Roy Nelson (above) will face a familiar foe in Frank Mir at UFC 130. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
At 34, there is not a lot left that Roy “Big Country” Nelson has yet to experience in mixed martial arts. He has fought overseas. He has fought for championships. He has battled the world’s best fighters.
In August, however, he experienced a new and humbling feeling. He lost a fight.
There were no extenuating circumstances. There was no controversy in the judging. The better man won, and Nelson was not that man. In the process, the colorful veteran’s eyes were opened about where he was and what he needed to do to achieve his goals in the sport.
“My jiu jitsu, striking and wrestling have improved. I’m smarter, faster and stronger,” Nelson says about his development as a fighter, “but the biggest thing was the Junior dos Santos fight. I think that’s the only fight I had where I felt the better man actually won. That’s the only time I had that feeling. When you go into a fight, you’ve got to throw more punches than the other guy, and Junior is probably the guy who hit me the hardest in my whole career. That forced me to become a better fighter.”
If an athlete explains away a loss as somehow unreflective of his overall skill, there is no impetus to rededicate himself. It was not his preparation and skill level that led to the defeat; there were other circumstances. However, if the other competitor was simply superior, hard work is needed to close that gap. Nelson showed a stout heart and a strong chin in surviving three rounds against Dos Santos at UFC 117, but he took a beating from the feared Brazilian striker in the process.
Jose Salgado, a training partner of Nelson’s for the past two and a half years, has noticed a marked difference in Nelson’s preparation since the Dos Santos bout. It is a change Salgado believes will be apparent when Nelson fights at UFC 130 on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
“In all honesty, I feel this is the best shape he’s ever been in,” Salgado observes. “With Roy, he’s always going to be good wherever it goes, and it’s just a matter of how hard he pushes himself. He always pushes himself hard, but I feel this is his best training camp as far as cardio.
“People sleep on Roy’s cardio because of how he looks, but I [tell them to] come see him spar,” he adds. “It sounds cliché, but it’s the truth. The Dos Santos fight may be the catalyst that moves him to the next level. It truly opened his eyes. I’m not saying he never worked hard to begin with, but he’s got the extra oomph to take him to the next level.”
In order to move back into title contention, Nelson will have to overcome a familiar foe: former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir. Nelson and Mir have known each other since before either man entered MMA. They first met doing jiu-jitsu 11 years ago. They were not close friends, but they respected each other and trained together at times.
In the early 2000s, the careers of Mir and Nelson were moving in different directions. The eloquent and charismatic Mir was fast-tracked for success in the early days of Zuffa LLC’s UFC. He was considered one of the top prospects in the sport. Nelson, with many of the same skills but without the same marketability as Mir, was focused principally on training others. Mir was a politician, Nelson a campaign manager.
While Mir and Nelson were on different trajectories, they shared a similar background. Las Vegas is the world’s capital for MMA. The UFC runs more major events in Vegas than any other locale, and many of the world’s best fighters have migrated there to train. However, the number of elite fighters who were actually born and bred in Sin City remains relatively small. Nelson and Mir are two of the proud few, always enjoying extra support when they fight in their hometown.
Aside from their Vegas connection, Mir and Nelson have been linked in many fans’ minds for years because of their 2003 Grappler’s Quest bout. Mir at the time was one of the UFC’s top regarded heavyweights, but Nelson was generally believed to have gotten the best of the action. Ever since, fans have long speculated how Mir and Nelson would match up in full MMA competition.
Some subjects are raised so often by media and fans that fighters become actively hostile to answering questions about them. Few topics can alter Robbie Lawler’s preternaturally calm demeanor, but ask him for the 50,000th time about a potential rematch with Nick Diaz and you might actually get some emotion from the middleweight contender. Likewise, Nelson has no more interest than Mir in harping on their grappling contest. He simply notes that they both looked a lot different back then and moves on.
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