After battling through years of frustration, Nick Newell finally sees a path to his UFC dreams.
A congenital amputee born without the lower half of his left arm, Newell reached a deal last week with the UFC to compete on the upcoming season of Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series, the UFC-produced show that has already launched the careers of promising prospects such as Sean O’Malley and Julian Marquez. A win on the Contender Series would likely pave the way for Newell to compete inside the Octagon, fulfilling a dream that has eluded Newell throughout his otherwise successful 10-year MMA career.
In truth, the opportunity was long overdue.
With a 14-1 record collected against mostly above-average competition, Newell has long been skilled enough to compete in the UFC, and likely would’ve gotten the chance if not for the stigma surrounding his disability. Frustrated by his lack of opportunity, Newell retired from the sport in 2015, but returned last month with a submission win over Sonny Luque at LFA 35. The victory put Newell’s name back in the headlines, and a meeting last week with White at UFC headquarters — brokered by Newell’s manager and former promoter, Ali Abdel-Aziz — at last opened a door to the Octagon that was long thought to be closed for the Connecticut native.
“I knew what I had to say, and [White] was very receptive and he listened,” Newell said Monday on The MMA Hour. “And obviously we discussed the issues that we might have and the backlash, and he just wanted to make sure that I was ready. And I’m ready. I have to do the Contender Series first, but I don’t mind taking the long road or the hard road. I’ve been doing that my whole life, so it’s not a big deal for me. If I have to win one more, if I have to win five more — it’s as long as I have a clear path. That’s all I asked for, a clear path to get there. And I have an opportunity to do that, so that’s what I’m happy about.”
Newell, 32, said he doesn’t have an opponent or a date yet for his Contender Series debut, but he plans to compete at his normal weight of 155 pounds.
The past few months have been a whirlwind for Newell. Reflecting back on his road, Newell admitted that he missed MMA from the moment he walked away from the sport in 2015, and would’ve regretted it forever if he hadn’t changed his mind about retirement. Newell said that at some time within the past year, he realized he wasn’t doing everything he could to make his dreams come true with the small window of time he had left, even if he felt like the deck had been stacked against him.
Fairly or unfairly, the burden of proof has laid with Newell since the beginning, to prove that he belonged and his efforts weren’t another sideshow. In time, he’s changed the minds of many of his nonbelievers with the trail of battered victims he’s left in his wake, but even now, pushback still exists online about his efforts. For some, the memory of Newell’s lone defeat — a bloody 2014 affair against now-UFC contender Justin Gaethje that aired nationally on NBC — still lingers as a statement about Newell’s limitations. That is, of course, both silly and unfair considering how many men Gaethje has beaten in similar fashion, but it’s a stigma that Newell knows he’ll face even more in the UFC.
“Obviously there’s always concerns and there’s always going to be people who have things to say about me, whether I win or lose,” Newell said. “When I win, it’s never good enough. When I lose, I should’ve never been fighting. But these are the same people who are just looking for excuses to say anything about anyone. For every one person you have that says, ‘Oh, I don’t want to see that guy fight, his arm’s gross,’ or something mean like, ‘Oh, he’s not that good,’ you have 100 people that want to see it.
“And obviously there’s issues with, ‘Oh, what will happen if you lose?’ But the truth is … if I lose, I lose. I’m a human being. It’s a fair fight. I’ve trained, I’m good, I’m at this level. So all I want is my chance, and I know that I can win. I’m confident that I can win. I mean, I wrestled in college, I’m a black belt in jiu-jitsu, and my footwork when I do striking is some of the best around, so it’s hard to deny that I’m good enough. It’s just getting the opportunity. So I basically told [White] how much it meant to me and that I’m ready, and this is what we agreed upon, and I’m very grateful that he gave me the opportunity.
“If I lose, I think people are going to give him a hard time, and it’s like, does he really want to deal with it?” Newell added. “So I think he realized that I’m UFC level, I’m world-class, it’s just that he wanted to see how passionate and serious I was taking it before he just gave me this opportunity, if my heart wasn’t in it, because the skill’s there. Because he’s going to catch slack no matter what. If you don’t sign me, it’s like, ‘How come you didn’t give this guy a chance?’ ... But if I lose, people are going to give him a hard time.
“The thing is that, if I were to lose, people would be like, ‘Oh my God,’ this and that, and then an event would happen the next week and people would forget completely about it, just like they forget about everything the week after it happens. Anything that I do when I go out there and fight, I have to live with for the rest of my life. I have to live with the people constantly tweeting me, showing me pictures, talking crap about me, making jokes.
“I’m the one who has to live with that my whole life, so I wouldn’t do this if I wasn’t ready, because I know what the backlash is. I know the backlash that I’m going to get, and the UFC’s not going to get the same treatment that I’m going to get. This is going to be something that I have to deal with my whole life. So if I wasn’t ready, I wouldn’t do it. I know 100 perfect that I’m ready, and that’s why I’m doing it.”
Some voices within the MMA community have argued that the Contender Series is beneath Newell, given his record and wealth of experience. The Contender Series is generally regarded as a makeshift proving ground for up-and-coming talent — the type of event that can showcase an 0-0 fighter like ex-NFL All-Pro Greg Hardy and not seem like it’s reaching — so there is merit to that argument in regards to Newell’s participation. Lesser fighters have certainly been given their shot directly at the UFC.
But although Newell can see where those who argue in favor of him are coming from, he is opting to simply look at his opportunity as a positive.
“The records of the guys I’ve beaten — I see a lot of guys get in [to the UFC] beating guys with not-as-good records,” Newell said.
“My average opponent is like 7-3 or something, so it’s whatever. If I have to fight to get in there, I look at what it can do for someone like Sean O’Malley. It built his star power and I think that I can kind of make that happen too, and I bring a lot of viewers to things. People pay attention to me when I fight, so I can bring people into this new show.
“And you know what? I just want to get into the UFC, and if they want to use me for this, to build this show, then I’ll do it. It’s not my company, it’s their vision, so they can do whatever they want in regards to that. Do I think that I belong in the UFC now? If they gave me the option to do either/or, which one would I take? Obviously, I’d just go straight in. But if I have to do this, that’s fine. That’s fine. It doesn’t matter to me, and the opponent doesn’t matter to me, and nothing matters to me in regards to that. The only thing that matters is that I have a path to get to where I want to go, and that’s fine.”
Newell said he hasn’t been told directly that a win on the Contender Series will lead to his long-awaited Octagon debut, but he imagines that “the chances are pretty high.”
“I haven’t been told anything, but I know that if I win and I win impressively, probably especially if I get the finish, which I’ve been known to do — 11 out of 14 fights, first round — that I will get the call, and I’m confident,” Newell said. “When I fight and when I finish fights, it’s usually something crazy or something impressive. I’ve had a few good showings, so I’m confident that I’m that bonus guy. I’m the guy that, when I get there, I’m going to win a lot of bonuses because I go out there to actually fight. I go out to win, and some people fight to actually not lose.”
That being said, although Newell sees a road that could — for the first time in his life — lead to the fulfillment of his Octagon dreams, he is making sure to not count his chickens before they’re hatched.
He knows he still has work to do.
“The thing is, I like that I have a clear path, that’s what I wanted, but I want to make that walk and I want to win in the UFC,” Newell said. “Just getting there is not enough, and I’m not even there yet. I still have to win on the Contender Series and I have to do so impressively, so I still have my work cut out for me.
“I’m ready to show what I’m capable of. I didn’t work 17 years to go out here and get my ass kicked.”