The moment is drawing nigh for Nick Newell.
A congenital amputee born without the use of a left hand, Newell’s nearly decade-long struggle to get into the UFC will culminate in the granddaddy of all crossroads on July 24 when he faces undefeated lightweight prospect Alex Munoz in the main event of Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series. A 14-1 fighter who has compiled his record against largely above-average competition, Newell has long been skilled enough to warrant a chance to compete inside the Octagon, however the stigma surrounding his disability has proven to be a difficult hurdle to clear when it comes to fulfilling his UFC dreams.
But a door finally opened for Newell this past April when a face-to-face meeting with UFC president Dana White led to an opportunity to prove himself once and for all on the promotion’s Contender Series. A win over Munoz will likely earn Newell his long-awaited shot at the UFC, while a loss would be a devastating blow to his efforts. And considering the many bumps in the road he has overcome to reach this point, and the stakes at hand, Newell fully understands the weight of what his result next Tuesday will mean.
“I know where I stand in this sport, and I know that there’s going to be a lot of eyes on me,” Newell said Monday on The MMA Hour, “and if I win, it’s going to be bigger than anyone else that’s ever won on the show, and if I lose, it’s going to be worse than anyone that has ever gotten it on the show. And I know that. And I knew that going into camp, and I knew that when I accepted the fight. So, for me, that was extra motivation to make sure that everything goes right and I’m on-point for this fight. And I’m telling you, it’s going to be something else next Tuesday. It’s really going to be something else.
“I had a full camp, all 100-percent focused around me, everything that I did was watched and looked over and revised or corrected, and I just feel the best I’ve ever felt going into a fight and the most confident I’ve ever felt going into a fight.”
Newell, 32, actually began the year in retirement, but emerged from the sidelines in March to pick up where he left off with a first-round submission win over Sonny Luque at LFA 35. In all, he spent 29 months away from competition. The time off helped him to heal the back, neck, and knee injuries that plagued him throughout his WSOF run, and Newell says he continued to train and improve despite his retired status. With his first son now due in November, “Notorious” vowed that he is ready for whatever may come at Contender Series, and he expressed excitement about drawing a difficult opponent like Munoz.
“He’s a good wrestler,” Newell said of Munoz. “I think he won a national championship, maybe in high school, and he was a D-1 wrestler. So, obviously wrestlers are always the toughest fight for anyone, everyone tries to always avoid them, but for me, I welcome challenges and I welcome tough fights. I’ve wrestled and trained with people who are more accomplished than him, and I’ve been able to take them down, control them, submit them, outstrike them, stop their takedowns. So for me, it’s not a matter of really who I’m fighting. It’s really just about me showing up and performing.
“I’m sure he’s very hungry and this is a good opportunity for him,” Newell continued. “And I feel like maybe the UFC were like, ‘Oh, we’ve got this guy who’s an up-and-comer who’s a really tough fight, and we’re going to see if Nick’s the real deal or if he’s not.’ And I kinda welcome that. That’s kinda the fight that I wanted, and that’s what I’m looking forward to, is fighting a tough guy like this. And I think style-wise, he’s going to get really discouraged and it’s going to be a very tough fight. I imagine that I’m going to have to maybe go through some tough times, but I’ve never had trouble earning what I want to accomplish and getting what’s mine the hard way.”
To get his UFC chance, Newell first had to convince White. That was not an easy process, to say the least. White has long bemoaned the criticism he believes the UFC will receive if Newell loses in grisly fashion inside the Octagon. He repeated similar sentiments just last month at the UFC 225 post-fight press conference.
But it’s not as if Newell is undefeated. The Connecticut native lost previously in 2014 on a nationally-televised NBC broadcast to current UFC lightweight contender Justin Gaethje — and the way Newell sees things, it’s not as if the world ended after that fight.
“Obviously people always talk shit whenever someone loses,” Newell said. “Any time a fighter loses, ‘Oh, retire. He should be done,’ or, ‘He should’ve never been in there.’ And it’s the same with me, they just use [the excuse of] my arm, and I think that Dana is putting too much weight into what people that are just going to talk trash about him no matter what have to say. But all the knowledgeable people, I’ve never heard one fighter that’s in there and knowledgeable say, ‘Oh, Nick doesn’t deserve a chance, he’s going to get hurt.’ No one says that. All the fighters that I’ve trained with, especially, know that I’m ready, and the high-level ones that I’ve trained with know that I’m ready and good to go.
“I’d never even really looked at myself as being that different until I became popular from fighting and people are telling me what I can’t do while I’m already doing it. And when I lost to Justin Gaethje, that was a good fight, but he won and the world kept going and kept turning. My next fight for WSOF, I was the co-main event and the place was going absolutely insane,” Newell continued.
“That’s a testament to the kind of crowd I bring in and the people that want to see me, and my draw value. And I don’t think it goes down any more with a loss for challenging myself. I feel like some people look at me like I’m the only fighter in the world who’s not allowed to ever lose a fight; if I lose one, then I never should’ve been fighting in the first place, which is ridiculous. All I want is an equal chance like everyone else and I want these tough fights. Maybe I do have a little bit of a chip on my shoulder, but that has nothing to do with me having one hand. It just has something to do with me being a competitor.”
Altogether, Newell knows full well the pressure that rests on his shoulders heading into his Contender Series shot. It’s not hyperbole to say a win could be life-changing.
But Newell is taking the opportunity in stride — after all, while a bad outcome would be a tough pill to swallow, it’s not as if he hasn’t overcome much more difficult circumstances.
“I’ve lost so many times in wrestling and life that I’ve learned, it’s made me appreciate winning that much more, and it’s made me learn how to do everything right to make sure you do win, and it’s helped me keep a level head,” Newell said. “And the better man is going to win. The better man is going to win on this day. And nothing against him, it’s just that I’m ready, and I’m ready to really put on a show. I think I’m going to surprise a lot of people, and I’m going to certainly surprise him. People say this all the time, this is the most cliché thing that anyone ever says, ever — you’ve never fought anyone like me. You can’t train for someone like me. Every fighter says that, but how many fighters is that true for?”