SB Nation

Ben Popper | December 3, 2013

Anatomy of perfection

How long can Nick Newell stay undefeated in the cage, and how far can he go?

It was an unseasonably warm night in Nashville when Nick Newell stepped into the cage last December to fight for his first championship belt. At stake was the 155-pound lightweight strap in the Xtreme Fighting Championships. His opponent, Eric Reynolds, was a far more experienced veteran. The oddsmakers had Newell as a 2-1 underdog, but being underestimated was nothing new for him.

The two fighters started out with an exchange of thudding kicks to each other's legs, shins digging into the thigh with a dull thump. As they circled, Newell delivered a quick left-right punch combo. Reynolds fired back with strikes of his own, forcing Newell up against the chain-link fence. They separated, and Reynolds fired a hard kick to the ribs.

Newell caught the leg against his body and used it to clinch up with Reynolds. He circled behind him, then lifted Reynolds high and slammed him to the ground with a suplex, drawing a cheer. Newell secured a position on his back and hooked his legs around Reynolds' waist. As Reynolds tried to stand, Newell slipped his right arm underneath his chin for the choke and secured it with his left.

Others argued that letting him fight two-handed opponents was downright inhumane, a freak show that shouldn’t be allowed.

Reynolds immediately tried to execute the standard defense, reaching back to peel off Newell's left hand in order to loosen the choke. But there was no hand there to grab. For a moment, as he pawed at empty air, a flicker of fear crossed Reynolds' face.

Newell was born with a congenital amputation, a shortened left arm that ends just below the elbow. It was a distinction which many felt would prevent him from succeeding in the fight game. Others argued that letting him fight two-handed opponents was downright inhumane, a freak show that shouldn't be allowed. But Newell never listened.

As Reynolds' face turned beet red, he finally secured a grip on Newell's right arm. "This is where it's an advantage," said the announcer, Pat Miletich, a former pro fighter. "He can't get hand control on that shorter arm. He's pulling down on the gloved hand but that's already trapped!"

Reynolds collapsed to the ground, squirming to escape the choke. A moment later he tapped out, submitting to the referee. Newell was now 9-0, a champion at age 26, and the only professional mixed martial arts fighter competing with just one hand. He raced around the cage to thunderous applause, collapsing to his back, kicking his legs in the air, overcome with delight.

On Saturday, Dec. 7, Newell will look to extend his unbeaten streak when he fights Sabah Fadai at the World Series of Fighting 7, which will be seen by a national audience on NBC Sports.

* * *

For Newell, the hardest part of fighting has always been finding opponents. He grew up in Milford, a working-class beach town on the Connecticut coast. His mother, Stacey, worked as a nurse and raised Nick on her own. "I always told him he was no different, never let him avoid a challenge or hardship because of his arm," she said. "The more we treated him like everyone else, the more he believed in himself."

"I always told him he was no different, never let him avoid a challenge because of his arm."

These days Newell stands an imposing 185 pounds of chiseled muscle. But when he joined the wrestling squad his freshman year of high school, he was the smallest member of the team. "I was tiny, like literally 90 pounds, so it was tough to find someone my size." In one of his first matches there was just one competitor in his weight class, a girl, so Newell had to wrestle against her, and lost in front of his entire team and home crowd. "A really proud start to my fighting career," he says with a laugh.

The anecdote is classic Newell, whose personality outside the cage is that of a class clown not afraid to take potshots at himself. It's an attitude he inherited from his grandparents, who helped raise him. They live just a block from the beach in Milford, and Hurricane Sandy left their house submerged in several feet of water. Unlike other properties in the neighborhood, they didn't respond to the disaster by paying tens of thousands of dollars to lift their home on stilts. "Looks pretty silly to me," says Nick's grandfather, George. "If another storm comes along, we'll deal with that too."

That first year as a wrestler, Newell notched two wins and 22 losses. But he never thought about quitting. Wrestling became Nick's primary outlet, a place for him to focus. "For Nick, his coaches became sort of his father figures," explains his mother, Stacey. "They were the ones who helped to shape him and channel his drive."  Despite his small stature and shortened arm, Newell improved quickly. His physical handicap forced him to focus on his technique. By his senior year of high school, he set a state record with 53 wins, going all-state.

Newell went on to college at Western New England, where he was captain of the wrestling team. There he befriended a young man named Brian Myers who shared his passion for the theatrics of Pro Wrestling. In fact, Myers, better known as Curt Hawkins, went on to a successful career in the WWE. As college roommates, the pair would obsess over wrestling on TV. Just after Monday night wrestling finished, a mixed martial arts reality show called The Ultimate Fighter would come on. "Seeing that, I knew it was something I had to try," says Newell.

The sport immediately captivated him, in part, because it allowed fighters to blend different disciplines, to create their own style that emphasized their physical strengths and diminished their weaknesses. As a wrestler, Newell had to overcome his disability and forge his own path. It was an education that tied Newell's journey to the roots of modern mixed martial arts.

* * *

In 1904, a Japanese fighter named Mitsuyo Maeda left Japan, taking with him the knowledge of traditional martial arts known as Judo and Jiu Jitsu. He travelled the globe giving demonstrations and taking on all comers, intent on proving his style of combat superior to all others. Legend has him undefeated in his travels, earning him the nickname "Count Combat."

Eventually Maeda settled in Brazil, where he began teaching techniques of classical Judo and Jiu Jitsu to the two sons of Gastao Gracie, a Brazilian businessman. One son was named Carlos, a strapping young lad. The other was Helio, a chronically ill and weak young man. In order to compensate for his frailty, Helio adapted the traditional moves to rely more on leverage and position, avoiding anything that pitted him in a contest of strength. It was this evolution of the art form that birthed Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, now a central pillar of mixed martial arts.

The Gracie family became the country's most famous and devoted practitioners of Jiu Jitsu, and eventually brought their art form to the United States, where in 1993, Helio's son Rorion helped launch the Ultimate Fighting Championships. In the first tournament, Helio's youngest son, Royce Gracie, represented the family, taking on and defeating three fighters in a row to win the event. He went on to win three of the first four UFC tournaments, battling opponents who sometimes outweighed him by more than 100 pounds.

During the early years of the UFC, most fighters specialized in one form of martial arts, like players picking a certain position on the field. As a kid Newell looked up to Jim Abbott, the major league baseball pitcher who had his own congenital amputation. "He was a big hero to me, because there were basically no other famous people, especially athletes, with one hand," says Newell.

Abbott was able to find success because baseball is such a hyperspecialized sport. He could pitch with his good hand, then switch the glove over to that hand before the ball was in play. Since he stuck with the American League and its designated hitter rules, he never had to bat.

Mixed martial arts is the exact opposite of baseball. Instead of highly specialized athletes focused on one aspect of the game, modern MMA fighters must learn to blend a wide variety of sometimes conflicting disciplines. But that diversity allows athletes with very different skill sets and physical attributes to succeed.

"Because of his shortened arm, certain moves work differently for him."

Newell eventually began training under Andrew Calandrelli, a student of Renzo Gracie, grandson of Carlos, forming a direct lineage between a Connecticut wrestler and the creators of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. In his academies, Renzo hangs a portrait of Helio, a reminder of the everlasting emphasis on technique over physique.

Seven of Newell's 10 wins are by submission, and like the championship bout with Eric Reynolds, his shortened arm has played a role. "Nick took the great base he had as a wrestler and layered on a really dangerous Jiu Jitsu game," says Callendri. "Because of his shortened arm, certain moves work differently for him. His heel hooks and certain chokes come on a lot faster and tighter, with a different kind of leverage."

In certain positions, when Newell is on top controlling an opponent, the lack of a forearm means his opponent can't attack with submissions of his own. No one who had trained or coached Newell would suggest it's an advantage in the cage.  "But it's something his opponents can't really prepare for," says Callendri.

* * *

Fans crowded around close, spilling beer onto the mats. "People kept reaching through the fence trying to grab me."

Modern mixed martial arts has come a long way since the brutal days of the early UFC events, which had no weight classes or time limits. But Nick Newell's first fight, an amateur bout in his home state of Connecticut, was a far cry from the bright lights and strict rules of the Las Vegas Octagon. "My first match was in a bar. They literally just pushed the chairs and tables back to the walls, threw this tiny cage in the middle, and called it a ring." Fans crowded around close, spilling beer onto the mats. "People kept reaching through the fence trying to grab me," says Newell with a shake of his head. His first amateur bout ended in a loss. It was to be the only blemish on his MMA record.

Especially during this early part of his career, before he had a reputation and status in the fight game, finding willing opponents was tough. "People didn't see any benefit in fighting him. If they lost, it was worse because he had one hand. If they beat him, it made them look bad because he had one hand," says Jeremy Libiszewski, Nick's trainer at the Fighting Arts Academy in Springfield, Mass. "It took him twice as long to find decent opponents."

In 2010, Newell got a chance to audition for The Ultimate Fighter, the reality show competition that had inspired his early interest in MMA. TUF acts as a feeder for the UFC, and while numerous mixed martial arts leagues exist, the UFC is far and away the most popular, featuring the best talent and highest salaries. Contestants on the show compete to win a six-figure UFC contract, and several former winners have gone on to become UFC champions.

Hundreds of young hopefuls lined up for their shot during TUF's East Coast tryouts. Inside, anxious combatants hit pads and grappled in front of the UFC's top matchmakers and talent scouts. Before he even got a chance to warm up, Newell stood out. While the fights on the show are never staged, TUF is also a reality television program keen to find characters with compelling life stories. His shortened arm turned heads, and his quick submission of a well-known competitor during the grappling section ensured he made the short list of potential cast members.

The UFC flew Newell out to Las Vegas to meet with its matchmakers and producers. His good looks and natural charm helped him ace the screen test, and it seemed to Newell that he was being offered a chance to be part of the show. But a few weeks later, the UFC informed him that it had decided not to include him after all.

For Newell, it was a painful blow. Dana White, the UFC's talkative, often controversial president, made the logic behind the decision clear in a subsequent interview, when he told MMA Fighting, "It's hard to fight here with two arms. Will the state of Nevada let him fight? Will the state of California let him fight? Would some of these bigger athletic commissions let him fight? Maybe he can get away with that in some of these other states. I don't know, fighting with one arm is just craziness to me."

In Newell's mind, White has concerns about matters that aren't even in play. "I've already been licensed in Nevada, so that's not really an issue at all," Newell told reporters. "It kind of disappoints me that someone that's such a powerful figure in this sport feels that way or looks at me that way."

"Anyone else with my record, 10-0 with nine first-round stoppages, would be getting calls from the top organizations."

In the meantime, he's continuing to prove he can hang with TUF-caliber fighters. In his last bout, Newell needed only two minutes to dispatch Keon Caldwell, an alumnus of The Ultimate Fighter series.

"Anyone else with my record, 10-0 with nine first-round stoppages, would be getting calls from the top organizations," says Newell. His upcoming match was originally slated to be against Gesias "JZ" Cavalcante, a very well-known fighter who has competed in all the top organizations, including the UFC. "After he beats JZ, the UFC would look pretty bad not to consider him," said Callendri, Newell's grappling coach.

But just a few weeks before the fight, JZ pulled out. It was another chance to climb the ladder deferred. Instead, Newell will face yet another fighter with little name recognition and a record nowhere close to his own. "I finish fights, I'm exciting, people want to see me compete," Newell declared recently. "I want to see where I stand among the world's elite fighters, and I feel like I've earned my shot."

Regardless of whether the UFC ever comes calling, Newell plans to continue competing as long as he is able. "I wouldn't stop if I won another belt. I'm the kind of person who is never content, no matter what I have," he said. "It's a blessing and a curse, but it's why I'm here today."

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About the Author

Ben Popper is the business editor for The Verge. He was the founding editor of Betabeat and has published in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, Atlantic, Vice and many more. When he's not writing about startups, Ben spends his time practicing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and working on an urban farm.