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ONTARIO, Calif. – Nick Newell earned notoriety early in his mixed martial arts career for the fact he was pursuing a dangerous occupation as a congenital amputee who was born without a left arm below the elbow.
But the Milford, Conn., native's goal was never simply to be a fighter who overcame a disability. Newell wants to be known as an elite lightweight, period.
The 27-year-old took a big step in that direction Saturday night, as he ran his career record to 10-0 with a victory over Keon Caldwell at World Series of Fighting 4 at Citizens Business Bank Arena. Newell wowed the crowd of about 4,000 and a national TV audience with a mix of blazing speed and crisp wrestling before finishing his opponent with a guillotine choke at 2:07 of the first round.
"I think I showed people that my striking game was legit," Newell said. "And I'm a lot faster than people give me credit for. I fought a very good guy, he was 9-1, he had a great record. You know, I'm happy now, I'm ready to celebrate with my family and my team."
The former collegiate wrestler at Western New England College understood why he attracted attention sooner in his career than most fighters experience. But as Newell progressed in the sport, it became clear he was no novelty act.
Newell quickly outclassed the competition on the local and regional circuits. He's made no secret that his goal is to reach the industry-leading UFC. While Newell hasn't quite reached that level yet, when his contract with a Florida-based minor-league promotion expired, a bidding war erupted between Bellator, the Viacom-broadcast No. 2 national MMA group, and upstart WSOF, which has established itself as No. 3 with a time slot on NBC Sports Network.
WSOF's head matchmaker, Ali Abdel-Aziz, said he knows the UFC is on Newell's long-term agenda, so he gave UFC company reps a call to get a read on Newell's prospects.
"I had been following his career a lot," Abdel-Aziz said. "I knew he was a good wrestler, good skills, good quality guy. I was talking to him and he said, 'It's my dream to go to the UFC,' so I gave a call to [matchmaker] Joe Silva at the UFC and I talked to them. He spoke very highly of him. He said, 'Listen, if you go to the UFC, there's no coming back. He's going to have to beat some tough fighters.' "
Abdel-Aziz had a playful response. "I said, 'OK, I'm going to sign him, and then you're going to have to pay a lot more money for him later.' "
For his part, Newell says World Series of Fighting is the right promotion at this time in his career.
"They're an up-and-coming promotion and they've already established themselves as one of the best in the world," Newell said. "They know how to promote the fighters, they know how to promote a show, they've signed a bunch of the top talent, and they're easy to work with, well organized, and they have big things up on the horizon."
If anything, the volume of early-career media attention Newell received based on his disability helped make his transition to a bigger stage easier. It's not unusual for fighters to find themselves overwhelmed when they reach their next career level, which comes with a corresponding increase in media responsibilities and other demands on their time. But fight week in Southern California was a "been-there-done-that" proposition.
"I've always done a lot of media," Newell said. "My story has always been an interesting one. Even when I was 3-0, I was getting a fair amount of media coverage. Back when I was fighting [in smaller promotions], I had to do pretty much all the media because I was the only person anyone wanted to interview. The amount of media I've been doing is very similar, but the platforms are higher."
Newell didn't take long to prove himself ready for prime time on Saturday night. While a brief earlier mistake allowed Caldwell, a former "Ultimate Fighter" contestant, to score a takedown, Newell was soon back on his feet, where he doggedly pursued his opponent. Newell mixed up kicks, punches and elbows to set up takedowns. A swift transition led to the finishing choke.
Caldwell, for one, couldn't quite believe what hit him.
"There is no way I could ever, ever envision this fight ending like it did," Caldwell said. "Never. I just got caught up in the moment. It happens."
Newell's victory earned him a spot in the company's planned four-man tournament to crown the inaugural WSOF lightweight champion. While the dates and matchups have yet to be announced, the other competitors are Dan Lauzon (younger brother of UFC star Joe Lauzon), Justin Gaethje, and well-traveled veteran Gesias Cavalcante, who clinched his berth Saturday with a controversial stoppage victory over Tyson Griffin.
For now, though, Newell just wants to take a deep breath.
"I'm glad to be part of the tournament, but honestly, I just want to take a week off before I even think about it again," Newell said. "I train so hard, when I go out there it means absolutely everything to me. I leave my heart and soul in the cage. I don't want to work a normal job, I want to be a fighter."
Highlights of Nick Newell's victory:
Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter: @DaveDoylemma