The Man Behind the Beef

By Jason Probst Aug 21, 2008
Call him rotund. Portly. Or fat, if you’re out of arm’s reach, or just feeling especially lucky.

But however you want to describe Roy Nelson (Pictures), there’s little doubt that the Las Vegas-based heavyweight can fight.

After years of being a highly respected, behind-the-scenes grappling whiz who trained other fighters, Nelson is now knocking on the door and hoping to bust into the upper echelon of the big boys. Recently signed to Affliction, he debuts Oct. 11 against veteran Paul Buentello (Pictures), whose dangerous standup is just another hurdle that “Country” (or “Big Country”) figures he can get over.

“When I started in MMA in 2004 and 2005, after everybody kind of got wind of my name, they knew me from a grappling standpoint,” Nelson said. “So I used to have to get fights on my name alone. People were like, ‘Roy Nelson (Pictures)? I’ll fight him.’ Then they’re like, ‘Is that Big Country? … Yeah, our guy doesn’t want to fight him.’ I couldn’t get a fight if my life depended on it. Then MMA exploded in 2006. Everybody and their momma wanted to be a fight promoter. I started fighting in smaller shows.”

After coming out of nowhere to place second in the Abu Dhabi North American qualifiers in 2002, Nelson, who’d been on the submission grappling circuit for a mere two years, forged a reputation as an ideal combination of big-man size, small-guy quickness and technical wizardry.

His physique -- broad shoulders, ham-like hands and long limbs, topped off with a robust belly/beard combo -- cuts the figure of a wronged farmer showing up to get his money back on a cattle swindle. Except for the fact that he’s usually quicker, slicker and smarter than the other guy once it hits the ground. And he can take a punch as well as give one.

He’s from Las Vegas, to boot. At 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, he looks like he could cut down to 220 or so without excess trouble. But like a select few athletes, Nelson seems to get results in spite of appearances.

And the nickname’s stuck.
Photo by Matthew Kaplowitz
Roy Nelson poses for a network
television camera following
his knockout of Fabiano Scherner
on Feb. 29, 2008 in Las Vegas.

“It came from (super heavyweight) Eric Pele (Pictures), from the MMA circuit. We were at John Lewis (Pictures)’ school. I was doing takedowns,” Nelson said. “He thought I was from Iowa or Nebraska because I was taking everybody down.”

With a ledger of 13-2, Nelson’s most notable fight came in the IFL last April when he battled “Big” Ben Rothwell (Pictures) to a split decision loss. Few outside the industry knew Nelson, and conventional wisdom suggested that he would be best served by making it a ground fight. Instead, he slugged it out in a rousing scrap, taking Rothwell’s best shots and landing plenty of his own.

It was an overdue coming-out party of sorts for Nelson, who had spent years as a coach and training partner with a who’s who of the sport, including Chuck Liddell (Pictures), Tito Ortiz (Pictures), Ricco Rodriguez (Pictures) and Maurice Smith (Pictures).

“I transitioned into the sport because being a sparring partner doesn’t pay the bills,” Nelson said. “So I decided to go for it. If they’re not gonna pay me, I’m just gonna take it from them.”

The do-it-yourself mentality has carried over into his present training regimen. Working out of his home, which he dubs the “Big Country Lion’s Den,” Nelson brings in fellow fighters and grapplers to work with on mats he’s laid down. It’s easier than going other places, he explains. He also trains standup with former welterweight boxer Skipper Kelp.

“It’s basically my guys I’ve groomed, from the tournament circuit, from other schools I used to teach at. I just basically have guys that beat me up with my own jits,” he said. “I used to go to other gyms to try and teach, but I did more teaching than actually working. You need to put your work and your time in.”

Turning pro in 2004, Nelson did it in typical “Country” style, with an extra helping of scraps. He fought two opponents on the same night, taking a pair of three-round decisions over Jerry Vrbanovic (Pictures) and Bo Cantrell (Pictures) despite the fact that they’d had 14 bouts between them.

Five years later, against Buentello, Nelson will go up against a potent standup stylist in “The Headhunter,” but one whose ground game might be a weakness he can exploit. That’s because Nelson’s adept at overpowering people with wrestling, but like many ex-wrestlers, he has an excellent sense of tactics and strategy even when on his back. And despite the appearance of a guy who isn’t in shape compared to most heavies, he can transition into submissions or pull off a textbook sweep with deceptive quickness.

But regardless, Nelson has heard the talk -- offhanded, lighthearted comments from people that while he’s talented, there’s more to marketing a guy than talent. With the body aesthetic in MMA a big factor in marketing fighters -- smoothed, ripped abs, slab-like pectorals defined to the seeming point of narcissism -- he figures if he keeps kicking butt, it won’t matter what he looks like.

“Back in 2002, when I did the Abu Dhabi qualifier, when UFC was really looking, they had (champ) Ricco Rodriguez (Pictures),” he said. “I heard it from (then-coach) Marc Laimon and (UFC matchmaker) Joe Silva. It was the whole Josh Barnett (Pictures) thing. They were like, ‘You need to lose some of that fat. We need that fighter look. We can’t push you unless you fit the mold.’ I was like, ‘Ahh, we’ll see. As long as you win, that’s what matters.’ They were basically just shooting the s---. It was a buddy type of thing. But it’s also one of those things that turns you off, when you’re like, ‘Dude, all I do is train.’”

He figures the proof comes at crunch time, as it did during the last half of the Rothwell brawl, when he ate big shots and kept pressing, bombing back even though it was the wrong game plan on paper.

“I think it’s a little genetics. My dad’s built the same way. I’m one of those God-blessed athletic guys, those fat guys that can dunk, do a back flip. Fat guys that can move. Kind of like a Samoan,” Nelson said. “If I cut off my leg, I could make 205. But if I put somebody though the gauntlet with myself, and we could do some type of physical test, I’m sure I would outdo them.”

The heavyweight crop in Affliction is especially promising, with champ Fedor Emelianenko (Pictures) at the top, along with top contenders Andrei Arlovski (Pictures) and Josh Barnett (Pictures) (who square off in the Oct. 11 main event).

“The first time I saw Fedor live when he fought Mark Coleman (Pictures), I wasn’t impressed at all. I was like, ‘He beat up Coleman, that’s not a big deal.’ Then especially when he fought (Hong Man) Choi, I was like, ‘He’s 8-foot tall, and Fedor fell underneath him.’ When he beat the crap out of Tim, I was like, ‘He’s legit.’ Watching all his other fights, he’s legit anyways. He’s the complete package. He earned 10 times more respect for that alone.”

Arlovski-Barnett will determine Emelianenko’s next challenger. Nelson offered his thoughts on that match as well: “I’m afraid it might be a boring fight. The reason why is Andrei tends to be very tentative when he’s afraid of a guy that can take him down, or a guy that’s gonna knock his block off. Like when Ben fought Arlovski, if he’d come out guns blazing. But Ben knew he had been already beat before he stepped out there. But I don’t think Josh is gonna be tentative. Josh is a gamer. He’s been in there with the best. It might be exciting. Or Andrei might be a little tentative.”

All in all, Affliction’s heavyweight division is a big step up for Nelson, but what else is new?

“Affliction made the most sense. I always believed the fastest way is a straight line,” he said. “They have Fedor. I kinda had to get pushed a little faster than I wanted, but the opportunity arose, and I had to jump on it.”

Belly and all.
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