If you heard of Nick Newell for the first time this past week and saw his successful Bellator debut, you might be wondering why it took so long for the 10-year veteran to get a fight in a major promotion. The answer seems to have a lot more to do with unfair bias than his merits.
The lightweight has amassed an excellent record over his decade long pro career. He’s a thrilling fighter to watch, with 13 of his 16 career wins coming by way of either submission or knockout.
This past weekend Newell won via first-round arm triangle submission in the Bellator cage. After his big win, he was emotional while speaking to assembled media.
“I’ve won a lot of fights. And, I’ve lost. And, I’ve been counted out. And I’ve been saying that all I want to do is fight in the big leagues,” he began, after a long pause.
“All I want is an opportunity. I’ve had opportunities and I failed. But I kept working. I kept grinding. I stayed the course. I didn’t quit. ... I don’t do anything but this. Some people, this is a hobby. They go out, they party. I do this. I’m a family man, and I work towards my goal of being the best fighter in the world. And, whether or not I ever become the best fighter in the world, we won’t know, unless I try my hardest.”
It certainly seems as though he’s worked hard. The 33-year-old now has a sterling 16-2 record and a win in one of the biggest MMA promotions on Earth.
Just over a year ago Newell was emotional after another fight, this one a decision loss to Alex Munoz at “Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series.”
“Physically, I’m fine. Emotionally, it hurts,” he said, then.
“There’s lessons to be learned from this, and I’m just going to keep moving forward.”
He’s done just that, having won two straight after that defeat. Even had Newell won the fight against Munoz, in 2018, he may not have had a great shot at being considered for a UFC contract by the promotion’s president anyway.
Despite the fact that many fighters have gotten into the UFC with far less impressive records than Newell, the fact that he is a congenital amputee seems to have scared UFC president Dana White away. Last year White explained his reticence to consider signing Newell in typically muddled and problematic fashion.
White imagined a scenario where he would get pilloried for having Newell on the roster if and when he got hurt, the way all UFC fighters do.
“ ... If anything ever happened to Nick Newell, if Nick Newell fights in the UFC, first thing they’re going to say is, ‘How could you let a guy with one arm fight in the UFC? You’re an idiot.’ I’m saying, what if something bad happened?” White imagined being asked, despite the fact that it isn’t true that Newell has only one arm.
Newell has probably always had to do more than his peers to accomplish what he has, given his disability. At the end of it all, however, he successfully learned how to fight with what he has, becoming an accomplished pro who’s lost just twice in 10 years.
Of course, in order for Newell to have had a crack at fighting pro as he’s successfully done for the past decade, he’s had to time and again be cleared by doctors, and sanctioned by athletic commissions. No one has a problem licensing Newell to fight because there’s never been any medical or empirical reason to not have him fight pro.
The guy wins, a lot. But until last week that wasn’t enough for any top promotion like the UFC or Bellator to sign him.
Don’t buy White’s lines about looking bad or fighter safety as it pertains to match making. Not only is there no particular reason to fear for Newell’s health more than his peers in this dangerous sport, but White and the UFC, along with complicit sanctioning state athletic commissions, have routinely put on absurd bouts with unqualified participants and looked to put on even more reckless ones.
White and the UFC didn’t care about looking foolish when they signed a middle-aged and oft-concussed Phil Brooks (aka CM Punk) to fight despite his lack of pro, or amateur MMA record, or indeed any record of even amateur jiu-jitsu or wrestling matches in his entire life. They signed him for a cash-grab, and he’s been dominated and battered twice in the UFC, now.
Appearing irresponsible didn’t stop White or the UFC from signing James Toney to fight one of the greatest MMA fighters in history, Randy Couture, back in 2010. At the time, Toney had never fought or even trained in MMA, was in his 40s, and already badly slurring his speech after over 80 professional boxing fights.
Toney was predictably finished mere moments into the fight with Couture. If those examples weren’t bad enough, let’s not forget that earlier this year White expressed earnest interest in signing Justin Bieber and Tom Cruise to the UFC and having them fight one another under the promotion’s banner.
Bieber is a 25-year-old pop singer with no athletic competition experience. Tom Cruise is a 57-year-old movie actor.
All of those fights sit fine with White, but signing 10-year veteran and submission artist Newell scares the promoter off. It reminds this writer of when White similarly scoffed at the idea of female fighters competing in the UFC, and claimed that no woman would ever fight in the Octagon.
He was wrong, then, and he was wrong in the way he’s spoken of Newell. Radio host Luke Thomas had it right when he broke down how he saw White’s fear of signing Newell.
“These ideas are rooted in ancient biases against the disabled,” Thomas once said. “And we should call that plainly. That’s exactly what it is.”
White doesn’t care about UFC credibility or fighter safety. If he did care about the former, he wouldn’t sign WWE stars with no competition experience, or float the idea of having Bieber fight Cruise.
If he cared about the latter, UFC fighters would have year-round health insurance, employment benefits, pensions, and wouldn’t routinely be asked to fight on short-notice, often while still injured. No, White likes to discriminate and count people he puts into boxes without legitimate reason.
He did it with female fighters, before realizing he could make additional millions off of them, and he did it with Newell. There’s never any way of predicting how a fighter will do in the big leagues until they get there.
Anyone without the stigma of disability who had Newell’s record, looks, and charisma, would have not been told in advance that they had no real place in the UFC, however. White has stepped into dangerous territory by explicitly saying he’s reluctant to sign a professionally qualified person who is cleared and sanctioned by medical professionals and athletic commissions, simply based on his appearance and a disability that does not prevent him from doing his job.
Newell might win some and might lose some should he ever fight in the UFC, who knows? At least Newell has gotten a crack at another big-time organization in Bellator.
Still, his deal with Bellator was reportedly just for one fight. So, on the strength of a two-fight winning streak and a successful debut in the biggest promotion he’s yet to fight for, it’s time for the world to once again think about where free-agent Newell should be fighting.
For the most part, Newell has fought on the regional circuits. After 10 years of winning at that level, there’s not much more he can prove there.
He can continue to beat regional guys, or he can for the first time get a multi-fight deal with a big-time promotion. I’m hoping for the latter.
At this point, unless we’re all comfortable telling Newell to stay right where he is because his different abilities make us uncomfortable with the danger he faces as a fighter, a consensus should form around his getting to fight at the next level for a few fights to see how he fares. He’s earned that.
A multi-fight deal with Bellator or the UFC, now, makes sense for an established prospect like Newell. Bellator took a chance where the UFC would not, and hopefully they see fit to make him an offer to stick around.
It seems like the fighter has enjoyed working with Bellator thus far. According to his interview Monday with ESPN’s Ariel Helwani, Newell was welcomed and treated fairly by Bellator.
“Everything they said, happened. Everything was so well organized and so well done. I really felt like family, I really felt at home at Bellator and when I stepped in that cage I was just happy to be a part of a great organization,” he said.
“They didn’t treat me like a guy that was on a one-fight deal, like an expendable fighter. They treated me like I was one of their guys that was long term, like I was in the main event. I got great treatment from them. I was very happy ... ”
Hopefully that big-league treatment will be soon followed by a major league contract for Newell.
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