With lingering bitterness, Nick Newell recalls the day he drove four hours to New Hampshire in anticipation of his fourth professional bout as a mixed martial arts fighter. He was limiting his diet to meet a contracted weight of 155 pounds; vacation days had been docked at his day job.
When Newell arrived from Connecticut, his opponent was nowhere to be found. There would be no fight, no chance to improve his record to 4-0.
“He was one of the top-ranked guys in the region at the time,” Newell said. “I guess he got cold feet and didn’t want to show up.”
Just 26 and with a creditable — if unexceptional — pedigree in amateur wrestling, 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 M.M.A., the grueling combat sport that combines wrestling, striking and submissions in a bonanza of soft-tissue and orthopedic damage. Previously relegated to the red-light district of sports culture, M.M.A. 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 M.M.A., 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.
In a December fight against Denis Hernandez, Newell backed him into the cage, swarming him with a flurry of fist and elbow strikes. On the ground, he wrapped up Hernandez’s foot in a painful submission.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Hernandez said. “When he body-locked me, I felt his power. He did really well off the bat.”
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.
For all of his five-fight amateur career, Newell competed in Massachusetts, where the boxing commission had not yet been assigned authority over M.M.A. By the time he began applying for a pro license, he had set his own precedent. Faced with evidence of Newell’s abilities, states including Nevada, Florida and New Hampshire have found no reason to deny him a license.
“I had already won an amateur title,” Newell said. “They couldn’t say I couldn’t fight.”
Because each state has autonomy in its licensing, there is no guarantee that cases like Newell’s will be treated with consistency.
Keith Miner, a fighter from Texas who lost his right hand after being pulled into a wood chipper, won approval to compete and then nearly had it revoked the night of his bout in February.
“I was constantly being pulled aside,” Miner said. “The commission kept making phone calls. It was all up in the air.”
Miner fought, and lost.
Unlike Newell, Miner strikes with the tip of his afflicted limb: a custom-made glove was secured to his shaved forearm with tape. Commission members studied it intently before letting him enter the ring.
Matt Betzold rarely gets that far. Poisoned as a child, Betzold developed a blood clot and gangrene, prompting the amputation of his left leg below the knee. After having success in grappling tournaments, which prohibit strikes of any kind, he began lobbying the Arizona Boxing Commission to allow him to fight professionally.
He became a study in semantics: because Betzold competes by shuffling around on his knees in a genuflect position, is he considered a downed opponent? Or is the bottom of his incomplete leg the same as the sole of a foot?
“His head is at waist level” when competing, said Dennis O’Connell, executive director of the Arizona commission. “If he’s viewed as down, his opponent can’t kick him in the head. If he’s categorized as upright, his opponent can just whale away at him.”
Betzold was eventually granted amateur status, where there are no kicks to the head regardless of a fighter’s position. He competed three times and won twice, dragging opponents into a wrestling match that evened the odds. But when Betzold lobbied to turn pro and risk more dangerous strikes against seasoned athletes, the commission flinched.
“I’m worried sick about his safety,” O’Connell said. “He’s brave, he’s tough, and the crowd loves him. But what are we opening up here?”
Frustrated, Betzold turned to J. J. Rico, a disability lawyer in Arizona. Rico appeared with Betzold in front of the commission, carrying with him the legal bludgeon of the Americans With Disabilities Act. “Looking at the Arizona rules, I didn’t see anything that would legally disallow him from participating,” Rico said. “He had been very successful in his amateur career. He just has a starting position different from most.”
The commission gave in. Betzold received his professional Arizona license last May. “I wanted that little piece of paper,” he said. “That’s what I was fighting for, for them to honor me as a pro.”
He has yet to make use of it. While it was relatively easy for Betzold and Newell to find fights in the amateur circuit’s more casual atmosphere, fighters looking to mold pro careers see no upside in risking a loss against a physically compromised opponent.
It may become increasingly difficult, however, for able-bodied fighters to avoid competing against adaptive athletes. Miner noted how a steady stream of martial arts fighters is emerging from military hospitals in Texas, damaged by war but newly versed in state-of-the-art limb substitutions and carrying a desire to remain physical.
“There are a lot of soldiers coming back and a lot of amputees starting to train,” Miner said. “They’ll run into a lot of the same issues we have.”
He added, “If they can go fight in a war, they should be able to fight in a cage if they’d like.”