Just 26 and with a creditable — if unexceptional — pedigree in amateur wrestling, Nick Newell is not so fearsome that professional fighters should cower. Yet the list of fighters who have canceled or rejected bouts with him is about two dozen long, and the reason is clear: it can be difficult to persuade able-bodied athletes to fight a man with one hand.
Newell is among the fighters known as adaptive athletes pursuing MMA. Previously relegated to the red-light district of sports culture, MMA has gained mainstream prominence and become a test of toughness embraced by amputees who relish the challenge of modifying the sport’s techniques and surprising those who stereotype them as victims.
“Sometimes an amputation or disability will actually get people to strive to become more than they might otherwise be,” said Jeff Traub, an orthopedist in Atlanta who has worked with amputee fighters. “The amputation has led them to think, Why can’t I do this? It gives them motivation to do more.”
Such ambition has confounded state athletic commissions, the sanctioning bodies that regulate prizefighting and license its participants. In MMA, where even the veterans are frequently pummeled or choked, how do you evaluate the capabilities of a fighter missing part of an arm or leg?
Last August, the Association of Boxing Commissions held its annual conference in Washington. Among the items on the agenda for the first time: dealing with the amputee prizefighter.
“We were starting to hear of quite a few states that were running across the issue,” said Tim Lueckenhoff, president of the association. “Commissioners need to decide — are we putting the fighter in a situation where they could be harmed?”
Dr. Margaret E. Goodman, a former chief ringside physician for Nevada, said in an e-mail: “If they have a medical condition that places them at a disadvantage, then they should not be granted a license to compete. The question is whether or not Mr. Newell adequately circumvents his disadvantage.”
So far, the answer seems to be yes. In six professional bouts, Newell, who does not have a left hand, has rarely been hit or even troubled by opponents. He is scheduled to fight Friday night in Jackson, Tenn., against Chris Coggins, the first opponent in Newell’s pro career with a winning record.
To compensate for his lack of left-handed boxing technique and incomplete defense, Newell focuses heavily on footwork with his trainer Jeremy Libiszewski, working to evade strikes rather than block them. “He cuts angles, punches and gets out,” Libiszewski said.
A congenital amputee, Newell’s left arm ends about three inches past the elbow, which gives him a handhold to complete submissions uniquely difficult to escape. “If he gets you in a choke,” Libiszewski said, you’re in trouble.