Roy Nelson does not look like a UFC fighter. His is not a sculpted physique. The big man known as "Big Country" has the appearance of one who's never walked past a fast-food joint or donut shop without stopping in ... and being greeted on a first-name basis. On fight night, he should be strolling out to the octagon to "The Beer Barrel Polka." Roy is the only fighter who, when he steps into the cage, all of us on press row don't reflexively suck in our guts in shame.
Roy Nelson doesn't act like a UFC fighter. When the behemoth mixed martial arts promotions says "Jump!" he doesn't say "How high?" Instead, he goes on The Ultimate Fighter, beats up the reality television show's ratings draw, Kimbo Slice, and only then does he jump ... onto the top of the cage, from where he points at UFC president Dana White and orders, "Go get me a Whopper."
It is for those reasons -- especially the latter -- that White is disdainful when he speaks of the fighter who wears a mullet that would get him kicked out of even an NHL locker room. Nelson also has a bushy beard that evokes deep thinkers such as Sophocles and Karl Marx, but Dana doesn't see that. "Roy Nelson is a moron," he said back when Nelson was winning that TUF tournament. "Interview him sometime. You'll find out."
I have. I didn't. Nelson is far from stupid. He's smart enough to recognize that the UFC boss is not his boss.
The animosity started back in those reality TV days. Whereas many of the other fighters on that show and on other seasons of TUF were up-and-coming guys willing to do anything for their big break, Nelson was a veteran who knew what was best for himself. Not long before, he'd been in with Andrei Arlovski and been knocked out by the former UFC heavyweight champion in a fight that to that point had been going Roy's way. Nelson understood the sudden, game-changing damage big guys can do. So while Dana White was imploring the young fighters on the show to put on exciting fights -- all the better for TV ratings -- Roy knew there was a better strategy for a tournament in which he might have to compete on consecutive weeks. He took a less risky route, using his grappling and jiu-jitsu to seize advantage, and made to the finale looking as fresh as a big, round daisy. Then he became Mr. Excitement, knocking out Brendan Schaub in the first round with a big overhand right to secure his UFC contract.
We've seen a lot more of that overhand right. In fact, Nelson is now a roly-poly man on a roll. He's won his last three fights, all by knockout, all in the first round. And just seven weeks after he put Cheick Kongo to sleep, Roy returns to the octagon Saturday night in a hastily arranged co-main event at UFC 161 in Winnipeg, Manitoba (10 p.m. ET, PPV). After the card's original main event, a bout between interim bantamweight champion Renan Barão and ex-WEC champ Eddie Wineland, was scrapped because of injury, and a meeting of light heavyweight contenders Mauricio Rua and Antônio Rogerio Nogueira had to be canceled as well, Nelson stepped in to take on Stipe Miocic, who'd been slated to fight in a prelim. It sure looks like Roy did the company a favor, giving a boost to a pay-per-view fight card that was fading fast.
Nelson (19-7) is not averse to patting himself on the back for that, for sure, but he also recognizes this as another payday -- the last one on his UFC contract -- and another opportunity to build his resume into one that Dana & Co. cannot deny is worthy of a title shot. That part is going to take a while, as White is already on record as saying a win over Miocic -- who is coming off his first career loss, to Stefan Struve last September -- will not be enough to earn "Big Country" a title shot.
"Roy loves to say I'll never give him a title shot," White recently told Yahoo! Sports. "But dude, beat someone and then I'll give you the shot. Roy is knocking off these guys ranked [No.] 6 through 10, but when he gets to fighting the Top 5 guys, he can't do the same thing. You're not going to get a title shot for beating No. 6 and No. 8. You have to beat the top guys."
What White says is not inaccurate. Nelson has fought a couple of Top 5 UFC heavyweights, Fabricio Werdum and ex-champ Junior dos Santos, and lost to both of them. But now he's on a climb, and this weekend's opponent, Miocic (9-1), is not someone Roy picked for himself. That's the opponent the UFC matched him against. Instead of calling out fighters, Nelson is simply asking Dana to line 'em up. White doesn't recognize the wisdom of that, which is why he was being sarcastic when he recently called Roy "the smartest guy on earth." How did Nelson respond? He's now selling T-shirts with the endorsement splashed across the front, attributed to White. Even Dana had to smile when he was presented with one of the shirts.
At the UFC 161 pre-fight press conference on Thursday, White even gave Nelson his due, however begrudgingly. "Roy Nelson knocked out Cheick Kongo with a punch to the neck," he said. "The guy hits hard, he's got an unbelievable chin, his wrestling is great and he's a great jiu-jitsu guy. Grooming? Not so well. Watching his weight? Not great."
Then Dana, perhaps recognizing that the smart thing for a promoter to do would be to build up one of his contenders instead of continually cutting him down, went on to acknowledge Nelson's fan appeal. "People love him because he's a fighter and he'll go out there and fight anybody," said White. "He took this fight, didn't know who he was going to fight. He's a guy who will go out and fight and try to knock your head off, and that's what fans love. And they probably love him because I don't."