Everyone needs an inspiration.
For Nick Newell, his inspiration as a child came from exposure to Jean-Claude Van Damme, Stone Cold Steve Austin and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. No wonder he grew up to be an MMA fighter.
The 28-year-old will take on Justin Gaethje for the World Series of Fighting lightweight title Saturday in Daytona Beach. Tickets for the 2 p.m. event are still available at Ticketmaster.com, or watch the main card on NBC beginning at 4 p.m.
Newell feasted on a steady diet of action movies growing up in Connecticut.
“As a kid, I was always into watching martial arts, watching the Ninja Turtles, Van Damme, Arnold [Schwarzenegger], Jackie Chan – I loved that stuff,” said Newell.
The journey from fan to competitor was a long one. He became a professional-wrestling fan as a youngster, enjoying the athleticism of it all. After being prodded by a friend, he joined his high school wrestling team.
This was a particular challenge for Newell, who was born without a left hand and most of his forearm, but he quickly showed an affinity for takedowns and grappling. Besides, his fighting spirit wouldn’t let him fail.
“I’m a competitor – I always want to win,” Newell said. “I’m the guy who takes a girl out on a first date, then beats her at air hockey.”
After a rough freshman year, Newell compiled a record of 115-23 in his last three years of high school, earning all-state honors as a senior. That was enough to propel him onto the college team at Western New England University.
That’s where the sports entertainment of the WWE stepped back into his life and again, indirectly showed him his next goal. He obsessively watched “Monday Night Raw” with his roommate Brian Myers. They soon got hooked on the UFC reality show “The Ultimate Fighter,” which aired after Raw in those days. Both Newell and Myers watched Monday-night shows and thought, “I can do that.”
For Myers, that meant becoming a professional wrestler. Better known as Curt Hawkins, he spent years wrestling in the WWE. But for Newell, that meant walking into his local gym and asking what it took to get into mixed martial arts.
“I started training in college once a week, just for fun,” Newell said. “I thought fighting would be really cool, so I’d give it a try. When I fought once, I was addicted.”
Newell turned pro after college in 2009. He quickly drew attention because of his congenital amputation, but it soon became clear that he was no sideshow – he was the real deal. He now has an 11-0 record with 10 first-round finishes, most of them submissions. He won the XFC lightweight title in late 2012, then signed a multifight deal with WSOF.
WSOF obviously isn’t the biggest name in the MMA world, but Newell said the promotion has just the right mix of big-name veterans and up-and-coming entertaining fighters to be successful. And now, with a card on network television, it’s ready to take the next step.
“You’ll come to see guys like JZ [Cavalcante], Melvin Guillard, [Jon] Fitch, and Jake Shields,” Newell said, “but watch out for people like Marlon Moraes, Rick Glenn and Jessica Aguilar – they’re great fighters who have been built up in WSOF.”
Gaethje is another one who has been with WSOF since the earliest stages, and Newell said he is honored to be the first to go after Gaethje’s title.
“My two goals ever since I got to WSOF have been to fight for the belt and win it, and to fight on network TV,” Newell said. “Now I get both wishes at once. It’s really cool to be picked to headline such a stacked card.”
In an interview with Ground & Pound, Gaethje denigrated Newell’s striking ability and said if he kept the fight standing, Newell would be at a distinct disadvantage. Newell took exception to those remarks.
“I’m going to keep him on his toes, and mix my stand-up and jiu-jitsu with wrestling,” Newell said. “I’ve been very underrated as a stand-up fighter. I’m going to keep it a technical battle, and get the takedowns when they’re there.”
Gaethje and Newell have both taken to social media to promote the fight – they even had a funny Twitter tiff over the fact that Newell is a cat guy and Gaethje loves dogs. (Check Nick’s feed @NotoriousNewell for more.)
But as the fight approaches, Newell is ready to get down to business.
“I’m very light-hearted until the cage door closes,” Newell said. “Here’s the thing – I don’t have anything against Justin. He’s a great competitor. But he’s standing in the way of something I want….
“A lot of people say I’m a good talker, but I’m not here to sell fights by talking. I’m here to kick asses.”Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun