Nick Newell’s UFC Case Might Not Be as Strong as You Think
After his dominant win over regional veteran Sonny Luque at LFA 35, lightweight prospect Nick Newell used his interview time to angrily call for an opportunity to fight inside the Octagon. At first glance, Newell’s resume looks like the sort that could demand the big show’s attention, with 14 wins in 15 fights. Some observers have suggested that Newell’s exclusion from the UFC is solely due to his status as a congenital amputee, citing ill-informed comments that mercurial UFC president Dana White made just over five years ago in which he suggested that a one-armed fighter couldn’t adequately defend himself in a pro contest. Newell has conclusively proven White wrong on that point – the fact that he lasted over five minutes with a top-10 lightweight like Justin Gaethje at WSOF 11 is all the evidence you need that Newell is a skilled and worthy MMA competitor.
On the other hand, there’s a big difference between showing that you’re capable inside the cage and proving that you’re the type of fighter who the UFC can’t reasonably turn down. Instead of focusing on the moral or philosophical aspects of the discussion, I’ll try to objectively assess Nick Newell’s achievements in the professional MMA world compared to other lightweights.
Here’s how I’ll go about it. Newell won’t get any bonus points for his condition, nor will he receive any deductions, and I imagine that’s the way he would like it. He’ll be compared against the competition, just like any other prospect in the deep 155-pound talent pool.
When the UFC assesses a prospect, they consider much more than simple win-loss record. They pay a lot of attention to the quality of opposition, especially wins over UFC-level foes. For purposes of this article, I’ll reference Fightmatrix.com rankings, which accounts for similar factors to rank every pro fighter’s recent resume and accomplishments.
Undefeated in the Regionals, 2009-2012
After turning pro in 2009, Newell enjoyed a stellar run to start his MMA career. He blitzed through his first four opponents with quick finishes, which is what any prospect should do against foes with an aggregate record of 2 wins, 11 losses on fight nights. So far, so good.
Two years after his debut, Newell stepped up a level and started taking on opponents who had a few wins on the regional circuit. In 2011-2012 he earned a quick sub over Anthony Kaponis (4-3 on fight night); a quick tapout of Denis Hernandez (3-3); a majority decision over Chris Coggins (5-1); and a TKO over Adam Mays (6-3). While all of those opponents are credible martial artists, only Coggins was ranked in the world’s top 500 on fight night at #290 and today he holds a record of 7-11. In a stacked division like lightweight, these are the kind of wins that earn you attention as an up-and-comer, but are hardly the sort that propels you straight into the UFC ranks. Standing at 8-0, Newell was ranked #313 in the world at lightweight by Fightmatrix on the strength of these triumphs.
Newell’s final pre-WSOF contest was a quick submission win over Eric “It’s a Wrap” Reynolds (16-5), a Bellator 2 tourney competitor who was subbed by Eddie Alvarez and Jorge Masvidal in his highest-profile bouts. Reynolds was ranked #90 in the world at the time of his fight with Newell. The prospect’s easy first round win pushed his record to 9-0 and upped his world ranking to #127 lightweight. That’s the rankings range where UFC does, indeed, look for prospects to sign, and in a shallower weight class like heavyweight Newell might have been a lock at this point. But surveying the current #101 to #150 ranked lightweights in the world reveals that 18 have fought in the UFC (36%) while 32 haven’t (64%). Approaching the fringes of the top 100 at lightweight isn’t quite enough to guarantee a UFC opportunity, and that’s all that Newell managed to achieve during his successful romp through the minor league ranks.
Newell demolished Reynolds in Short Order
Treading Water in WSOF, 2013-2015
Perhaps frustrated by Dana White’s public position on his congenital condition, Newell chose to sign an exclusive contract with WSOF in 2013. That proved to be a mixed blessing for Newell, who fought twice against low-ranked opponents in 2013 and earned easy finishes of #552 welterweight Keon Caldwell (9-1) and #469 welterweight Sabah Fadai (8-3). Sure, first round submissions look great on paper, but Newell’s world ranking rose just one spot during this time to #126 as other prospects leapfrogged him by defeating sturdier competition.
While his 2013 was wasted on those bouts against subpar foes, Newell finally received the first big opportunity of his career in July 2014: a WSOF lightweight title shot against undefeated star Justin Gaethje (11-0). Gaethje was already a known commodity, ranked #20 in the world’s deepest division, and a win would have earned Newell both the WSOF title and an undeniable reputation as one of the very best fighters on the planet. But Newell fell well short, lasting just over eight minutes against the champ before falling to strikes and dropping to #148 in the lightweight ranks.
Unable to stamp his case for a future UFC shot, Newell returned to the drawing board with a pair of 2015 contests against regional caliber foes Joe Condon (12-7, #371 lightweight) and Tom Marcellino (7-3, #620 lightweight). Newell had little to gain from defeating these lower ranked opponents, and matters were made slightly worse by the fact that he looked less-than-sharp in taking both men to decision. Even more so than the Gaethje loss – because who doesn’t get TKO’d by Justin Gaethje? – these close contests against regional-caliber fighters suggested that Newell’s career may have reached a natural plateau point. Newell stood as the #139 ranked lightweight in the world when he temporarily retired from the sport following the Marcellino win in 2015, still short of the level of achievement that guarantees a UFC chance.
Any excuse to rewatch a Gaethje fight…
2018: Nick Newell’s Triumphant Return and UFC Dreams
After 29 months off, a rejuvenated Newell returned and looked explosive-as-ever in destroying #605 lightweight Sonny Luque (10-6). The fact that Newell still possesses strong athleticism and grappling at age 31 was an important takeaway from his LFA debut. But we already knew that Newell has the skills to take out solid journeymen, and following his hiatus, he’s now ranked outside of the top 200 in the world.
The Verdict: It’s certainly possible that Newell could earn an immediate UFC call-up despite the fact that his most notable scalps to-date are Eric Reynolds and Joe Condon. The amount of support he’s received from the MMA community could help. But it seems more likely that he’s one big win away from jumping inside the world top 100 rankings and forcing the UFC to take action.
Luckily there are a few highly-ranked lightweights signed to LFA who could help Newell serve notice that he’s a fighter who simply can’t be ignored. My favorite matchups:
#80 Robert Watley, 10-1: Following a successful and dominant LFA lightweight title defense against scrappy challenger Brandon Jenkins, Watley is probably headed to the UFC. But if not, then a battle for the belt versus Newell would drum up a lot of buzz and would almost certainly propel the winner to the big show. That said, Watley should already be in the UFC and he wouldn’t gain a lot from taking the fight.
#156 Damon Jackson, 14-2-1: “The Leech” has already enjoyed a cup of coffee in the UFC, with a draw versus Levan Makashvili, a loss to Yancy Medeiros, and a second loss to Rony Jason that was overturned to a no contest when the Brazilian suffered a USADA failure. Those are some very good fighters to fall short against, and Jackson has put together a 5-1 run in LFC/LFA since his UFC release. With three finishes in his last three outings, Jackson could be one significant win away from a second shot in the Octagon. If Watley jumps to UFC, perhaps a Jackson vs. Newell lightweight title fight could determine a worthy successor to his throne. The fact that Newell has never faced a pure grappler of Jackson’s caliber would add intrigue.
#169 Daniel Pineda, 23-13: Newell has never defeated a UFC veteran. No, Pineda isn’t an elite guy, but he’s a worthy competitor who is 4-0 at lightweight in LFC/LFA since his seven fight UFC run. If Newell takes out Pineda then it could be just the trick needed to show Dana that he can hang inside the hallowed eight-sided cage. Plus, the 32 year old Texan would have plenty to gain from a bout with Newell as he tries to keep his solid 11 year pro career on the tracks. Pineda is prone to get into submission wars, which could make for a fun, quick contest.
#201 Thiago Moises, 9-2: Dana White’s original concern about Newell focused on his ability to defend against high-level strikers, and he did little to assuage those fears in his TKO loss to Gaethje. Vaunted standup practitioner and BJJ artist Thiago Moises would represent a second chance for Newell to show that he can hang on the feet with a feared knockout artist. And for Moises, a bout with Newell could be the perfect opportunity to bounce back from his title loss to Watley and reassert his UFC dreams.