David Karpel talks with the MMA phenomenon about disability, a fighting mindset, and the importance of focus
“Notorious” Nick Newell is the toughest, one-armed mama’s boy that ever stepped into the cage. He’s a mixed martial arts fighter who is undefeated at 8-0 in his professional career despite having one full arm—his left arm had suffered a congenital amputation and stops just past his elbow. He’s an inspiring example of fighting spirit and perseverance and I felt humbled by his generosity and willingness to give me the opportunity to interview him for The Good Men Project.
Nick has a calm presence and is polite to a fault. As soon as we got to talking, I knew this was going to be a conversation about more than just fighting. And I’ve seen videos of this guy fighting, so I wondered how a nice guy like Nick can find such ferocity in the cage. I tried to find out right away. His answer, and much of our conversation, is telling. Nick is just a regular, super nice guy who can kick ass.
I’ve read that your mom was instrumental in keeping you from quitting wrestling during high school. Is she the core of your support system?
Definitely the most influential person in my life has been my mom. I have a strong family structure all around. I wasn’t raised as a kid with one hand. It wasn’t like, “Oh my G-d, he has one hand, he’s going to get made fun of!” It was more like, “Go out and be a boy. Get dirty and do boy stuff.” So I was never treated any different. At the same time, I was raised not to put up with anything anyone might give me.
So you had the fighting spirit from an early age.
I did, even though I didn’t know how to fight when I was a kid. I used to watch pro wrestling with my friends and then we used to just wrestle. We didn’t know what we were doing, but I was toughened up from that. And I’ve definitely gone through some stuff with people outside my town, making remarks. But I never put too much weight on it. I always knew what I could do as a person and I never treated myself or thought of myself as any different.
What or who got you into high school wrestling in the first place?
Watching WWE got me into wrestling. I was just always into roughhousing. My favorite show when I was a kid was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I wanted to be a Ninja Turtle when I grew up. My mom used to have to watch me when I was around manholes because I would try to go into them like they did.
I actually almost got kicked out of a movie theater because I had nunchucks in my pocket. I jumped up in the middle of the movie waving them around screaming, “Cowabunga!” The usher came running down and grabbed them from me and then he had a talk with my mom.
There are no pictures of you anywhere I’ve seen with you wearing a prosthetic. Did you ever wear one?
I did. The Shriners Hospital was very helpful when it came to prosthetics. When I was a child I used to wear one. Then I got an electronic one, but it was heavy and it made things harder to do. I kept pinching myself. I said to my mom one day, “I don’t want to wear this anymore.” And she said, “Fine. You don’t have to.” And then I kind of just realized that I am the way I am and I can get along just fine without the help of a prosthetic.
Watching your fights, a lot stands out—speed, devastating knees, elbows up from your guard—but as a whole, what is most apparent is your relentlessness. Is that your plan for each fight? Or is this an attribute of your personality?
No. Actually, my coaches want me to be more reserved than I am. Be tough, no doubt, but be more technical.
Are they afraid you’ll gas out?
Well, I train very hard. Cardio is something I put a lot of effort into. They just don’t want me being sloppy. They want me to stay more technical. But I go out there and I get all fired up when I get ready to fight.
You work so hard, and when it’s your time to shine it’s time to go. I’m not thinking, “What happens if this guy’s really tough?” No, I’m going to go, I’m going to show up.
I know it’s a sport, but I literally look at it like this guy’s trying to kill me. A lot of people will come up to me and say, “How come you didn’t tap out from that rear naked choke?” Because to me that’s like accepting death. This dude is trying to kill me and I’m going to get out of this. I always fight like that.
From the outside it looks like pure heart is driving your fights.
I don’t like losing. I know nobody does, but when you’ve been on the other side, you know you don’t want to. Right now I’m a winner, but I wasn’t always a winner. I was loser when I first started wrestling. I went 2-22 my first year and I think I got pinned 17 times. It was embarrassing, but I’m not a quitter.
Before I ever wrestled my first match, my mom said to me, “You started this, you have to finish it.” I never thought about quitting through the entire season, but I was determined to fix it, to not be that guy anymore—that guy everyone counts out, that everyone expects to lose. No, I’m going to be a winner. So I just did everything I could to switch it over. And I don’t want to go back. I’m never going back. Obviously, no one is perfect and everyone loses eventually, but I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure I don’t.
Whenever I watch you fight, a line from the documentary Fightville always comes to mind: “We build better men.” Can you speak about that? How is MMA making you a better man?
There’s a respect in martial arts. I fight because I like to fight. I love the technical aspect of it, but I also love the physicality of it. And how it takes heart. Sometimes you’re not always the best, but if you work the hardest and want it the most you can win. It’s not like that in a lot of other sports. MMA is the most technical sport in the world. I think I’ve strayed away from the question…
That’s really okay. Your love of the sport is really coming through. You mentioned before that when you get in the cage, you’re thinking the other guy wants to kill you. But at the end of the fight you’re shaking hands and hugging.
It’s a switch. Every fighter talks about it. It’s a switch that turns on; it’s a switch that turns off. Everyone always asks me what it feels like to fight and to win. I can never describe it. But there’s a video of Chael Sonnen talking to Joe Rogan and he says it right, that it’s a feeling of relief. You worked so hard for this and you did it. It’s like nothing else in the world. It’s such a special feeling, whether you’re winning or losing, you’re just out there putting your hard work on display. It’s something to be proud of.
Obviously your ultimate goal is to win fights, but how do you want people to remember you? Do you ever go out and speak to disabled kids or veterans about yourself? How do you want your story to affect others?
I’ve done a seminar at Walter Reed. I’ve gone to speak at colleges. UNH in New Haven, CT, has been very supportive of me. The guy who runs the program, his son was born with one hand, too. He’s probably the cutest baby I’ve ever seen in my life.
I’m doing a seminar in Boston in January for Helping Hands. They’re an organization that supports people with limb differences. There’s also this wonderful charity called the Lucky Fin Project. They do a lot to raise awareness and support and encourage kids with limb differences to go out there and participate. The lady who runs it, Molly, is the coolest person I’ve met in my life. They’ve got some really good things going on for kids. It’s a great organization.
Thank you so much for taking a break from your training for this conversation, Nick.
It was my pleasure.