Body Politics

By Jake Rossen Aug 18, 2008
File this one under “Further Humiliation of the International Fight League Department”: Former IFL standout Roy Nelson (Pictures) was recently advised by UFC brass that it would be in his best interests to doff the excess weight surrounding his midsection.

Nelson, for the uninitiated, is a talented fighter who may be hovering near 30 percent body fat storage, enough to strain the jaws of even the most durable mass calipers. He is every tired pregnant-man joke personified, the best “Before” picture a supplement company could ever hope for.

In brief: He’s a Fat Guy.

It’s a label Nelson wears proudly. After one of his last IFL bouts, he stroked and cradled his engorged belly like a pet, the protuberant, gelatinous mass earning applause of its very own. He seems to relish the dichotomy of his central obesity and the ability to concuss opponents with a combination of heavy power and formidable conditioning. (Upstart promotion Affliction apparently agreed, having signed him to a deal to appear on its October card.)

Nelson and his e-supporters took obvious umbrage at the UFC’s (alleged) condition of employment. Fighters should be expected to fight, the chorus went, not to be Calvin Klein models.

They certainly have precedent to reference. One of the most iconic figures in the sport, Fedor Emelianenko (Pictures), is one blintz away from needing a bigger WAMMA belt; perennial antihero David “Tank” Abbott looks to have swallowed a Pilates ball. Neither man’s career seems to have suffered from lack of being able to spot their anterior deltoid.

And yet the UFC can’t be called unreasonable.

Sure, it’s the fight -- not Mr. Olympia -- business. Participants should be judged on the merits of their skills and not how well they translate into an action figure. But there are extremes, cases where someone may be so outside the literal and proverbial mold of what’s acceptable in a public spectacle that it becomes an issue. Nelson’s sloughing stomach is so noticeable that casual inspection would indicate this sport is everything its detractors believe it is -- an unqualified, televised bar scuffle.

Nelson may chalk up his shape to genetics, but a reasonable diet coupled with calorically demanding training can’t possibly sustain excess weight of that volume. A dumpy physique is one thing -- looking to the world like you’ve never seen a Stairmaster is another.

If Joe Riggs (Pictures) can deflate from a 300-pound behemoth into a concrete-carved 170-pound athlete, I’m inclined to believe Nelson is less genetically deprived and more a fan of pancakes piled higher than his head. If he ate less than his body needed to maintain the heft, it would be a miracle of science and medicine to not drop weight.

Why should looks matter? Aside from the hue and cry over the “unfairness” of it all, we live in a world quick to judge based on visual appearance and have learned to take cues based on what we see. Outside of bodybuilding’s walking pharmacies, a well-muscled body is generally an indicator of good health -- though combat athletes often dehydrate themselves into catatonia, they’re by and large heart-healthy, strong and fit. It is not unthinkable (or even unethical) that the sport’s legitimacy can be aided and abetted by fit-looking participants.

Heavyweights are often the most troubled by this notion, considering that they’re not motivated to shred weight by division restrictions. (It’s rare you’ll see a soft-looking middleweight, and if you do, chances are excellent he’ll be a welterweight before long.) Devoid of any reason to go easy on the scale, it becomes easy to pound away the food an energy-depleted body demands.

While I don’t chastise the UFC for wanting Nelson to come in trimmer, there is an element of amusement in watching a man defy stereotypes. “That Fat Guy sure can fight” is probably an oft-repeated comment during one of his bouts. Like Muggsy Bogues dribbling around men two feet taller, it’s interesting to see a visual outcast break the mold.

I remember having to suffer through a Dark Ages UFC telecast with my brother-in-law back in the late 1990s. (His satellite dish was the only way I could watch the show.) Upon seeing the sunken-in chest of Jeremy Horn (Pictures), he remarked that Horn was a “nerd” who would absolutely be departing from the arena in an ambulance. This prediction was cemented by the ominous look of opponent Chuck Liddell (Pictures), who, with his Mohawk and skull tattoo, looked as though he was on parole.

Naturally, Horn proceeded to choke Liddell unconscious.

I imagine my brother would have a similar derisive-turned-silent response if he ever saw Nelson flatten a comparative Adonis like Andrei Arlovski (Pictures).

But that’s part of the fun of the sport: Danger comes in all shapes and sizes.

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