Less than a month since a devastating loss put a halt to his UFC dream, Nick Newell has already turned the page. It’s just another temporary setback in a series of them, just another thing to be overcome. This is the kid who lost his first 17 wrestling matches but kept stubbornly refusing to quit, ultimately setting his high school wins record. The one who lost his first amateur MMA fight, only to go pro and win a belt. Did all that with one hand.
So, this idea that a single loss means the end of his story? He’s not having it.
“People want to say, ‘I told you, it’s impossible. You can’t do it. It’s hard enough to do with two hands, let alone one,’ but I know what I’m capable of,” he told MMA Fighting. “Mentally, I’m all there. Cognitively, I’m an intelligent person. Physically, I’m there. I had a bad day and I lost. People have good days and bad days; I had a bad day. But because I have one hand, it’s because of that. But in my opinion, that’s not it. He was a better guy that day. But I belong. I’ll be back and I’ll prove it.”
The wounds of the loss are still raw for Newell, who has been chasing the UFC dream since he first stepped foot in an MMA gym during his college days. Many believe he had done enough at various points of his career far before the summer of 2018. That he’d get the call when he went 8-0, or when he won the XFC lightweight belt. Or when he reeled off four straight first-round wins, including two in World Series of Fighting. But it never came.
The opportunity on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series was supposed to be the UFC fast track he’d never before been offered. Win, make an impression, get in. But Newell couldn’t stop enough of Alex Munoz’s takedown attempts, and when he got his best opportunity to stop the fight with a guillotine choke, he couldn’t quite secure it.
The result, he says, was heartbreaking, and even now, he can’t help but feel the emotion of the moment. While few can identify with trying to fight at the highest level with one hand, anyone can understand what it’s like to diligently work toward something and then walk away in disappointment.
“It’s crazy that I have people telling me that I shouldn’t even try,” he said. “It’s f*cking frustrating because I don’t want anyone to treat me differently; I just want to be treated the same. I’m not doing this for the money or to become rich or famous. I’m doing it because I’m a competitor. I want to prove I belong and that I can get a win in UFC. Unfortunately, due to how I’m born, I don’t necessarily get as many opportunities as other people to prove myself. To some people, I’m not always as good as what I accomplished; I’m as bad as my mistakes. That’s an unfortunate way to look at things.”
Newell isn’t about to try to change those minds, he’s just going to continue to work. He’s already back in the gym, and is looking forward to seeing what kind of offers will come his way next. He’d consider fighting again on DWTNCS, even though the fight purse represents a pay cut from what he can earn on the regional scene. He’d entertain offers from Bellator or the Professional Fighters League, and he’d be more than willing to step up if the UFC needed a short-notice fighter.
In his mind, that UFC outcome is still a real possibility. He can rattle off the names of top fighters — Mauricio Rua, T.J. Dillashaw, Anthony Pettis — who lost in their first Octagon encounter and went on to great things. What’s to say he couldn’t do the same?
Having trained with UFC fighters many times before, his ability to compete at that level is not even a question in his mind. It’s all about opportunity and timing. For a 32-year-old professional athlete, both are precious commodities.
“Obviously the window’s closing in terms of time,” he said. “You don’t see too many 35 or 36-year-old lightweights still killing it and making a name for themselves. They tend to focus on the younger guys. But if I can get in, get a couple wins and make a name for myself, I can prove that I can do it. I think I still have enough time to get that done.”
The sting of the defeat has been salved in part by everything else going on in his busy life. He’s still a newlywed, married last November to his longtime girlfriend Danielle. He recently bought a new home. He has a thriving gym, Fighting Arts Academy CT. And in November, he and Danielle are due with their first child.
“In my opinion I’m winning at life,” he said. “Every day, I wake up and do something I love. I have my school, I have students that respect me and care about me. I have the most amazing wife. I’m going to be a dad. So I’m a happy person outside of fighting, and even in fighting. Even though I lost, I still had a good time out there.”
Newell has beaten the odds before, many times in fact. And if he were to do it again here, it would prove his greatest triumph. But the other possibility is there, too. That this time, he won’t beat the odds to live out his dream. There’s a chance he may never have another shot at MMA’s premier promotion, and that the “I told you so” crowd will have the last word.
Or will they?
The thing about sports like wrestling and MMA that Newell has chased is that you go into them thinking they are all about competing against someone else, when in fact it is mostly a singular exploration of yourself. About escaping your self-imposed boundaries, facing your fears, surpassing your limitations. And in that, no one can ever say Newell failed.
“I think I’ve accomplished a lot and proven a lot,” he said. “Although it wasn’t my original intention, I’ve shown what people facing obstacles can accomplish. I’ve had people asking me for years, ‘Why are you doing this?’ It’s something I can’t explain, but I’ve always kept pushing. There’s something to be said about being the guy who shows up first and leaves last. Maybe I won’t be the best, maybe I won’t get a shot in the UFC, maybe people say shit to me that is f*cking unreal. But I keep going. I’m just a guy who keeps doing it, keeps pushing. And one day, when I hang up the gloves for real, I don’t want to look back and say I didn’t try because I didn’t believe in myself.
“Whatever happens, I’ll be able to say I gave it everything I had.”