You can’t believe everything you read on social media but if we take two Ultimate Fighting Championship roster members at their word, UFC Fight Night 123 a pair of new bouts.
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Michael Johnson recently announced his intention to drop down to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Featherweight division after back-to-back losses at Lightweight.
According to “The Menace,” it wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction to losing, as he was planning on dropping down to 145 pounds anyway.
“There’s always been a thought in my head to drop down,” Johnson told reporters at UFC Fight Night 115 (via MMA Junkie). “Regardless of how I was doing in this division, win or lose, that was kind of a plan of mine, to drop down to 145, test the waters.”
Johnson’s last loss came against Justin Gaethje this past July in a “Fight of the Year” contender (see it again here). Getting knocked out, however, played no part in his drop down and he doesn’t rule out a move back up.
“Come back up to 155, maybe, because I fought everybody in the top 10 of the 155. I fought numerous people. I just wanted to see new changes, new faces and to see how I react. It has nothing to do with the fact that I lost to Justin. Even if I would have won, 145 still would have been a thought in my mind,” he added.
As for his first fight in a new division, Johnson called for a bout against former 145-pound champion Jose Aldo. If he doesn’t get his wish, then he will take the next toughest guy in line because Johnson isn’t in the fight game to fight someone who is just “okay.”
“The next toughest guy in line,” Johnson said. “I think that’s maybe detrimental to my career, maybe hurts it a little bit that I always go for the toughest fight. But my first fight at 145, Aldo is a former champ, he’s one of the best in the world, always been.
“So that’s one guy that I would love to fight. I’m not in this sport to fight the guy that’s okay. I want the toughest guy. I want everybody that says he can’t be beat.”
Aldo, however, can be beat, as evidenced by his losses to Conor McGregor — which occurred in 13 seconds — and Max Holloway (see it), coming in two of his last three outings, both times surrendering his Featherweight title. Prior to that, Aldo did look unbeatable, winning 18 straight fights without losing a bout in nearly a decade.
Aldo is eying a return to action at UFC 217 this November and was briefly linked to a showdown against Ricardo Lamas. But since the fight has yet to be made official, Johnson has time to ramp up his campaign.
This is about as close to trash talk as Sage Northcutt is going to get.
The top UFC prospect took some mild shots at Mickey Gall on The MMA Hour with Ariel Helwani on Monday. Northcutt has not been too impressed with Gall’s UFC opponents, CM Punk and Mike Jackson, since both came in without a pro MMA bout on their record.
“I think just him going in and fighting two guys that had no fights — I think they were both close to 40 years old, too — it’s almost like fighting someone’s dad that only trained very little for a fight,” Northcutt said. “It was definitely interesting if you think of it that way.”
CM Punk, 37, was making his MMA debut after training for the last year and a half at Roufusport following his run as a WWE headliner. Jackson, 31, better known as an MMA photographer and writer, had only pro kickboxing experience coming into the fight with Gall in February. Gall finished both men in the first round with rear-naked choke submissions, Punk at UFC 203 earlier this month.
“CM Punk, that was awesome for him to get out there and have the guts to go out there and fight,” Northcutt said. “Not everybody would do that. … That’s awesome for him. I think everybody kind of expected it to go the way it did.”
After beating Punk, Gall called out Northcutt, saying he wanted to fight him at UFC 205 in New York and making fun of the spikes in his hair. Gall also called Northcutt corny. “Super Sage” said he was watching, but was not offended by Gall’s words.
“He’s talking about my hair — he wants to punch the spikes out of my hair — and looking at that from his fights that I’ve seen and looking at his pictures, his hair kind of looks like mine,” Northcutt said. “It just doesn’t have the hair gel in it, it doesn’t look like. I’m thinking that maybe he should get some hair gel and style it or something.”
Northcutt, 20, did take some umbrage with another part of Gall’s interview: the language he used. Gall dropped a multitude of f-bombs in the post-fight chat with Joe Rogan. Northcutt was not down with that.
“I think a step too far was when he’s cussing and sending the curse words out there,” Northcutt said. “I don’t know. He said that’s how he gets people’s attention, but I don’t know what people’s attention he’s trying to get if he’s cussing out there. Is it the families? The moms? The little kids that are watching? I don’t know, but it doesn’t seem very appropriate.”
Northcutt (8-1) is coming off a unanimous decision win over Enrique Marin at UFC 200 in July. His lone career loss came before that to Bryan Barberena at UFC on FOX 18 in January. That defeat came at 170 pounds, not where Northcutt usually fights at 155. But “Super Sage” said he would fight Gall at his weight class of 170, because going to lightweight is a tough cut for him. He was just ill going into the Barberena fight.
“At the time my body just didn’t heal up and wasn’t feeling right,” Northcutt said. “This time coming around, having more time notice for it and fighting at 170, I should be healthy.”
The Texas native said he’s currently recovering from a second staph infection this year, so he wouldn’t be ready for UFC 205 on Nov. 12 at Madison Square Garden. Northcutt did say he’d be available to fight Gall in December. And he’d be confident in the outcome.
“All I could say is that I believe I have better grappling than him and better stand up,” Northcutt said. “If I go out there, I can take the fight wherever I want. If I want to go out there and stand up with him and knock him out, I believe i can do that. If I want to take him down and submit him, I believe I can do that also.”
In just over two minutes, welterweight up-and-comer Brandon Thatch put both his striking and grappling skills on display Friday night at the 1stBank Center in Broomfield, Colo., acing previously-unbeaten Mike Rhodes in the headliner of Resurrection Fighting Alliance .
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A one-way trip from Monroe, Conn. to Springfield, Mass. is about 90 miles, enough distance and time to allow any active mind to wander. On the long stretch, new thoughts often seep in and take hold, whether attainable or on the edges of imagination. But that’s only when reality isn’t interfering. In the dead of winter, the ride seems too cold and unforgiving to routinely make, while in the summer, there are plenty of other things that can convince you to stay home. But this is what Nick Newell chooses. This is his work commute.
As metaphors go, Newell’s home gym, Fighting Arts Academy, seems to have been designed for literary use. It sits with its back to the rails of the old Boston & Albany freight line, on a street named “Verge,” that is mostly comprised of commercial businesses, some open, some shuttered. Cargo trains occasionally roar by, shaking the ground while somehow not interrupting anything around. In the middle of this blue-collar neighborhood is a place where aspiring fighters strive to move past the bounds of normal, and Newell is, so far, its greatest export.
Which takes us back to the ride.
Newell has eaten up miles, thousands of them over the last few years. While friends have been on vacation, while they have married and started families, he drives. The end point is a 7,000 square foot gym that you can easily imagine to be a former warehouse in a past life. But the destination lies so much further.
Like many young mixed martial arts all around the world, Newell wants to fight for the biggest promotion in the world, the UFC. His record suggests he may be nearing that goal. After his last fight, Newell is a perfect 7-0. On August 3, he fights David Mays at XFC 19 with the hope of making it eight in a row.
Recent history suggests that a streak like that rarely goes unnoticed by the UFC’s talent gurus. At UFC on FUEL 4, welterweight Marcelo Guimaraes made his debut with a 7-0-1 record. At UFC 149, bantamweight Mitch Gagnon was invited into the promotion with an 8-1 mark. At the upcoming UFC on FOX 4, light heavyweight Wagner Prado makes his debut at 8-0. Some fighters require more seasoning, and others are ready even sooner, but eight straight won’t go overlooked.
“All I want is the chance, because I know that I’m going to shine,” he said. “Put me in. If I lose, you can say, ‘People said he should fight, and he lost.’”
Newell mostly talks around the edges of the subject, because he knows it is a sensitive topic. Say too much and people think you’re full of yourself. Stay quiet and risk going unnoticed.
But he also can’t ignore the obvious. There is a wrinkle in Newell’s story, because if he were just a 7-0 fighter looking to continue a streak, there would be no doubt the UFC would be looking at him, there would be no possibility of him going overlooked. But that’s not a problem for Newell. Especially in MMA. It’s hard to miss the one-handed fighter beating up the guys in front of him.
These days, Newell freely admits that he likes the attention. It hasn’t always been that way. He remembers going 8-22 as a high school freshman wrestler, with six of his wins coming by forfeit. In that trying year, he was pinned something like 17 times. His mind doesn’t allow him to remember the exact number, and he doesn’t care to find out for sure. Either way, it was certainly embarrassing, but the struggles and doubts drove him. By the time he graduated from Jonathan Law High School, he’d won 123 matches — including 53 in his senior year — and been named All-State.
So Newell has persevered through adversity before, done it his whole life really. But this? This is different. This is a situation out of his control. He can’t win a competition that lets him into the UFC. He has to be invited. Given the fact that he was born with only one hand, he is hardly another 7-0 fighter on the cusp of a dream. Now, the fighter acknowledges, there are politics involved.
To get to where he wants to go, Newell isn’t just fighting opponents, he’s fighting perceptions of what disabled people can and cannot do.
Himself? He has no doubts. Newell recently traveled to Coconut Creek, Fla. and trained with the athletes of vaunted fight stable American Top Team. For this training camp, he also spent some time at New Jersey’s highly regarded AMA Fight Club, home to noted lightweight fighters like Jim MIller and Khabib Nurmagomedov. He’s assessed himself against those who have already walked into and won inside the octagon.
“If the UFC called me up today, I’d be ready,” he says.
Of course he’s going to say that. What else would he say? But what about a more detached opinion? AMA’s head trainer Mike Constantino, who has helped send numerous fighters to the UFC, walked out of his brief interaction with Newell as a believer.
“It’s always hard to say someone’s ready when you’re talking about the highest level in the world, but Nick did a great job in my room,” he said. “If you want to gauge how he did, I put him against certain people and it was obvious that he’s an amazing athlete.
“Look,” he continued, “anytime anyone asks me what I look for in a fighter, I always say heart. It’s always No. 1. There are a ton of fighters with amazing skill who don’t have the heart. The other big things are cardio and work ethic, two things that are instilled in you at a young age. He already has those key attributes along with great skill, so I would say, absolutely, he can definitely go straight to the top.”
His last fight certainly illustrated his courage. Facing Chris Coggins, who was then 5-1 with three submission victories, Newell found himself trapped in a rear-naked choke twice in the second round. The second time looked dire, with Coggins getting his hooks in and getting his choking arm under Newell’s chin. By all accounts, Newell’s unbeaten streak looked to be over. He says now that he felt like he was in the choke for an hour. That he saw black for a split-second. That a million thoughts ran through his head, but none of them were about tapping.
“I was stuck, but if things don’t go your way at work, you don’t just quit your job,” he said. “I just told myself, ‘Don’t quit.’ The worst thing that happens is that you pass out. But you can also escape. He can get tired or he can let go.”
Instead of fighting Coggins’ grip, Newell slowly worked to angle his back to the mat. That gave him just enough space to keep the blood flowing to his brain, and Coggins finally released the hold after 26 agonizing seconds. The fight was in Tennessee, Coggins’ home state, but upon the escape, the crowd exploded, suddenly shifting allegiance to Newell, who went on to take the third round and earn a decision.
After six straight wins by finish, Newell had proven that he could grind out a victory by any means necessary.
“He’s one of the toughest guys, he has one of the biggest hearts of anyone who’s ever been in the cage, ever,” said his trainer Jeremy Libiszewski.
That seems to be the sentiment around him. Newell has an extended support team anchored by his mom Stacey that fuels his success. But it’s not just those with everyday contact that he’s at least symbolically fighting for. There are the children he hears from that are learning to go through life with the same disability. There is his late friend Abi Mestre, a pro fighter who died in a motorcycle crash just two fights into a promising career. He carries it all with him.
Libiszewski has seen it all first hand, living the dream right along with Newell from the beginning. It was his gym that Newell first walked into after seeing the UFC for the first time while in school at nearby Western New England College. Years later, Newell considers Libiszewski to be a second father. Newell often sleeps in his home, eats his food, and listens to his advice.
Despite the commute, many days, Newell is the first one to arrive for pro class. Most days he is the last to leave. The extra work has allowed him to make jumps in his performance and find ways to adjust for his disability. Newell concedes that you’re not going to see him throwing K-1 level combinations, but says his timing, power and awkward style make him a difficult matchup.
“I can train for most people,” he said. “Not a lot of people can train for me.”
So far, that’s proven true for Newell, but he knows he has to keep on winning. He can’t afford to lose and offer the UFC an easy way out of making a decision. By winning, he can offer indisputable proof that he’s worth a gamble. Or rather, that he’s no gamble at all.
Newell is emboldened by his recent brush with the promotion. In 2011, he tried out for the 14th season of The Ultimate Fighter. He passed the grappling and striking portions. He aced the interview. He was flown out to Las Vegas for one last look. But then? Nothing. As it turned out, while Newell — a natural lightweight — had been trying out for a planned 170-pound class, that season of TUF ultimately settled on bantamweights and featherweights.
To get to the UFC, Newell says he will make 145. He’ll fight on short notice. And mostly, he’ll keep winning until he can no longer be denied.
“I have this weird, undying belief in myself and I think it’s carried me pretty far,” he said. “No matter who I go against or what I do, I try to approach it from an intelligent standpoint. I’m not delusional. Without a doubt in my mind, I can beat a lot of guys there right now.”
He has thought a lot about it. His solitary rides have offered him perspective and clarity. His experiences have offered context. And his success has offered promise. After all this time, the dream no longer seems so far-fetched. A one-handed UFC fighter? A few years ago? Impossible. But now? Maybe. Somewhere, someone important is watching, and in a just world, the rest will be up to him. How do you complete an impossible journey? No matter what, you just keep driving.