Nick Newell is angry. He interprets an innocuous question about how he'll deal with Justin Gaethje's striking as an insult.
"That pisses me off," Newell says, an edge to his voice.
Newell, who will meet Gaethje on July 5 for the World Series of Fighting lightweight title in Daytona Beach, Fla., in the biggest bout of his life, doesn't want your sympathy.
He doesn't want to be viewed any differently than any other fighter in the world, and he's clearly sensitive to slights, real or imagined.
Newell is a congenital amputee who has made a name for himself by overcoming his disability to become one of the most promising lightweight fighters in mixed martial arts.
He's 11-0 as a pro and one of the best grapplers in his division. But far too often, he's perceived as a one-handed fighter rather than a guy who is out to make it to the top.
He's an inspiration to many because of his success in overcoming obstacles. First, he had to prove he could fight without a left hand, which he's done conclusively.
It also was a fight just to get the opportunity to prove himself. State athletic commissions, as well as promoters, were wary of him, fearing that he couldn't defend himself. UFC president Dana White is on record as saying Newell will never fight in the UFC.
Newell managed to overcome the critics, and few who have seen him fight doubt his talent. But to many, he's always going to be known more for his disability.
That clearly rankles him and occasionally sets him off. He's not out to be a role model or a champion for those with disabilities. This is a very personal, very real quest he's on.
"I've never wanted to be known as a one-handed fighter," Newell said. "And I've never wanted the attention that comes along with that. I've always wanted to be known as a great fighter, and as the best, you know? I want to be the best. I want to be No. 1. That's the competitor in me.
"I don't try to inspire. I just try to be myself. I do help people and I do help kids whenever I get the chance, because it's the right thing to do. People did it for me. Sometimes, you need that. You need someone to help you out when you're facing a tough situation or a tough time. I don't want to sound like a jerk for saying this, but I can't have the pressure on me saying I have to do this [to become an inspiration to others] because I don't need that."
He's all about what will make him the best. He's going to have to explain his story over and over, because the more successful he is, more attention will come his way.
It's part of the job, and even though he's not thrilled about it, he gets it. He just dreams of the day when he doesn't have to answer questions about his disability.
"It sounds pretty obvious, but if I lose, it doesn't mean one-handed people can't fight," he said. "It means that whoever I fought on a given night was better. I could lose to a dude with one hand who is just 10 times better than me. I feel like it's already been proven that you can overcome adversity."
The one-time college All-American wrestler who has become an exceptionally entertaining offensive fighter will face plenty of adversity,
Gaethje is on the hunt for a knockout, first, last and always, and is so aggressive that WSOF matchmaker Ali Abdelaziz jokes that he has "no defense."
"Gaethje is just constant pressure and he's looking to take your head off," Abdelaziz said. "He doesn't have no defense; just offense. Sometimes, he gets reckless and doesn't set up his punches and that's where a grappler with Nick Newell's skills could take advantage."
Newell, whom Abdelaziz said is confident to the point of being cocky, believes he can stand with Gaethje if that's how the fight goes. He's not at a disadvantage, he said, because few recognize the punching power he carries.
He said he's racked up submissions – eight total – because if he sees an easy way to finish a fight, he'll take it.
It doesn't mean, he insisted, he can't or won't stand with Gaethje.
"So many people think I'm defenseless on my feet and that I don't hit hard or that I'm not a striker," he said. "That's OK. It's not a bad problem to have, having people underestimate me. I certainly can mix it up on my feet. I haven't had a lot of striking because I've been fighting people I can take down and submit.
"I want to have a long career and I love doing this, so it's smart to win as easily as possible. People have been saying [I can't stand] and it's starting to piss me off a little bit. I guess I have a lot to prove. He's very aggressive and I plan to make him pay for his aggression."
His profile will only increase with a win and it will revive the same old questions. He's already one of the World Series' top attractions and the scrutiny is only going to increase.
He hopes to get a guest spot on the late night talk shows, and said he's angry that no one is working to get him onto "The Tonight Show" starring Jimmy Fallon. Newell receives letters from people whom he's inspired from all over the world, many in foreign languages he can't read.
And while he appreciates the impact he's been able to have, he just wants to be known as a fighter.
"I have a college degree and a lot of skills, and even though I make good money fighting, I could make a lot more if I did something else," he said. "I'm not doing this for fame or to inspire or to make any kind of statement. I'm doing this because I love it. I absolutely love it.
"I'm treated differently by a lot of people and I don't like that. And when I do things, I'm not doing them to be an inspiration. I helped an old lady walk down the steps two days ago. I didn't do that to be an inspiration. She didn't know who the [expletive] I was. She needed help and I was there to help her, because it's the right thing."
That, he said, is the essence of things.
"Judge me like you'd judge any other fighter or any other person," he said. "Do I do the right thing because it's the right thing to do? Can I fight? That's how I want to be looked at. I'm a competitor and I'm trying to become the best in the world at what I do. Judge me on that."
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