Nick Newell returns to competition, still dreams of a UFC debut

Nick Newell will return to MMA competition after a two-year layoff on Friday night. AP Photo/WSOF/Lucas Noonan

In 2012, UFC president Dana White said Nick Newell, a professional mixed martial artist missing the lower portion of his left arm, would never fight in the UFC.

It would be too dangerous to book Newell against UFC-caliber competition, said White, before adding, "fighting with one arm is just craziness to me."

Looking back, Newell, who was 9-0 at that time, says it wasn't the most uplifting thing to hear. Clearly. But he took it with a grain of salt, as he'd already had some contact with the UFC behind the scenes regarding its reality show.

"You expect him to say that, but I was actually almost on 'The Ultimate Fighter,'" Newell told ESPN. "They flew me out to Las Vegas to do an interview, do all the medicals, everything.

"I was ready to go, and then they changed their mind at the last minute."

Newell (13-1), who underwent a congenital amputation as a child, returns to active competition on Friday, when he meets Sonny Luque in a lightweight main event at LFA 35 in Houston. The event airs on AXS TV at 9 p.m. ET.

The 31-year-old announced his retirement in 2015, but he couldn't stay away from the cage. A former World Series of Fighting title challenger, Newell was open to fighting anywhere in his return, and ultimately he chose LFA (Legacy Fighting Alliance) for its professionalism and contract offer.

He's also very aware, however, of LFA's close relationship with the UFC. The promotion has developed a track record for placing talent in the UFC -- and of course, for Newell, that remains a goal.

"What's the goal if you're a fighter? Everyone's goal is to get in the UFC," Newell said. "I feel like I've done more than enough to prove myself, but life's not fair. The world doesn't owe you anything. All you can do is keep doing your thing. Whether I fight in the UFC or not, it won't make or break me."

LFA CEO Ed Soares doesn't mind signing talent whose greater goal is to move on to the UFC. He actually encourages it, and says he won't be surprised if Newell realizes his UFC dream while fighting under this new contract.

"The world got to see what Shaquem Griffin [an NFL prospect with one hand] was able to do at the NFL scouting combine this past weekend," Soares said. "[Former pitcher] Jim Abbott showed the world what he can do in Major League Baseball during his career. Nick Newell now has the opportunity to remind the world what he can do in MMA on Friday night at LFA 35.

"The number of hands you have doesn't determine how far you go at the highest level of sports. It's the level of heart, skill and determination that decides that. I absolutely believe Nick Newell can compete in the UFC."

Based out of New Haven, Connecticut, Newell's only professional loss is to current UFC lightweight Justin Gaethje (18-1), who is in the midst of title contention.

Following the two-year layoff, Newell says he's in a better financial position now than when he retired. He opened a gym during that time, and he allowed his body to fully heal from injury.

All the pieces were in place to return to what he loves: competition. That's what this comeback is about -- and if that closed door to the UFC finally opens, he'll gladly take it.

"I think the world worries too much about what people will think," Newell said. "'What are they gonna say if he loses?' That's kind of ridiculous, because I've lost before and I'm fine. I lost to Justin Gaethje and nobody was like, 'I can't believe WSOF let that happen.' Even when Gaethje went to the UFC, they showed highlights of him hitting me, you know?

"The UFC let CM Punk fight, who I'm a big fan of, by the way. They let [boxer] James Toney fight when they knew he was going to get smashed. It's really not a big deal. I want to earn the opportunity. I don't want to be in there just because I have one hand. But I think at this point, with a 13-1 record, about to be 14-1, that's enough for me to get an opportunity."