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One-handed fighter Nick Newell a bout away from his UFC dream

Nick Newell will get his shot at a UFC contract when he faces Alex Munoz on Dana White's Tuesday Night Contender Series on July 24. Daniel Martinez for ESPN

WEST HAVEN, Conn. -- It's 10:15 on a sunny Wednesday morning, and the man Dana White said would "never" compete in the UFC is less than a week away from doing just that.

Nick Newell, wearing a black and maroon shirt with gray shorts, leads a small group of fellow fighters in a light jog around the gym while Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" blares from the speaker. As the 15 people transition into stretches before a grappling session, Newell smiles and cracks a light joke that makes another teammate at Fighting Arts Academy burst into laughter. He seems calm and confident despite being six days away from the most important fight of his life.

"The truth is, I've done all the hard work," Newell says. "I knew what I needed to do, and I got it all done in the practice room. I feel super confident. I feel prepared. I've been under the bright lights before. I've won world titles. To me, it's just another fight, even though the circumstances are a little bit bigger."

Newell will face Alex Munoz (4-0) on Tuesday in White's "Tuesday Night Contender Series." If the promotion is impressed with his performance, he will earn a contract to fight in the UFC. Newell is one of thousands of fighters who dream of one day making the UFC. Reaching that level in itself is special. But his case is unique because he is a congenital amputee with a left arm that extends just below his elbow.

If you think competing with one arm sounds crazy, you're not the only one. UFC president White said the same thing in 2012 -- "It's hard to fight here with two arms" -- but has since changed his stance after watching Newell dominate opponents en route to a 14-1 record and world titles in other organizations.

"To be honest with you, I'm not doing this for me or for the organization or anything like that," White said after UFC 225 in June. "I'm doing it for this kid. This kid came in and begged -- this is his dream, this is what he lives for and this is what this guy has worked his whole life to do.

"He wants it so bad. And I'm sitting there going, 'This is crazy, man, but I'm going to do it. I'm going to give you your chance.'"

That time is finally here.


From 17 straight losses to college captain

Newell, now 32, grew up in Milford, Connecticut, and was raised "to not even think about my arm or my lack of a hand and to just go out there and be a boy." Sure, normal activities for some weren't always as normal for him, but he adapted quickly and didn't use his condition as a crutch.

Always into sports, he joined the Jonathan Law High School wrestling team when he was 13. Rather than question his ability, the group welcomed him immediately because the team simply didn't have anyone for the 103-pound division at the time. Instead of forfeiting every match at that weight, Newell stepped in (he says at 97 pounds his freshman year) and proceeded to lose his first 17 contests. He was pinned in 14 of those.

In hopes of not getting "smashed by everyone" the next season, Newell put aside the pool and parties with friends that summer and spent all of his time training. He returned the next fall a new person.

"He wasn't bad his freshman year, he just wasn't skilled enough yet," says Matt Schoonmaker, his former coach and now close friend. "He comes back his sophomore year and he's beating a lot of kids. That was when I decided this kid was going to be good.

"It didn't matter that he one hand. I tried to treat him like he was the typical kid from day one. By the time he was a senior, he was doing one-handed pushups."

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Newell never quit training in event of MMA return

Nick Newell discusses his decision to keep training when he walked away from mixed martial arts in case he decided to return.

Newell was named all-state that year after tying the Connecticut record for wins on the season with 53. The honor earned him a spot in the All-New England tournament, where he faced the top wrestler from Maine.

"I went to put an ankle band on [before the match]. He said, 'Hey man, do you need help?' I was like, 'This is the best of the best right here. We're both the best wrestlers in our state. You're asking if I need help putting on an ankle band? I appreciate it, but I'm going to smash you right now.' I ended up beating him pretty convincingly."

The chip on Newell's shoulder remained there through his time at Western New England University, where he had a successful career and was a team captain for two years.

While wrestling in Springfield, Massachusetts, Newell discovered the original Fighting Arts Academy gym in 2005. He immediately developed a bond with owner and coach Jeremy Libiszewski and the sport of mixed martial arts.

Libiszewski wasn't concerned at all about his student's ability to fight with one hand.

"The only thing I was wondering was if he was really serious. And he was," the coach says. "People make it out to be a big deal, that because he has a missing hand it's going to be really difficult. It's like anybody else. Some people are flexible, some people aren't flexible. Some people are explosive, some people aren't. It's just something to work around."

Four years later, Newell had his first professional fight, defeating Daniel Ford by first-round TKO in "Cage Fighting Xtreme (Mass.) 3: Rumble in the Jungle." Newell then proceeded to win 11 straight before losing for the first time to top UFC contender Justin Gaethje.


Hanging up the gloves

Newell rebounded from that first defeat by beating both Joe Condon and Tom Marcellino by decision. But even though he looked good, injuries started to pile up.

"His last fight, as he was warming up in the back room, the first kick he threw, his knee dislocated," Libiszewski says. "Twenty minutes before the fight, it dislocated. We put it back in, and he went out and fought. In the Justin Gaethje fight, he walked in my house and was literally walking with his hands on the ground because he couldn't straighten his back out."

Newell said the injuries -- and the continued thought that he would never reach the pinnacle of the sport -- were the reasons for his early retirement in 2015.

"I felt like I was going through all of this and the juice just wasn't worth the squeeze," Newell says. "I got discouraged and thought I would never make it to the UFC. And that was my goal -- to make the UFC. It just wasn't worth it to me anymore."

Newell, though, continued training and later realized he would "regret it if I don't give it one more go." So in 2017, he decided to fight professionally again and took on Sonny Luque in Legacy Fighting Alliance. He looked as sharp as ever, taking Luque to the ground and winning by first-round submission.

Looking back, Newell doesn't regret his decision to start his career up again.

"I needed to make another run at this. I needed to give it one more shot," he says. "If I don't, I would be this old guy who says, 'I could have done it.' There's only one way to find out, and it's to actually do it. I decided to come back and give it another shot, and here I am."


Making the dream a reality

Back at Fighting Arts Academy in Connecticut, Newell wraps up grappling training with a variety of partners. Libiszewski, now Newell's head coach, stands a few feet away, closely watching every move.

As practice ends around noon, the fighters wipe the sweat off their faces and head home. Everyone except Newell. His strength and conditioning coach, Matthew Ramos, enters the room and places cones on the ground. Ramos wraps an elastic band around Newell's waist. They work on fast-twitch movements and jumps to improve explosiveness.

Six days from Newell's fight, Ramos is ecstatic with what he's seeing.

"It's a whole new level now," he says. "He had a lot of things that were not settled before that [are] settled now. He has a foundation from which he can now catapult himself. That's what I think the major difference is. He's at such a better place mentally, emotionally, that win/lose, he's able to say, 'I did this' and move on."

After the grueling workout, Newell mentions that his hero in sports is former major league pitcher Jim Abbott. Despite not having a right hand, Abbott played 10 professional seasons and threw a no-hitter for the New York Yankees in 1993. The fighter was able to meet Abbott twice while growing up, and Abbott was a reminder to Newell that anything is possible.

Years later, Newell is doing the same thing for others. Every year, he attends a conference in Boston with the Helping Hands Foundation, which benefits children with limb loss. He also speaks often with families in similar situations to make sure they know they are not alone.

"One of the things I love about Nick is his humility," Ramos says. "To do everything he has done and not change his persona and still be that humble and friendly and that loving just speaks volumes of his character. I think that's why so many people genuinely support him."

Newell knows the number of people he can affect will increase greatly by his continued rise in the sport. It's just another reason why this week's performance is so crucial. His journey to this point has been anything but ordinary, and he relishes the idea of showing the culmination of that in the Octagon on Tuesday night.

"I don't want anyone to treat me any different," he says. "I don't want to be held on a pedestal: 'Look at me, I have one hand and I'm proving everyone wrong.' I don't really care about that. I just want to be treated like a normal person, and I just want to get an opportunity like a normal person.

"I'm not this superman. I go to bed, I'm hurting. I wake up, I'm hurting. I go to practice, I have good days and bad days. But I've worked so hard for something, and it's right in front of me. All I have to do is just go out there and take it."