The Best MMA Writing of 2013: Ben Popper on the most talented one-handed fighter in the business

Rich O'Sullivan of The Boston Globe

The Best MMA Writing of 2013 looks back at Ben Popper's piece over Nick Newell; the congenital amputee who has amassed 11 wins in his MMA career, and no losses.

Day 26 after conception, a fetus doesn't have arms; in place of arms are "limb-buds", so named to signify its biological preamble just like the bud of a flower. In 1948, the American biologist John Sanders addressed a very simple question...'what causes the limb to grow?'

After experimenting with chickens by removing an unusual layer of tightly packed cells at the tips of these limb-buds, he found his answer.

There's a good chance Nick Newell has never heard of the apical ectodermal ridge that helped John Saunders define our scientific understanding of limb development. Where it all went wrong in utero is a question Nick himself may have had at one point, but not a question that's mired him in solemn reflection.

Nick's story is one of those narratives that inspires every cliche in sports. He's a 27 year old one handed fighter born in Milford, Connecticut. But despite his physical limitations, he continues to create success for himself. Thankfully the Verge's Ben Popper was able to chronicle Nick's story this past December.

Popper does a masterful job of introducing the reader to Nick the person, while weaving his own library of MMA knowledge into the piece, including a vignette of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu's very origins.

A lot of interesting details are sprinkled throughout. There's the part where we learn how he lost his first wrestling match his freshman year of high school against a girl. And then there's this:

Hundreds of young hopefuls lined up for their shot during TUF's East Coast tryouts. Inside, anxious combatants hit pads and grappled in front of the UFC's top matchmakers and talent scouts. Before he even got a chance to warm up, Newell stood out. While the fights on the show are never staged, TUF is also a reality television program keen to find characters with compelling life stories. His shortened arm turned heads, and his quick submission of a well-known competitor during the grappling section ensured he made the short list of potential cast members.

The UFC flew Newell out to Las Vegas to meet with its matchmakers and producers. His good looks and natural charm helped him ace the screen test, and it seemed to Newell that he was being offered a chance to be part of the show. But a few weeks later, the UFC informed him that it had decided not to include him after all.

There's an interesting thought experiment at play; who is Newell under the Zuffa spotlight? I'm not sure TUF is the best vehicle for anyone. After all, in the house he would just be asked vulgur Manswer type questions, and so we'd get to know Nick as a guy nice enough not to punch a bunch of an insensitive drunkards in the face.

For the critics, Newell is a freakshow. The Kyle Maynard situation was bad enough, why do we need another one? Beyond the obvious physical differences, Newell has already proven himself at 11-0. He fights in a way that calls to mind other solid prospects of the recent past; the way he switches his kicks, shoots for the double, or his nose for the submission even when the opportunity isn't obvious.

Whether this translates to a UFC career, and beyond is anyone's guess. But as it stands now, Nick's story is still a refreshing one. Just like Josh Harding, the goaltender for the Minnesota Wild diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Newell reveals to us the primal triumph of mind over matter. A reminder that our imperfections simply help define us rather than limit us.

As always, read the entire excellent piece here, right now.

Ben Popper can be reached @benpopper.

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