Nick Newell wants MMA fans to see him as a talented fighter, one skilled enough to fight for a championship and headline a nationally televised card.
He knows he’ll be judged on so much more.
Newell has defeated every fighter he’s faced inside the cage, becoming a submission specialist en route to a lightweight championship bout — and an inspiration to all who watched him topple the odds and become one of the top fighters outside of UFC.
Newell was born with only one fully developed arm, due to a birth condition known as congenital amputation. His left arm stops about three inches past the elbow. He has become known in MMA circles as one the one-handed fighter. Newell would rather just be called, champion.
"I feel like being the one-handed fighter isn’t what defines me," he said. "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.
"I don’t feel like I have something to prove because I have one hand. I’ve already proved if you work hard, you can accomplish anything with the right drive and work ethic."
Newell (11-0) fights World Series of Fighting lightweight champion Justin Gaethje (11-0) on Saturday for the Las Vegas-based promotion’s debut on NBC. Newell won the Xtreme Fighting Championship’s 155-pound belt in December 2012 before relinquishing the title to move to the WSOF.
"It’s something that makes me unique," he said. "Some people like that, some people don’t. But it’s something I have to deal with."
One who doesn’t, UFC President Dana White. White said last year that Newell would never fight in UFC, the biggest MMA promotion on the globe, saying, "I don’t know, fighting with one arm is just craziness to me."
The 28-year-old Newell, 5-foot-10, 155 pounds, insisted he was happy in WSOF and brushed off White’s comments.
"They’re too worried about what people would think more than they’re worried about having the best fighters in the world," Newell said. "I was a free agent and World Series of Fighting gave me a great offer and I’m happy."
Raised in Milford, Connecticut, Newell refused to let his disability serve as a roadblock toward his athletic pursuits. He wrestled in high school — losing his first 17 matches, by his count — before becoming a regular winner. He later captained the Western New England College wrestling team.
"It was the kind of thing where if they lost to him, they’d be ashamed about losing to a kid with one arm," Newell’s college teammate, Brian Myers, said. "It’s almost like losing to a girl, almost. But I found it rather difficult to wrestle him in practice. His elbow was pretty exposed and it was too his advantage because he could legally strike you with it like it was his hand."
Like so many college roommates, Newell and Myers were glued to the TV every Monday night to watch WWE’s "Monday Night Raw" and UFC’s "The Ultimate Fighter."
Myers gravitated more toward sports entertainment — using the ring name Curt Hawkins he’d become a tag team champion performing for WWE. Newell was hooked on every choke, kick, and submission in the brutal MMA circuit.
"I was like, what is this? I have to learn this," he said.
About graduating college, he walked into the Fighting Arts Academy in Springfield, Massachusetts, to seriously pursue the sport. Trainer Jeremy Libiszewski never hesitated working with a one-handed prospect.
"I said, ‘Here are some gloves and let’s go. Let’s start working on stuff,’" he said. "It wasn’t a big deal."
Newell never attempts to strike someone with his left arm, using jabs to shake his foe, often trying to snare him in a guillotine choke.
He’ll be on display when NBC airs its first MMA event. Newell has made enough of a name for himself that he struck up a friendship with one-handed former major league pitch Jim Abbott. Newell once camped out over a dugout as kid to meet his childhood hero. Now, he’s the one who’s become a role model, and is active in several charity foundations, most notably the Lucky Fin Project.
"I feel weird calling myself an inspiration," Newell said. "Life itself is inspiring enough. Everyone has their own struggles and challenges."
If he keeps winning, his next obstacle will be convincing White that he’s earned a shot in UFC.
"Nick’s going to keep winning and UFC will have no choice but to use him," Myers said. "He’s not a freakshow; Nick’s the real deal. If he keeps winning, how can he be ignored?"
Newell hoped it was easier to ignore one hand when there’s gold around the waist.
"I know that it’s the biggest fight that I’ve ever had," Newell said. "NBC, biggest network in the world. I’m headlining, I’m fighting for a title. I get to do all three in one shot. But when it comes down to it, there’s no extra pressure. This is my time."