Watching footage of lightweight mixed martial artist, Nick Newell, and his first-round submission win against Bellator veteran Eric Reynolds for the XFC lightweight title, a conversation with my Father springs to mind.
“You don’t play pool competitively with a bad limp unless you’re good – never underestimate someone just because they have a disability,” He confided, as we watched my opponent hobble into the pool hall, balancing awkwardly on an artificial leg.
Two games in and amongst a large gathering of people, I could only look on helplessly from my seat as my competition shuffled expertly around the pool table, potting balls with the accuracy of a professional archer.
Yet twelve years later, here I was, feeling that same sense of shock and awe as I watched a competitor with a physical disability blitz their able-bodied opponent.
Had I learnt nothing from that heart- breaking defeat?
For those of you who aren’t familiar, Nick Newell is an MMA fighter with an impressive record of 14 and 1 who just happens to have been born with a congenital amputation of his left arm, which ends just below the elbow.
He has fought previously for Xtreme Fighting Championship and World Series of Fighting, and currently fights for Legacy Fighting Alliance.
Newell, who celebrates his 32nd birthday today (March 17th), has been the talk of the MMA community of late, following his public call out of the UFC for a shot within their lightweight division on foot of a dominant victory earlier this month over Sonny Luque at a Legacy Fighting Alliance main event.
“Life is a cold hard place,” he said in his post-fight speech. “You can either become a victim of circumstances or you can create your own. I’m out here. I’m creating my own circumstances. I’m one of the best fighters in the world and I belong in the UFC – I’ve proved it fourteen times.”
Yet, despite having beaten fighters who can boast winning records, a portion of MMA fans, along with White and the UFC, have expressed scepticism regarding the quality of the opponents that he has faced, along with a concern for the fighter’s safety.
“It’s hard to fight here with two arms,” White said in 2012. “Maybe he can get away with that in some of these other states. I don’t know. Fighting with one arm is just craziness to me.”
Yet it is my view that those who share White’s opinion are, much like I did, vastly underestimating the capabilities of a ‘disabled’ competitor.
On taking the time to watch any of Newell’s fights for example, it is clear to see that he engages his amputated left arm when securing takedowns, submissions and defending against strikes.
Those who focus merely on Newell’s hand are also ignoring the fact that there is much more to a defensive game than hand use, with footwork and movement being imperative.
“The truth is I can block with my arms.” Newell told MMA Junkie. “I think my footwork is levels above most fighters. Where I move, how I feint, how I’m in and out – it’s just steps ahead. I feel like people are paying so much attention to my arms, but they’re not paying attention to my feet.”
Newell’s submission coach, Andrew Calandrelli, has spoken about how his fighters wrestling acumen, which he further developed through college in his role of captain in Western New England, plays a vital role in allowing Newell to dictate the direction of a fight.
“Nick took the great base he had as a wrestler and layered on a really dangerous Jiu Jitsu game.” He said. “Because of his shortened arm, certain moves work differently for him. His heel hooks and certain chokes come on a lot faster and tighter with a different kind of leverage.”
While the tenets of ‘fairness’ and ‘fair – play’ in sport have always been rightly reiterated, in a situation where a perceived disadvantage can be offset with another skillset, isn’t it inherently unfair to deny a willing athlete a chance to compete? In particular when that athlete has proven his or her capabilities within a professional setting?
In my home country of Ireland, one such athlete who has proven their capabilities in the fight game whilst battling a chronic yet invisible disability, goes by the name of Caradh O Donovan.
Despite having to deal with the debilitating symptoms that Crohns disease brings, the former WAKO Kickboxing Champion has had a glittering kickboxing career, and is now on a mission to win gold at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
While their disablities may both present and effect in different ways, what O Donovan and Newell have in common is a verocious determination to prove to both themselves and others that they are more than capable of competing with the best of them.
“When I first found out I had Crohns Disease and that there was no cure for it, I thought I would have to quit competing at a high-level,” O Donovan confided. “At the time I was doing Kickboxing, but because I was so ill, I couldn’t train. I remember being in hospital and finding out from a Facebook post that I was basically being put off the Irish Kickboxing Team. It was a pretty tough time dealing with that because sport had become my identity and now it looked like it was all over.”
A fighter to her very core, O Donovan wasn’t about to take such a snub lying down.
“That was probably what made me decide I would get back to competing regardless,” She stated. “I was annoyed at how I was being treated because of a disease or disability that was completely out of my control. I wanted to prove to myself that I could still be competitive and I wanted to just get back training in a sport I loved.”
And prove she did.
Under the care of a medical team in St Vincent’s hospital, the Sligo born martial artist went on to achieve all that the sport of Kickboxing had to offer and is now on a mission to represent Team Ireland in Karate at the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020.
As ill luck would have it however, another situation beyond her control has arisen, with no funding being delegated by Sport Ireland.
Not one to accept a circumstance without a fight, Caradh has set up a fundraising campaign to help her to get to Tokyo. It is one that people should back, and not just because of her story – but because she is a world class fighter.
Whether an athlete’s disability is visible or invisible, if they can demonstrate an ability to compete and protect themselves at the level of their competitors, they must be given the opportunity to do so. To deny them of this right is nothing short of discriminatory, while to underestimate their ability to overcome their condition is not only ignorant but a dangerous mentality to adopt.
Especially if you are their next opponent.
This article first appeared on BJPenn.com on 3/18/2018.