When Roy “Big Country” Nelson accepted a short-notice bout against unheralded Stipe Miocic in the final fight of his UFC contract, he envisioned stealing the headlines as he entered his free agency period.
Nelson succeeded Saturday night, but not in the way he might have liked.
The popular brawler from Las Vegas set a UFC heavyweight record for significant strikes absorbed without being knocked out, running the tally to 437 during his tenure with the promotion. Nelson looked slow and listless in a unanimous-decision loss to Miocic at UFC 161 in Winnipeg.
“I’m just really disappointed,” Nelson said. “I just really wanted to give the fans 110 percent. Today I just felt really lethargic, I don’t know if it was the two weeks or if I peaked early a couple weeks ago, or for my fight back in April. I felt slow and lethargic.”
[Related: Biggest winners and losers of UFC 161]
While the fight was a downer, the soap opera that is “Big Country” and the UFC is far from over. Nelson and UFC president Dana White have squabbled over the years like partners stuck in a bad marriage. But as Nelson enters his free agency, a period in which rival promotion Bellator has proven it will spend money on fighters who can move the needle with television ratings, the two sides realize that a renewal of vows might be worth all the headaches.
“I go where the fans want me,” Nelson said. “Wherever, if Dana and [UFC co-owner] Lorenzo [Fertitta] want me to be in the UFC then hey, I’ll be knocking on Cain Velasquez’s door or whoever the champ is when I’m knocking on it.”
White returned the favor.
“He was a man about this contract,” White said. “His contract was up in July, we asked for an extension and he said no. He doesn’t have to say yes. His contract is up, it’s up. We gotta get him a fight before his contract’s over, he stepped up, he took the fight. Do Roy and I always see eye to eye? We don’t. We made an offer to Roy and we’ll sit down and talk to him again after this.”
A former heavyweight champion in the late-but-not-lamented International Fight League, Nelson made the curious move of joining The Ultimate Fighter season 10 in 2009, despite already having 17 fights to his credit. As anticipated, he mowed through the competition, taking out Kimbo Slice during the tournament and finishing it with a first-round knockout of Brendan Schaub.
It didn’t take long in the course of Nelson’s 10-fight contract for the contrarian Nelson and the authoritarian White to butt heads. Nelson was convinced White wanted him out of the company. White, who has a vision for how he wants his fighters to look, wasn’t the biggest fan of Nelson’s beer belly and scraggly visage.
According to White, in a chat with reporters after the UFC 161 post-fight news conference, Nelson once approached him looking for help lining up sponsors.
“Roy came to me one time and he said, 'I’m having a hard time getting sponsors.' I said, well that’s weird, I can’t imagine why you’d have a hard time getting sponsors. How about you cut your hair, lose some weight, get rid of the walk-in song 'Fat.' Take yourself seriously, you’re a tough guy and you have some talent.
“I saw him at the next press conference, his mullet was longer, he grew a beard down to here [gestures halfway down his chest], and he was, maybe, six pounds less than last time I saw him,” White continued. “Who wants to put their logo on that?”
Apprised of the fact Nelson was angling for a sponsorship with Burger King, a regular UFC advertiser, White laughed.
"Did you ever watch a Burger King commercial?” White asked. “It's all handsome guys, skinny, and good-looking girls. Do you think Burger King wants people to think that that's what you look like if you eat Burger King? That's the last thing Burger King wants: "If you eat Burger King, you'll look like [expletive] this guy with the mullet and the gut. Not even Burger King wants that stamp."
Regardless of his boss’ take on his endorsement potential, Nelson worked his way up the cards in the UFC through equal parts everyman appeal, knockout power, and a ridiculous ability to absorb a punch. Nelson went 6-4 over the course of his UFC contract, pocketing four Knockout of the Night bonuses along the way. His losses were all via decision, as even sluggers like Junior dos Santos couldn’t put him away.
Nelson, though, was in the best spot of his entire UFC tenure heading into Saturday’s event at the MTS Centre. He had recorded three straight first-round knockouts, the most recent of which was a nasty finish of Cheick Kongo at UFC 159 on April 27. Nelson gambled on his future worth by taking Saturday’s bout with Miocic on short notice, when original opponent Soa Palelei was forced to bow out with an injury.
“Big Country,” though, simply looked like an overweight guy who didn’t have a full training camp when he met the once-beaten Miocic. The Cleveland-area fighter was smart enough to stay out of range from Nelson’s home-run punch. He peppered Nelson with a relentless onslaught of punches and knees and had Nelson gasping for air before the first round was out. Only Nelson’s legendary chin enabled him to go the distance.
After the fight, Nelson has a tone of resignation to his voice as he was asked to assess his future.
“I just want to get out there and fight and get another W,” the 36-year-old Nelson said. When you lose, Stipe knows coming off a loss, that’s the worst thing to do is go up against another guy coming off a loss. All you want to do is go out there and knock the other guy out. That’s all I want to do, that’s, you know, where that opportunity is, hopefully it’s with the UFC. If they want me here, I’ll be here.”
And White reminded reporters, that, no, really, he doesn’t hate Nelson.
“If I didn’t want Roy Nelson in the UFC, I’d tell you, he’d know it, and everyone would know it.”
Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter: @davedoylemma.
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