There was a time UFC president Dana White said women would never fight in the Octagon. Then he met a singular individual talent and changed his mind, and earned buckets of money. Maybe this is one of those kinds of crossroads moments for White. Maybe it’s not. There’s only one way to find out: sign Nick Newell.
I’m not trying to pretend this is a perfectly parallel situation. There is no influx of physically disabled fighters threatening to kick down the UFC’s doors. But it is similar in one way: White once said Newell would “never” fight in the UFC, and that’s a statement he’s not yet backed away from, even though it’s about time.
After vanquishing Sonny Luque in his LFA 35 comeback fight last Friday night, Newell put a little shine on an already gaudy record. He’s now 14-1 with 11 finishes. Newell is also the proud owner of a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, won 123 wrestling matches in high school, and captained his college team at Western New England University. It is the resume of a serious and accomplished athlete.
On its surface, that record is about as good as it gets, but it’s a failure to look past Newell’s physical surface level that has led MMA’s major organizations to shy away from him. If he had any appearance other than his own — he was born with one hand — he would have been contracted to compete in the UFC or Bellator a long time ago. If he was covered in tattoos, if he had a ridiculous haircut, if he regularly wore a fur coat and a top hat, he would be further along than he is now, stuck just shy of where he wants to be.
Being born with a congenital amputation should not sentence you to a life of limited opportunity, but that clearly occurs more than it should. Still, Newell has approached his days with a special kind of vigor, attacking his pursuits with focus and drive. But not every ambition is his alone to unlock. Sometimes, others must determine that yes, you have proven yourself capable, and can join the club. That is what Newell is up against now. The UFC is an organization he can’t force his way into. He can knock, cajole, campaign and push, but the final decision is not his. There is no automatic entry with a magic number of victories or a sustained winning streak; he is simply at the whim of the decision makers.
Hopefully, with his return to the forefront, they give him a fair shake.
Newell has spoken of earning a chance at the big time since before he ever went pro. I first profiled him in June 2009. He was 23 years old and had his future in front of him.
”That’s every fighter’s goal, you know? To fight for the UFC,” he said then. “I think it’d be great. Regardless of whether I have a disability or not, I always want to win and be the best.”
At the time, it would have been easy to write Newell off as another dreamer. After all, the odds are against anyone chasing that kind of goal, let alone someone born with only one hand. But the thing is, it was supposed to be reality that made that determination. Newell would step in to compete, and either he could do it, or he couldn’t.
All he did was win — using chokes and heel hooks and guillotines — and at some point, a sense of frustration had to sink in about why the call never came. When he finally lost against Justin Gaethje in 2014, it seemed like the doubters finally had their ammunition. As if losing to Gaethje was some kind of black mark.
He bounced back, of course. Consecutive wins, followed by a short-lived retirement, followed now by a triumphant return. One more crack at the golden ticket. That fresh-faced kid is now soon to turn 32; not old, but running short on time to be sure. And by now it must clearly be said that he’s earned it.
Nearly every event now, the UFC has debuting fighters whose records don’t touch Newell’s. During last week’s UFC 222, for example, came Alexander Hernandez, who entered with an 8-1 mark. And at UFC 223, here comes Mike Rodriguez, who is 9-2. Every case is its own, of course, and these fighters got the call on their own merits, while Newell has earned the opportunity on his.
There are several reasons for the UFC (or Bellator) to step up with a contract.
First is his success. No one goes 14-1 by accident. Newell stops opponents mainly on the strength of a nasty submission game but has solid kicks from the outside, a tight jab and a step-in elbow. In no sport is merit so hard-earned as it is in MMA, and Newell’s accomplishments are beyond reproach. No one knows how high he can reach in the UFC, but he should have the chance to have that determined organically rather than theoretically.
Second is his marketability. If you are a football fan, you have probably seen the stories of University of Central Florida star linebacker Shaquem Griffin, who like Newell, has only one hand. Griffin absolutely destroyed the NFL scouting combine (despite only being invited at the last minute, does that sound familiar?) and is now projected as a third- or fourth-round draft selection. If Griffin can earn his chance in the cutthroat NFL, why shouldn’t Newell get his shot in the UFC? And if the organization reversed course and signed him, the media would certainly be wildly interested in his against-the-odds story.
Third, it’s just time. The thing about MMA is that the competition is so fierce that the unworthy get naturally weaned out of the system. If Newell stunk at MMA, or even if he was simply average, there would be no debate. He’s not a charity case trying to live out a wish. He’s damn good and damn consistent at his job.
Ultimately, Newell’s fate will be determined by a roomful of men, none of them him. Hopefully, White, Mick Maynard and Sean Shelby take a closer look at all that he’s done and ponder all that he’ll ever be and let him go chase the true limits of his potential. It isn’t unprecedented; White did it with Ronda Rousey and that worked out wonderfully for the organization. And just like in that case, this move isn’t just right; it is earned.