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MMA fighter Nick Newell is the best athlete you've never heard of

Nick Newell is a rising MMA star who was born a congenital amputee. He's also the greatest athlete you've never heard of.

“You just stay consistent, put in the time and don’t let setbacks define you; you’ll be surprised at how far you can go.”  —  Nick Newell

Nick Newell — a professional mixed martial artist from Milford, Conn. —is among the most compelling fighter in combat sports.

He also might be the best athlete you've never heard of.

Newell—a decorated high school and collegiate wrestler, former lightweight world champion for Xtreme Fighting Championships, former and current lightweight title contender for World Series of Fighting—has made a living in leading by example, of making the most of limited gifts in a sport unforgiving of any limitations. Born a congenital amputee, Newell eventually discovered high school wrestling, overcoming rough beginnings to become one of the best wrestlers Connecticut has ever produced.

Newell then fell into mixed martial arts, sparking a story that's since become the stuff of MMA legend.

In Jan, 2011, Newell and longtime friend Abimael “Abi” Mestre attended the XFC open tryouts in Danbury, Conn. Out of more than 100 participants, Mestre and future Bellator MMA standout Ryan Quinn were selected as co-winners of the competition, earning them immediate contracts with the Tampa, Fla.-based organization. Then, in April 2011, Mestre died in a motorcycle accident. As a result, XFC President John Prisco awarded the contract to Newell, a semifinalist in the competition, christening the December 2011 card XFC: Tribute to Mestre.

On the Tribute card, Newell won his XFC debut against Denis Hernandez via first-round submission. The card also featured Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) vets Ryan Thomas and Corey Hill, future inaugural Women’s Strawweight Champion Carla Esparza, future Strawweight contender Felice Herrig and Bellator veteran Eric Reynolds.

In Dec. 2012, following two more victories, Newell defeated Reynolds for the vacant XFC Lightweight Championship via another first-round submission. With a 9–0 record that included eight first-round victories, Newell soon signed with Las Vegas-based World Series of Fighting.

In August and December 2013, Newell recorded two more first-round submissions—performances that earned him a date with Justin Gaethje for the WSOF Lightweight Championship. Gaethje entered the title fight with an 11–0 record and victories over UFC staples Dan Lauzon, Melvin Guillard, and Brian Cobb; Bellator veteran Luis Palomino; and Strikeforce mainstay (and two-time K-1 HERO Middleweight Champion) Gesias Cavalcante.

After 11 consecutive victories, Newell suffered his first professional loss after the back-and-forth match ended in a second-round TKO.

In Feb. 2015, Newell signed a new, four-fight deal with WSOF and beat Joe Condon (12–7) by unanimous decision two months later — his first professional fight in Connecticut, and just his second victory earned via decision.

Newell is scheduled to return to the cage on Oct. 17 for WSOF: 24 against Tom Marcellino (7–3). The event will be held at Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut.

During a training session with longtime coach Jeremy Libiszewski at Fighting Arts Academy in Springfield, Mass., Newell took time to talk about his beginnings, his friends and teammates, the importance of self-confidence, and his refusal to set goals. These are his words.



On wrestling

I started wrestling because I liked pro wrestling. Me and my friend Neil used to watch pro wrestling all the time. He wanted to be Captain Jack, and I wanted to be Bret “The Hitman” Hart. And he’s like, “Hey, I’m going to join the wrestling team,” and this and that. And I said, “Oh, that sounds cool. Well, I’m going to join the wrestling team, too, then.”

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Then I just kind of joined the wrestling team — I didn’t really even know what I was getting myself into. I thought I was going to hit people with steel chairs and put people in figure-four leg-locks. I kind of fell in love with it. So I stuck with it ;  he actually stopped wrestling sophomore year. I didn’t give up, because I loved it. Even though I was losing, that didn’t take away the fun from it.

I realized that this was something that I enjoyed. And I wasn’t good at it, but I was willing to do what I had to do to be good at it. I never really gave myself any goals; I wasn’t that hard on myself.

A lot of people like to write down goals and “I have to do this and this” and “I’m going to get this." For me, my goal has always been just to try hard, train smart, and be the best version of myself that I could possibly be.

Through my life, I’ve had people and coaches that say, “Write down your goals; write down what you want to do.” And I would say, “Nah, I don’t want to.” I didn’t [actually] say anything, but I never did it.

Whatever happens, happens. I’m going to go out and I’m going to try as hard as I can. And whatever happens, happens. And that’s that.

On Mixed Martial Arts

My friend Pete Bencivenga, who actually passed away recently — he was my teammate, and he introduced me to MMA. My first fight I ever watched was Ken Shamrock versus Tito Ortiz I.

I had no idea what was going on; I didn’t really understand it. I thought, “Oh, this guy’s good.” So I watched that and liked it, but I didn’t really truly understand it. Then for my second event, I watched Pride: Sakuraba versus Ken Shamrock, because I only wanted to watch Ken Shamrock fight. I didn’t care about anyone else.

I was upset that he lost both those fights, but I still didn’t understand what was going on until I was in college. I saw Ultimate Fighter and it all started to make a little bit more sense to me.

Actually, when I watched Pride — I think it was Pride 33 — the first fight of the night was Zuluzinho versus some other big fat guy. And Zuluzinho beat him and I was like, “Yo — no one on Earth can beat up this guy. He is so big.” I really legitimately thought that. I remember thinking, “How can anyone beat this guy up?”

And then I learned about MMA and realized, “Oh that guy sucks, actually.” But I love Zuluzinho.

I watched it, and then a couple of my friends were doing it. And one of the guys on my wrestling team had fought, and then the guy across the hall from me — his name was Kash — he trained at FAA. And I said, “Oh man, you train MMA? I want to learn how to do that.” And he says, “Come with me.” So I went with him and met Jer from there, and then the rest is history.


On humble beginnings

I fought and lost. “O.K." I thought. "That sucks. Everyone thinks I'm bad at fighting.” It kind of pissed me off, because I knew that I was actually pretty good at it. I wasn’t anywhere near where I am today, but …

So I got another fight, and I had to take my first two fights at 170 because no one wanted to fight me at 155. I won my second fight, and I beat a guy who was really good. And then my third fight, I fought a guy that was really, really good, and I beat him. And then I was watching these pros fight, and I trained with pros who were really good.

I went and trained with a few pros at another team and I thought, “I could beat these guys up. Time to start making some money.”

On turning professional

Massachusetts used to not have any rules; you could just kind of regulate your own events. It was on the promoter to regulate. And I didn’t want to be a lifetime amateur ; I wanted to be a professional fighter. So even though I was only 2–1, I went pro because I beat two guys that were pretty good. And I didn’t want the Commission to come in and be like, “Well, you can fight amateur still if you want to.”

No, screw that — I want to fight pro! I want to fight good guys. I don’t want to fight guys that suck.

I went and I got a few pro fights under my belt. So when they finally came, I could say, “Hey, you can’t tell me I can’t go pro because I’m already pro and I already beat these guys.”


On bad days

I don’t let it deter me. Honestly, it pisses me off. Sometimes you’re the hammer, sometimes you’re the nail. And if you’re beating people up in practice all the time and no one can test you, you’re not training with the right people.

I’m just like everyone else: I get discouraged; I cry; I want to quit. But I know why I started it and I know why I’m doing it. And I know there’s a lot of other things in the world I could be doing, but I really love what I do. So I don’t let those feelings last.

I get those feelings, but I never let them last.

On Fighting Arts Academy

Basically I worked hard to save my money. I bought a condo, and I only get to see it a couple days a week when I have a fight camp. Because I don’t want to leave where I’m from, but I need to get the best training possible. So I stay up at [Fighting Arts Academy] with my coach.

I’m slowly becoming the old guy. And it’s O.K. I’m cool with that. And I definitely, definitely like the next generation on my team.


On coach Jeremy Libiszewski

He doesn’t want the attention. I’ve tried to give it to him, but he’s not asking for it. Obviously, he wants to grow his business and provide for his family, but he doesn’t do it because of money — he does it because he loves it.

He’ll give everything for his fighters. He’s not making money off of us. When you run a business, you don’t make money off of fighters;  you make money off of everyday people that want to come in and work out. You put time into fighters, everything into fighters. And you have to really love it to be a good coach like he is.

I’ve seen plenty of coaches, and you go to gyms and you show up to class and then, “Oh, you can fight.” With him, he’s not letting you fight unless ... If you’re going to represent him, he’s going to put everything into you to make sure you represent him in the best way possible. Because he takes pride in his work.

He’s just a great person; he’s a great family man; he’s a great husband; he’s a great father. And being a good person transfers over into everything he does. He’s faced a lot of adversity in his life. He’s had to go through a lot of things.

He’s definitely, definitely an inspiration to me and a role model and someone I have faith in.

There’s so many people in MMA now that are good; you could go somewhere and you could say, “Oh, this guy does this good. This guy does this, this guy does that. He’s nasty.” But to find a coach that truly believes in his fighters and invests in his fighters ... if he tells me something, I believe it. If he tells me I could do something,  I know that I could do it.

I know that when I go out there, he’s confident in me. And no matter what happens, he’s going to have my back.

On confidence

My belief in myself comes from experience. I feel like never quitting from setbacks. I kind of learned a lot of lessons from that. I lost my first 17 matches in high school — think I got pinned every single time.

That’s kind of embarrassing: you go out to wrestle and be a tough guy, and everyone whoops your a--. I was a little guy, and I just kept training hard. Just out there, just wrestling,  giving it everything I had.

I came back and I had a winning season the next year. I was All-State; I tied state records; I broke school records. I went on to college and captained my team. I went on and won a world title in MMA. I feel like I’m living proof that if you work hard, you get better.

You just stay consistent, put in the time and don’t let setbacks define you . You’ll be surprised at how far you can go.

I actually lost my amateur MMA debut. After that, I won 13 straight fights — 12 in the first round.

I fought for my second world title and I lost. And I was pissed off after it. But I sat down and I was like, “Nick, you know what? You’ve got to just take this like a man. This isn’t the first time you’ve been here. This isn’t the first time you’ve been in a situation that wasn’t ideal.”

I thought, “Imagine if you just quit when you lost your first amateur fight? You would’ve never had all of this great shit happen. You never would’ve achieved the things you’ve achieved if you got down on yourself. You got to take this like a man; you’ve got to move on.” And that’s what I’m doing right now.

I’m going to win 13 more fights in a row. I could lose in that time, but it’s like, whatever — I’m trying as hard as I can.

I’m just living my life and doing what I enjoy every day. And sometimes I don’t enjoy it, but I still work hard. I’m going out there and I’m going out there to be violent. I’m going out there to take your head off. I’m going out there to fight.

I’m going to lay it all out on the line like I have nothing to lose. Because at the end of the day, I still have a team that loves me. I still have a fantastic family, I have a wonderful girlfriend, and I have my cats. And I’m happy. So I couldn’t really ask for more.


On fighters he admires

The answer’s pretty obvious. If you ask any true mixed martial artist who they watch and who they’d like to emulate—the answer’s always going to be Demetrious Johnson. It’s always good to see him. He flows well, and he has a style that other people can use.

I really like the way TJ Dillashaw flows, too. He’s very good. And I’m talking about champions here, but they’re champions for a reason — they’re really good at what they do. So I like to watch them.

Other than that, Frankie Edgar is super tough and super skilled, so I love watching him, how he mixes everything together.

The grinding style of Cain Velasquez and [Daniel] Cormier—I really like that. Try and break their will. I really enjoy watching that.

I think Dominick Cruz is good, and I think Cruz could beat TJ — that’s a coin-flip fight. But Cruz’s style is very unique to him and his body type. He whips punches in weird ways, throws kicks in weird ways, and mixes it into his takedowns beautifully. But to me, he’s more one-of-a-kind, which is cool in it’s own way. But TJ is doing stuff that can transfer over to anyone, I feel. Stylistically, at least.

On being a role model

I’m just myself. I’m just going to be me. I was raised to be a nice guy; I was raised to treat people with respect. And I’m not putting on a front being nice to people or helping people out.

Being different and only having one hand was never something I asked for. But it’s never something that I let bother me or stop me from doing anything I want to do.

I didn’t want to step in and be this guy that everyone looks up to, or counts on to do great things. But it just kind of happened, and I accept it.

At the end of the day, I don’t feel any pressure from it, because I really am trying as hard as I can. And I know people can see that, and the people that really care about me would never judge me for that. So I don’t feel any pressure. They would never judge me if I fail at something.

I’ve never been in my life like, “Hey, look at me. I’m defying the odds.” I’m just a regular dude. I’m just a regular dude that has a dream to be the best fighter he can possibly be and is doing something he loves.

The amount of hands I have really makes no difference. But there’s other people that it does make a difference to. There’s people that get discouraged and look at me and say, “Hey, if this guy can do it — I can do it.”

I did that with Jim Abbott. For me, I looked at him when I was a kid, and it helped me not really care. Because when I was a little kid … It wasn’t like now with the internet — like someone has a question, they can just message me and I’ll answer it.

Back then, there was no one. I’d never even seen anyone with one hand. And then I saw Jim Abbott and I was like, “Holy s---. This guy’s amazing!”

I got to meet him as an adult. And I was a little star-struck, but I kept my cool. And we went out to eat and he ordered an Arnold Palmer, and I was like, “Oh, O.K.” And then the next time I went out to eat, I ordered one, too. So it’s like I still look up to him, even as an adult.

Every once in a while, he’ll send me a message saying, “Hey, good luck in your fight,” or something like that. It’s enough that he acknowledged me when I got older. It meant a lot that he acknowledged me.


On peers

Maybe there’s going to be some kids that saw me and said, “Oh man, I’m going to do this.” To be honest, there’s one-handed kids out there doing it right now who aren't me!

[Canadian kickboxer Baxter] Humby — he’s awesome. He’s a pioneer for one-handed fighting with his kickboxing; he was before me. Nasty, nasty. He’s of the best kickboxers in the world — with one hand. There’s a kid that just broke his high school record for receiving yards. He's got one hand. There’s a kid that plays for Florida State basketball.

There’s people out there doing things. It’s different. Times have changed. I feel like people are going two ways: You have the people that don’t want to do s---, and you have the people that are taking it to levels that no one’s ever taken it to before.

On Here Comes the Boom cameo

I was pumped to do that, because I was chilling with The Fonz the whole time. And Bas Rutten was there, and Bas Rutten’s always been one of the coolest dudes to me — always super-nice.

When I had my first amateur fight, I lost. Bas Rutten saw it and sent me some technique tapes and stuff, and I really appreciate that. He didn’t have to do that, you know? He did it because he’s a cool dude.

I don’t know if he’s going to do commentary anymore for [World Series of Fighting] because they got Chael. That kind of bums me out because I really like Bas a lot. He’s just a super-cool guy. And I wasn’t a member of SAG, so I couldn’t go to Craft Services. But Bas said, “Yo man, just come in. Just come in and take stuff anyway.” And I was like, “Sweet.”

So I would go in there all the time, and I would run into Henry Winkler, which is awesome. Happy Days was an awesome show that I love, and that was cool. I don’t even think you see me in the movie — but I was there.

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On appreciation

[I appreciate] my family for always being super-cool and for always believing in me. And just letting me do what I dream of and supporting me full-fledged. I really appreciate that.

My mom gave me my no-nonsense attitude when it comes to people messing with me. So obviously me and her are super close. Closer than anyone.

Napoli Deli — he always has my back. I don’t even think he knows the level that I fight at; he just thinks it’s cool I’m from Milford. I don’t even know if he watches my fights, he just likes that I’m out there doing my thing.

My girlfriend cooks all my meals for me and helps me with my nutrition, so big thanks to her, obviously.

My manager Angelo Bodetti helps keep me guided. I don’t think I would have anything ready or my sponsors if it wasn’t for him.

Vanguard MMA always has my back. The guy that builds the cages, he makes clothes and stuff. Anything I ask him for, anything I need — he always gives it to me. You got to appreciate that. He’s a friend.

Obviously, Lucky Fin Project is amazing. That’s my non-profit of choice. I love working with them, being able to meet all of the kids.

All my teammates, whether it be FAA or at the RACC helping me lift.

The whole Libiszewski family. Jer’s 38; his wife is like 35 or something. I’m like their 29-year-old kid. So thanks to them for taking me under their wing.

And to my first wrestling coach ever, Matt Schoonmaker, for being the first dude that wasn’t family that saw something special in me. And believed in me and was hard on me, even though I thought he was being an a------.

I have all these people that help me, so it’s not just me out there doing it for myself. I have a lot of people that really lay it out there for me and help me.

I’m just grateful, you know?

(Contributed to The Cauldron by Matteo Urella.)