a lot to me that it means a lot to other people, that I'm there doing it with one hand even though it's not a big deal to me. It is to other people. It's cool that I can touch people in that way."

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