With only one fully developed arm, Nick Newell is a rising star in the world of mixed martial arts.
Mixed martial artist Nick Newell has carved a career out of defying expectations. With just one fully developed arm, he has punched, battered and trashed his opponents to emerge victorious in the World Series of Fighting (WSOF) circuit’s lightweight category.
Newell was previously unbeaten in 11 matches until Justin Gaethje toppled him two months ago with a massive flurry of strikes. He bludgeoned an exhausted and blood-drenched Newell before sending him packing.
Still, for someone born with a birth condition known as congenital amputation, Newell’s accomplishment is extraordinary. His left arm stops about three inches past the elbow.
“I feel like being the one-handed fighter isn’t what defines me,” he says in a recent phone interview from New York. “It’s just a part of who I am. It’s the part that sticks out and people want to pay attention to. But, when they actually see me fight, they’ll know it’s so much more than that.”
According to The Free Dictionary’s online medical dictionary, an estimated one in 2,000 babies is born with all or part of a limb missing. This number includes everything from a missing part of a finger to the absence of both arms and both legs. Congenital amputation is the least common form of amputation.
There have been occasional periods in history when the frequency of congenital amputations has increased. For example, in the 1960s, many pregnant women were given tranquillisers containing the drug thalidomide. The result was the “thalidomide tragedy” during which there was a drastic increase in the number of babies born with deformations of the limbs. In this case, the birth defect usually presented itself as very small, deformed versions of normal limbs.
Despite his birth defect, Newell wasn’t raised differently from other children.
“My mum wanted me to be like every other kid. As a boy, I liked to do everything boys did. When I wanted to play sports, I chose to play baseball and my mum signed me up. I was never sheltered or held back from doing anything I wanted to do,” shares the 27-year-old from Milford, Connecticut.
Newell tried using prosthetics when he was young but found it cumbersome. “I didn’t like it and took it off. I believe I can do anything anyone else can without one, so why do I need to wear one? I don’t feel I need to be something for anyone. I’m very comfortable with my own body,” he says.
That’s the stubborn part of him talking. He adds, “Yeah, I drive, I ride a bike, I tie my shoelace, etc. It takes a little longer for me and it’s harder to learn, but I’ve always been very stubborn and I make sure I do what it takes to learn things.”
Growing up, did Newell have to put up with insensitive jokes and taunting from other kids?
“I don’t put up with any of that, but it wasn’t as bad as what you’d expect. I’ve always been good and respectful towards others, so people looked up to me. It really didn’t get bad until I started appearing on television, and then people started saying negative things about me,” says Newell, who is also a motivational speaker and works with a charity called the Luckyfin Project.
Citing former New York Yankees pitcher Jim Abbot as his childhood idol, Newell yearned to be like him. Abbot, who was born without a right hand, was an All-American hurler at Michigan; won the Sullivan Award (equivalent to the Oscars in sports) in 1987; and was the pitcher for the Gold Medal Olympic Team in 1988.
“I played baseball for a little bit, but I wasn’t meant to be a pitcher. I’m not as talented as Abbot was. I don’t have the accuracy or the power in my throws. I made the all-star team in baseball, but it wasn’t fun for me. I didn’t enjoy it, so I went into martial arts because it intrigued me,” says Newell.
He picked up Brazilian jujitsu, muay thai, boxing and kickboxing. He joined the wrestling team in high school.
“Everyone had to wrestle me, there was no choice or your team loses out. At the beginning, I wasn’t that good. I lost my first 19 matches, but I worked hard and dedicated myself to the sport. Instead of hanging out with my friends, I spent entire summers away at wrestling camps. I ended up being good, and then people didn’t want to go against me!” he recalls.
Early in his career, Newell found it difficult to find opponents, as many fighters perceived fighting “a one-armed fighter” as a lose-lose proposition. He struggled, but persevered.
“I never really wanted to become a professional fighter. It’s something I fell into. I just think as a human being, you should know how to defend yourself because it can give you a little bit of confidence. So I started training and fighting. I kept winning and got carried away. It’s tough at times and can be an emotional ride. But I love it!
“I would recommended wrestling for kids who are missing more limbs than me and for people who are missing no limbs. It’s good to know how to defend yourself. You don’t have to fight. I was very insecure when I first got to high school, but wrestling gave me the confidence to come out of my shell and be myself.”
Given time, the former Xtreme Fighting Championship (XFC) kingpin could easily become one of the best lightweight fighters in the world within WSOF’s realm. Newell was nominated for 2013 Breakthrough Fighter of the Year at the prestigious World MMA Awards, although he didn’t win the title.
He doesn’t appear to distract himself with trivialities that might otherwise impede a fighter’s ability in the cage. Instead, he is an efficient, focused, “machine” that one shouldn’t underestimate.
As a tired Gaethje commented after the match, “I’ve been asking for one thing, and that’s a war. And that’s what Nick just gave me. So I appreciate him and I thank him. Every time I talked about this fight, I said he’s got heart and more confidence than anybody I’ve ever fought and it was going to be a task to make him quit.”
Newell says, “Just fighting in a match is excitement enough. It’s part of my job and my passion. I don’t do anything to be second best. I always want to win in everything I do, no matter what I’m playing. It could be chess or chequers… I’m going to cash in on it! In the match with Justin, it just wasn’t my day. I had a bad performance.”
Instead of having the fighting fraternity label him, Newell quickly gave himself a moniker – “Notorious” Nick. “It’s a nickname I gave myself because it was very important to me that I don’t get branded as ‘the one-handed fighter’. I just wanted to be known as a fighter who happened to have one hand. I found a name that rolled off the tongue.”
However, doesn’t that contradict the nice guy image that he portrays?
Newell laughs. “A lot of guys are nicknamed ‘the assassin’, and they’re not really assassins. I think the name is just a figurative nickname.”
The fighter trains anywhere from three to six hours a day, six days a week. A daily must-do: napping. “The training is hard, hectic and fast-paced, so I have to get rest,” he says. “To unwind, I surf the Net, go to the beach, relax with friends, hang out with my girlfriend, who makes really healthy, good food, and just chill. It’s good to do nothing sometimes to slow things down.”
How does he see himself in a decade?
“I don’t even know how I see myself next week! All I know is that I’ll keep working as hard as I can. I know I have a place among the best in the sport and I’m ready to go out there and show it. Everyone I fight presents a unique challenge so the toughest journey is the one ahead of you,” he concludes.
Catch Nick Newell in action on Sept 8 on KIX HD (Astro Channel 729). The World Series of Fighting 11 is aired on Mondays at 10pm.