BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Nick Newell was less than one complete answer into a post-fight interview when he had to cease speaking. For 19 seconds, there was silence as he put a vise on his emotion to stop himself from breaking down. Of course he was able to choke off the tears before they came. Newell can choke most anything into submission: odds, critics, opponents, and when necessary, feelings.
Newell has won before. Saturday night was just another one for the ledger, yet it was so much more. Ten years into a career with many ups, a couple downs, and only a few precious opportunities to fight in a big show, Newell was faced with a sink-or-swim proposition. Less than 10 miles from his home, he had one fight—and one fight only—to impress the Bellator brass and force their hand into extending him into a long-term deal. Mission accomplished. His win was quick and clean. Just 3:15 into the first, he slipped on an arm-triangle and choked the fight out of Corey Browning. An explosion from the hometown crowd followed, and then an eruption of emotion.
“I knew something special was going to happen,” Newell told MMA Fighting. “Something felt special about it. I know that sounds like a weird thing and I’m not a spiritual guy, but this week I woke up at the beginning of the week and said this is going to be an incredible week. Something special is going to happen. And my team felt it and I felt it and I did everything right. I was able to go out there and perform.”
This was never supposed to happen because Newell was born with just one hand. His success defies the probabilities of high-level athletics. And also, this was never supposed to happen because Newell retired four years ago. The dream was supposed to be over then. This was never supposed to happen because even when he returned, he lost in his chance to get on a big show when he was defeated on And this was never supposed to happen because he had to mount an online campaign to even get this opportunity to fight at Bellator 225.
So much went wrong before everything went right.
“Like everyone, you have your moments of doubt,” he said. “You question things. There was a period of time where I was getting injured very badly. I didn’t get to where I am being a natural. I had a very hard road, a very long one, to get to where I am. I had to train very hard. For me, it was getting to be a little too much. I needed to take a break. In those two years, I still drove 90 minutes to my coaches every week and I trained the whole time. I opened up a business. I was doing it, I was fighting. I said to myself, ‘I don’t want to fight for a paycheck. I want to fight because I love it. When I get this figured out and get my money right I’m going to come back.’”
Newell loves competition. You only have to think about the obstacles he’s overcome to know that. What’s so remarkable about him is not solely that he’s so good; it’s that he’s had to be so tenacious to be so good. As a high school wrestler, he lost his first 17 matches. He went from there to this: 16-2 as a pro fighter. That’s difficult enough to do with two working hands; he does it with one.
Against Browning, it was something close to a flawless victory. He might have not eaten a single strike in the fight. He took the fight to the ground, took his time advancing position, and woo boy, that squeeze is a death grip. A++, he calls it.
“As soon as I trapped the arm, I knew it was over,” he said.
Inside the arena, after it was indeed over, Newell’s presence was met with a roar as he traveled through the Webster Bank Arena hallways to meet the media. He smiled and shook hands and took pictures. He kissed his wife Danielle, who had to return home to feed their young son. It was all a whirlwind, a quick force of nature a decade in the making.
The odds are beaten, the critics are silenced, Newell won in the big show. Best yet, a future beckons. He plans to speak to Bellator president Scott Coker and matchmaker Rich Chou shortly about a multi-fight deal, and after this, how can they deny him?
“I think the future is bright,” he said. “I think I’m going to be a man in this division. I think I’m a lot better than people give me credit for and I know for a fact that I can move myself toward the top of the ladder. If they have a 155-pound tournament, I’d love to do that. I’m going to be a problem.”