Fighting with one arm is no barrier to ‘Notorious’
Nick Newell is one extraordinary character. He wrestled at the highest level in high school and at college in his home state of Connecticut, racking up more than 300 victories. He then embarked on a career in mixed martial arts as a professional, and after almost a decade and 17 contests (15 victories), last weekend made his debut on one of the biggest fight promotions in the world.
What makes all this so remarkable is that the 33-year-old was born with a congenital amputation of his left arm, which ends just below his elbow. With a dextrous, very muscular left forearm taking the place of an arm that never formed, “Notorious” Nick Newell – to give him his fighting sobriquet – has become a folk hero in the fight world. Recently, he has competed under the aegis of the two most powerful mixed martial arts fight leagues in the world: the UFC, with Dana White’s Contender Series, and last weekend, in Bellator MMA, he won his debut fight by arm triangle submission in just over three minutes.
Take a look at Newell’s fights on YouTube; he is very, very good. And watching him, it is difficult not to feel huge admiration. As Newell explained in one postfight victory speech: “Life is a cold, hard place. You can either become a victim of circumstances or you can create your own.”
He is, incidentally, left-handed (the arm that has the congenital amputation). So he has had to learn to do more with his full arm, while wanting to instinctively use his left.
As a developing sportsman as a very young child, he hated wrestling at first; it was the hardest thing he had done. He played football and baseball, and by his second year in baseball had made the all-star (regional) team every year because of his work ethic.
The challenges of being a professional fighter then came on to his horizon. Growing up, he looked for heroes, and admits to idolising the former New York Yankees pitcher Jim Abbott, who was born without a right hand. Abbott played 10 seasons in Major League Baseball from 1989 to 1999. It was while he was in college that Newell’s ideas of becoming a pro fighter began to crystallise.
You suspect he is even more driven because of his “perceived” disability, wanting to prove things to other human beings, always wanting to be a game-changer. He told me this week that it had never been a goal of his to prove anyone wrong. “I’ve always been someone to follow their heart and just do what felt right,” he said. “I’m not someone who has let adversity stop them. Adversity comes in many different forms. I’d never compare my road to anyone else’s, but I’m the man I am today because of it and I stay grounded.”
His career as a one-armed fighter has been slow at times because of his disability, and the reaction to it from other fighters. It was a lose-lose situation: if they won, they beat the guy with one arm, and if they lost, they lost to a guy with one arm.
Newell is also an advocate of the Paralympic movement, and is campaigning to have amputee wrestling at the Games. In Tokyo, in just under a year, para-taekwondo makes its debut as a full sport, while there is already partially sighted judo.
Andrew Parsons, president of the International Paralympic Committee, told me last week that he was optimistic that the quadrennial event – which creates seismic shifts in society – would impact hugely again in Japan, and that “when Los Angeles hosts the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2028, it will be another game-changer”. And, of course, Los Angeles would be the perfect place for any form of disability wrestling to make its bow at the Paralympics. If so, expect to see “Notorious” Nick Newell there.