One of mixed martial arts' most improbable success stories is making its way to the silver screen.
Notorious Nick, a new feature-length biopic depicting the rise of one-handed fighter Nick Newell, is the latest passion project of Hollywood producers Howard Burd and Mark DiSalle, the latter of Kickboxer and Bloodsport fame. And for the now-retired Newell, who figured the next chapter of his life would be quieter than the one that saw him get punched in the mug for a living, the reality of what is about to come is the best kind of unknown.
"When someone calls you up, especially Howard and Mark -- Howard's done a lot of pictures with some really big names, and Mark produced Bloodsport, which is probably my favorite movie of all-time -- so I was like, wait... what?" Newell admits. "Obviously I looked everything over and made sure it was legit, and it was. And it's a little surreal. Me, I'm not known as someone who gets over-excited about things, or somebody who jumps out of their couch and gets all hyped for things, but this definitely has me a little hyped up. I'm really excited for this project."
The way Burd tells it, Newell's story first caught his eye around the same time the rest of the mixed martial arts world became entranced with the headstrong congenital amputee who was leaving a trail of beaten bodies splayed across the east coast. He watched from afar as Newell did the incredible -- a steady line of killers bested by the quiet kid from Milford with one hand. The whole thing blew Burd away.
At the time, Burd was working on Garry Marshall's Mother's Day alongside DiSalle, and DiSalle, too, was captivated from the first article Burd sent to him. The two friends knew then that they needed to act.
"It's like having a baby, doing a movie," says DiSalle. "You can only do so many, because it's a couple of years, every film, of your life. So you have to pick something certainly that resonates with you. You have to be passionate about it.
"And it really is when I got on the phone with Nick -- Nick's one of those guys, he had me at hello. He started telling me some facts about himself and growing up and his mentors, things he had to overcome besides the obvious. It takes so much to be a professional MMA fighter. It's tough enough, but to do it with one hand is pretty amazing. So it was after I spoke to Nick and he told me, really, his story, that's when I got hit with, this is a great inspirational story that needs to be told."
Burd and DiSalle commissioned a screenplay to be penned by Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken, the tag-team behind the J.J. Abrams-produced 10 Cloverfield Lane. And things haven't slowed down since.
It's all a little thrilling for Newell, as if cut-and-pasted out of a dream that appears too far-fetched to be real. Because who really expects to one day sit down on a couch and read a third-hand retelling of themselves, of every success and hardship, every relationship, every memory with every figure who ever played a small part?
"Man, I've had a lot of crazy things happen in my life," Newell says. "I don't ever get overwhelmed. But it was kind of weird, just opening [the script]. They sent me over the rough draft, and just opening took a couple days for me to, like, take a couple deep breaths and be like, okay, I'm going to read it.
"I've had the same circle of friends since I was in elementary school. Even being a fighter and fighting on TV, obviously a lot of things happened, but my life has been mostly the same. I still hang out with the same people. I still do the stuff I would do anyway if I wasn't a fighter and no one paid attention to me, so it's going to be a little surreal watching it. But it's also just going to be kind of a cool, unique thing. That's basically the only way I see it. Not a lot of people get an opportunity to tell something like this, to show something like this."
Considering that Newell's favorite movie growing up was Bloodsport, he says he couldn't have asked for a better partner than DiSalle.
The longtime producer's film career dates back nearly three decades. And though this marks a return to form for the martial arts loving DiSalle, he noted that he and Burd are attempting to do something different with Notorious Nick. Rather than funnel their project through a major studio, the duo is hoping to produce Notorious independently. The first step of that process kicked off Sept. 20, with the launch of an Indiegogo campaign that hopes to raise capital to fund the movie.
According to DiSalle, the campaign is only one of many funding devices the team plans to use, along with the more traditional methods DiSalle has implemented to great success on past projects. However, both he and Burd are intrigued by the freedom and intimacy a crowd-sourcing approach affords.
"A lot of times I like to use the studio for distribution. But when you do it independently, you're controlling the process more, which means you can take more risks," says Burd. "And I felt on this particular film, it needed to be a little edgier. It's going to be commercial, but not as formulaic, so I wanted to really push the limits. Because Nick pushed the limits in his true life, I wanted to do that in the film-making as well. Plus, he has a huge fanbase, who I wanted to make this very personal with."
"Giving people the chance to participate is what intrigued me about the crowd-source funding," adds DiSalle. "More than anything else, I think when people feel a part of something, it's just a great feeling. And certainly, people can do that with this movie. I wish I able to do that with, like, a Bloodsport or Kickboxer or any of those other movies, where fans can really participate."
The success of the Indiegogo campaign will go far in dictating the level of talent the team can secure on the acting and directorial side of things, although both Burd and DiSalle have several names already in mind for many of the major roles.
The duo knows what it is up against, too. More than a few mixed martial arts films have crashed and burned over recent years, with many either received as too formulaic or too campy. DiSalle sees the trend, but as someone with considerable experience in the martial arts genre, he ensures that Notorious Nick will be different.
"It's not just about fighting, and I think that's the biggest thing," DiSalle says. "It's a true inspirational story that has many facets. Important mentorships that Nick had, tragedies that he had to overcome.
"Without the fighting, it's a really good story. So when you add in the exciting fighting elements that are part of the story, that to me is what makes this a movie that will stand out among others that have dealt with MMA. It's about having a solid story, as well as doing the fighting as realistic as possible. The choreography, the stunts, everything for a fight needs to be real, or real-looking anyway. And that takes planning, and it's something I have a lot of experience in."
The team is hoping to wrap filming by April or May of next year, with a targeted release date in late 2017. That means plenty of long days and restless nights for Newell, who intends to continuing running his Fighting Arts Academy gym in West Haven between traveling and consulting on Notorious every step of the way.
Newell admits he never could have anticipated any of this happening when he stepped away from the sport he loved last year. But in the end, he also couldn't be happier or more fulfilled with how his second chapter in MMA is playing out.
"I just hope that it's something that people can relate to," Newell says. "I know that might not make sense, but if you really look deep into it -- me, I've never made a big deal out of having one hand. It's never been, like, ‘look at me, I have one hand. Look at me, I'm doing this. I'm going to show this and prove this.' I'm a human and I have my difficulties or flaws, if you want to call it that. I don't think there's anything wrong with it, but you know, I have my problems. But everyone has problems and everyone has obstacles that they face. Mine is something you can see and you can notice, and you say ‘oh, it must be hard for that guy, he's only got one hand.' But a lot of people are facing challenges that you can't see, things that make life hard. And I'm not just talking about fighting.
"I'm talking about any dream that you have. There's always something that makes it more difficult for you than others to do things, and there's a lot of people who are in situations similar to me. Maybe they have different goals, but they're facing challenges and you can't always see them. So I feel like it's going to be something that a lot of people can relate to. I look at myself as being a normal person and just an everyday guy, who, there was nothing special about me. I just had a dream to be the best at what I loved, to be the best version of myself and see how far it could go. And it went pretty far."