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May 8, 2023



 Portland, Maine (May 3, 2023)

Those who are courageous and motivated enough to enter the mixed martial arts cage often quickly gravitate toward two common goals: To eventually get paid for it, and/or wrap a championship belt around the waist as the payoff that keeps on giving when the fighting days are done.

Having recently achieved the milestone age of 40, Nate Russell has realized one of those aspirations a remarkable four times in his 11-fight amateur career. He’s also realistic enough and devoted enough to his family and 9-to-5 career to recognize that the other ship already may have sailed.

A champion in four different regional MMA promotions, Russell (8-3) strives to get his hands on a fifth strap when he makes his New England Fights debut.

Russell, who represents Fighting Arts Academy out of Springfield, Massachusetts, will take on a local favorite, Caleb Austin (5-1), for the vacant amateur flyweight title at “NEF 52: Zero Hour.” The card is scheduled for Saturday, May 13 at Aura in Portland, Maine, with an opening bell time of 7 p.m.

If you think the custom of being called “champ” has gotten old for a guy who proudly proclaims that he fights without one of the nicknames seemingly ubiquitous to the sport, guess again.

“Winning this one, I haven’t been able to even get up there (to Maine), and to win in my first try, that would be amazing, a big accomplishment for me,” Russell said in an interview on the “Between Rounds Radio” podcast with Ryan Jarrell. “I’ve been trying to get up there for years now. I’ve just never had the opportunity. It’s fallen through either with camp or family or coaches or whatever. To go up there and win first try, it would mean a lot. It’d be a big thing.”

In a decade of amateur MMA competition, Russell has pounded out separate winning streaks of four and three fights. He has dropped two of his past three verdicts, however, and those opponents share similar traits to the wrestling and grappling acumen he is bound to encounter against Austin.

Both fighters have fallen victim to Tyler Smythe. Austin took a fourth-round loss in an NEF title fight 18 months ago, while Russell struggled to get his offensive repertoire unleashed in a January unanimous decision defeat.

“I’ve been going hard on the wrestling. That’s exactly it, because I feel like wrestling was a big part of the loss to Tyler. Shout-out to Tyler Smythe for giving me that fight, because without him I wouldn’t have a game plan to go out and fix the mistakes that I was making against him,” Russell said. “Because of him, I have an opportunity to fix what I was doing wrong instead of getting too complacent with what I was doing. But we’re going hard on the wrestling, hard on the grappling, hard on the scrambles and that type of stuff.”

Russell also went the distance in a November 2021 loss to unbeaten Alex De La Cruz, who has since triumphantly turned professional.

“That dude is insane. That was my hardest fight, and I don’t think it’s gonna be nearly as hard as that fight,” Russell said. “No disrespect to Caleb Austin, but I think (De La Cruz’s) wrestling is gonna be a lot tougher than what Caleb Austin’s is. That fight I couldn’t do anything. That guy could take me down whenever he wanted. It was a fight just to not get hit in the face. Just to survive each round was extremely difficult.”

Against Austin, Russell encounters a two-time high school state wrestling champion whose MMA training has accelerated his jiu-jitsu skills.

He expects a challenge to impose his will against another foe who will try to tie him up and keep him subdued the way Smythe did.

“We’re two different guys, so the way Tyler approached the fight and the way I’m gonna approach the fight are two different ways,” Russell said. “The way Tyler approached the fight was more like a wrestling match. They were just going back and forth, mostly wrestling from what I remember. For me, I’m not gonna be like, ‘Oh, we’re just gonna wrestle and try to take each other down and ground-and-pound the whole time.’ But we’ll see what happens the day of the fight.”

Russell’s wait-and-see approach has yielded a championship in exactly half of his career victories.

Possibly owning a title for every digit on one of his battle-tested hands led Jarrell to suggest that Russell could dub himself “The Belt Collector.” Russell laughed and went along with the moniker, but he was careful to keep a safe distance from making such proclamations about himelf.

“I wouldn’t mind people calling me that, but I wouldn’t tell people I’m the belt collector. That’s not my style. You can call me that as many times as you want. It sounds good to me,” Russell said. “Then again, it’s just one belt. Every fight to me, I’m 0-0, so after I win this one, if I win this one, it would be 1-0. I don’t see myself having four. I see myself having zero right now.”

For such a highly decorated guy, Russell hasn’t established a trophy case or even a mantle in his home where he can stop and smell the roses.

“They’re just kind of packed away in a closet in a box. It’s kind of horrible. Hopefully some time I’ll be able to put them somewhere. Maybe in the garage with the rest of my training stuff. But for now, they’re just collecting dust, which is kind of miserable,” Russell said. “I’ve gotta have my kids see it. Every time my kids see it, they get all hyped. ‘Daddy, show me the belt!’ And I’m like, ‘Hold on. I’ve gotta dig it out.’ But I don’t have anywhere to put it right now, so I’ve just gotta sit on it.”

Those kids and his girlfriend, along with his commitment to keep everyone warm and fed, are also the primary reason Russell doesn’t see himself turning pro.

Russell referred to MMA as “kind of a hobby,” and neither the change in training schedule nor the demands once he’s in the cage fit his lifestyle at this stage.

“There’s a big conflict between my family and the amount of time I have left fighting. If I go pro, there’s only two places I can pull time from, either my family or my job, to train more to be able to fight pro,” Russell said. “I can’t take any time from my job, so that means I’ve gotta take time from my family, and I don’t know if I can do that. I don’t get enough time with them as it is. It’s killing me already.”

Age also is admittedly a concession. Russell is 16 years older than the college student Austin, for example.

“It's harder getting up in the morning. As soon as I get out of work, I’m hyped and ready to get in there. I’m not a morning person. I hate conditioning also. The worst part of my day. It’s so boring and not fun. I’m all about having fun and enjoying myself, and I’m not doing any of that while conditioning, because it’s miserable,” Russell said. “Unfortunately, I have to really suck it up and just do it. I wish it was as easy as going to hit pads or going to wrestle. Conditioning it’s like, ‘Oh, fuck. Let’s go. Another one.’ You know what I mean?”

Taking down another relative youngster later this month will be a multifaceted challenge.

Russell believes that Austin has a superior stand-up game to Smythe but ultimately expects his takedown and wrestling propensities to emerge.

“If I don’t get up to my feet, I don’t think it will be as exhausting as it was against De La Cruz. I don’t think it will be as hard to survive a round if I do get taken down,” Russell said. “If I win, it’s gonna be a unanimous decision. It’s hard to get a finish off those wrestling matches, which is how I think it’s gonna go. It’s hard to get a knockout or a submission. He’s a pretty good wrestler. I don’t think I’m gonna be able to catch him in anything.”

“NEF 52: Zero Hour” will take place Saturday, May 13, 2023, at Aura in Portland, Maine. Doors will open at 6 p.m., with the first fight at 7 p.m. Tickets are on sale now at