Roy Nelson: Go Your Own Way
For UFC heavyweight Roy Nelson, that’s the only way.
I haven’t jumped rope in three years,” says a surprisingly agile, yet clearly struggling Roy Nelson as he fumbles with a jump rope that is a solid 12 inches shorter than it should be, handicapping the 6’1”, 265-pound man. It’s 10 a.m. at the TapouT training area of Gold’s Gym in Las Vegas, Nevada. Brand new cage walls, mats, bags, and mitts line the MMA area of one of the industry’s largest fi tness chains. Yet, it appears that this state-of-the art facility only has jump ropes for bantamweights.
“I don’t even lift weights,” says Nelson, “but I will for the cameras.” The accommodating man they call “Big Country” is talking to the three-person camera crew that will be spending the bulk of the day shooting the UFC Countdown special for UFC 130 on May 28, when Nelson faces former UFC Heavyweight Champion Frank Mir. Less than two months away from a fight, most fighters are near lockdown mode, devoting those long weeks to hitting heavy bags and drilling takedown defense. Nelson has conceded to sacrificing a day normally spent honing his craft to portraying what a standard fight fan thinks a fighter would do. Playing the role does not bother Nelson. In fact, gimmicks are his specialty.
Born and raised in Sin City to “your typical Las Vegas divorced parents,” Nelson grew up playing any and every sport you could imagine—including studying Shaolin Kung Fu—to avoid getting sucked into the bowels of America’s most distraction-ridden city. “Playing sports always keeps you on the up and up,” Nelson says. “But I always
liked to be the first guy to get picked. That was one thing I always strived for—to be the best athlete out there. I always tried to be number one.”
Nelson’s main focus at this time was slugging baseballs, not heads. “I played baseball religiously, from tee-ball to about 16 years old. I played year-round. That was my one passion, or, at least, my parent’s passion—to play major league baseball.”
The unending games, practices, and training eventually pushed Nelson out of the sport he once cherished so dearly. The game itself did not alienate him, but the dedication required of a future professional athlete was not conducive to an adolescent’s agenda. Despite being a tireless worker now, the nine-to-five routine was not what Nelson wanted for himself at the time.
In high school, like most teenage boys, Nelson thought he had it all figured out. He would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a fireman, a path that did not pan out like he had planned. Despite his father’s 30-year tenure in the business, he was not able to secure the job he had hoped for right out of high school. “There’s a lot of politics. There’s this thing called affirmative action, and I realized that when I was 18. I was a white male, 18 years old, and got passed up for a black female. Stuff like that. I learned real quick about the real world and how it works.”
For every door that closes, a window opens. Nelson pursued education and discovered that he had a true passion and gift for teaching. He started substitute teaching and monitoring after-school programs. When he discovered Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, the teacher in him continued to flourish, and he started teaching classes. Before long, students would offer to pay for private lessons. Nelson was shocked that someone would actually pay him money to do something he loved. At first, he denied the requests, feeling like he was ripping them off. Eventually, he came around to the fact this was a service people demanded, and he had the ability to deliver.
Teaching martial arts was the perfect job for Nelson, but it was not paying the bills. Realizing he could not depend on his teaching alone, he pursued professional MMA fighting, which, at the time, paid even less than what he was doing. In 2004, when he made his professional debut, the UFC was still struggling financially, several states did not recognize the sport, and fighter purses were comparatively miniscule by the standards of today. However, Nelson was determined to give it a try.
“I have this condition called dog jaw,” says Glen Amador, Nelson’s wrestling coach. “It’s why I don’t fight anymore. Seriously, go ahead and touch the side of my jaw. You notice how…ARF!! ARF!!”
Nelson and Amador are on the Gold’s Gym floor laughing, watching me fall for the oldest trick in the book. Amador waited until my fingers were touching his face before nearly biting my hand off, all while barking like a pitbull who had just spotted a wounded cat. Nelson and Amador are just finishing up the action scenes for the Countdown special. Nelson, around 265 pounds, and Amador, roughly 290 pounds, are like two oversized kids on the living room floor. Despite the laid back nature of the moment, Nelson, a Renzo Gracie black belt, moves seamlessly on the ground, performing faux ground-and-pound, snatching submissions, and easily sweeping his opponent. “Roy is a surprisingly good wrestler,” says Amador, the former Boise State wrestling coach. “Great balance, hard to take down, the total package.”
Amador is the only member of Nelson’s “team” at the shoot, and even he came last minute to give Nelson a warm body for the cameras to work off of. Living within an hour’s drive from some of the best gyms in the world, including Xtreme Couture and Wand Fight Team, the former IFL Heavyweight Champion prefers to workout at the local Gold’s Gym or his own house. As camps begin to polarize in MMA, with most of the UFC’s roster of fighters all heading to one of only a dozen or so gyms, Nelson, true to form, goes his own way. “You can pay for training camps, but you almost never get what you pay for.” When asked why he doesn’t train at a bigger facility, he responds quickly and sharply, “Politics.” The prestige of training with the biggest names in the sport is replaced by the assurance that his camp’s focus will be solely on himself, maximizing time by staying close to home at local gyms.
“Most people have a living room, a dining room—not us,” says Roy’s smiling wife Jessy, masking more than a hint of resentment that her dinner area is replaced by wrestling mats. She is working a flip cam that the UFC sent to document training and to give fans more access to Nelson’s life than just through his Twitter account @RoyNelsonMMA. They met at a nightclub five years ago and married in April 2008. When she first met him, she knew he was a fighter, but she did not know the extent of it. On their first date, a fan approached Nelson for an autograph, bewildering Jessy and hinting at what their future would eventually become.
After amassing a record of 13-4, including winning the now defunct IFL Heavyweight Championship, Nelson scored a spot on the UFC flagship program The Ultimate Fighter 10. Nelson was clearly the favorite, with one of the best records and longest careers in the house, yet Internet sensation Kimbo Slice was the star.
The Ultimate Fighter was designed for the UFC to pursue and foster the best unsigned talent, but the show also focuses on ratings-friendly, over-the-top individuals and abrasive personalities. Nelson seemed completely disinterested in involving himself with the shenanigans of the house, opting to keep to himself, which bears the question of why a seasoned heavyweight with a solid record would resort to a reality show when he could qualify for a spot on the UFC roster purely by merit?
“That worked out in my favor tenfold,” he says. “My fight with Kimbo is the number one rated show in Spike TV history. I’ve been on three or four of the top ten most watched MMA fights. There’s always a common denominator, and it was my way to introduce myself to the UFC fan.”
It was an opportunity Nelson refused to waste. Even before his stint in the TUF house, the portly heavyweight would often jump on the ring ropes after a victory and rub his belly. He now sports a shoulder-length mullet, further differentiating himself from the chiseled, tattooed bodies of most of his colleagues. “The mullet…the long hair can get in the way sometimes, just ask Clay Guida,” Nelson says. “But it’s an image. An image you need to keep up. You know how they say WWE is sports entertainment? MMA is sports entertainment. Baseball is sports entertainment. You gotta be the star, and you also got to be the fighter. You have to be the combination or you’re gonna be washed out. You know how they say you have to have the X-factor? If you fight and you win, you’re going to be somebody. But, if you win AND you have personality, people are going to remember you. That’s the big difference. I like to be remembered, but I also like to fight. That’s why people remember my fights.”
It’s a role he relishes. Watching Nelson interact with the film crew, his training partners, and anyone else that comes around him, he enjoys being the center of attention. Not in a vexing way that a lot of TUF contestants are, but in enjoying making people laugh and making strangers feel comfortable. A personality type that bartenders spend years forging to make theircustomers at ease, Nelson oozes like he is not even trying.
It’s also a talent Nelson could use in multiple places and not just the UFC. Professional wrestling and MMA have more synergy than either industry would like to admit. The over-the-top athletes on a weekly television spot matched with the pay-per-view model works for all levels of sports entertainment—a model Nelson realizes.
“I just need the UFC to say ‘yes’ and I’d do it right now,” says Nelson. “My thing is cross-branding. Dana [White] says you need to use your celebrity and parlay it into something bigger. Rampage does movies. Randy Couture does movies. You need to do it to supplement your income and put your mark on the sport. I don’t mind being known over in professional wrestling and also being a great fighter. I’d even do professional baseball just like Michael Jordon.”
UFC president Dana White has spent considerable energy darkening the gray line between MMA and professional wrestling. Even as the UFC posts recordbreaking PPV numbers, fills basketball arenas, and continues to break into new markets, the company has had to shed negative stigmas despite their success. In an attempt to draw professional wrestling’s large fan base to the Octagon, the UFC is forced to educate fans where the staged theatre ends and the true competition begins.
WWE superstar Brock Lesnar was an immediate draw for the UFC upon his very first fight for the company in 2008, but some felt he could bring an illegitimizing impression on the sport. When whispers of a Lesnar appearance on WrestleMania 27 started to swirl a few months ago, White was quick to squash the rumors, knowing the confusion it could cause with the casual fan base.
“The one thing I love about pro wrestling is that they have a lot of fan interaction,” says Nelson. “MMA has fan interaction, but the WWE brings the fans in. They bring the emotion, AND the kids are involved.”
A fighter in training is nearly useless for any other task. Two to three workouts a day, dieting, strength and conditioning, media work, and other tasks can wear a man, ahem…thin, even if he is just training. Rampage Jackson took months off from fighting to film the The A-Team. How would Nelson be able to handle it?
“That’s because Rampage is lazy,” Nelson says. “And he hates training. He said he hates training. Have you ever been on a film set? There’s a lot of down time, so it’s not like you can’t train—unless you’re doing Sci-Fi and you got a lot of makeup. I’ll get the Total Gym—Chuck Norris does it.”
However, being a public figure with a charming disposition comes with its own disadvantages. Despite Nelson’s everyman image and character, there are parts of the everyman life he misses. “Probably the only time I have a hard time being a star is being nice to people who aren’t nice to me. It’s the random people. Everyday people. People that cut you off in the street. The people you get mad at are the same people I get mad at. I’m just a regular Joe. The thing is, I have to hold back a little bit more because I’m a public figure. I can’t be hanging out in jail because… [points to himself] public figure. I have the problems that everyone else has. I put my pants on the same as everyone else does. I just have to have more restraint.”
Fortunately, in Nelson’s line of work, he doesn’t have to be nice to everyone.
Now, Nelson is standing in another training facility, but it’s not just any facility. It’s Red Rock Casino in Las Vegas— the headquarters of Zuffa. Inside the corporate building on the same lot of the hotel, it takes no less than one security guard and three password- or thumbprint-protected doors to get to the private gym of Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, the owners of Zuffa.
The building’s garage holds a dozen or so exotic cars, but the gym houses the real treasures. A boxing ring and top-of-the line workout equipment are encapsulated by walls decorated with UFC memorabilia. Signed shorts from Chuck Liddell, three black-and-white action shots of BJ Penn, and countless signatures of the horde of fighters who had the pleasure to train in the facility. To Roy Nelson, it is his office. Actually, it was his office.
Frank Mir, a Las Vegas local as well, also calls the Red Rock gym his home, making their heavyweight fight a local feud—a hometown showdown.
“I was kicked out,” Nelson says smiling. “We’re fighting for gym rights. I had a specific time I was supposed to train here for the last month or so, and then when Frank found out we were going to fight, I was asked to accommodate Frank’s schedule. So the running joke is that we are not fighting for the King of Las Vegas. We are fighting for gym time.”
As Nelson continues to talk about the fight and about Mir specifically, there is no hatred, animosity, or negativity. It’s mostly indifference. Whether Nelson is talking about his dog Thor, jiu-jitsu guard passes that he likes the most, or his future opponent that got him kicked out of the gym he trains at, he remains the same, upbeat and smiling with a goofy grin on his round face.
If any fight could get personal, it’s this one. Same hometown. Same gym. Nelson and Mir have actually grappled against each other and trained together before. Nelson helped Mir prepare for his fight with Marcio Cruz, Mir’s first fight back from the motorcycle injury that nearly ended his career in September 2004. But with Nelson, it’s still all business.
“The thing with Frank is, Frank is the UFC’s golden boy,” Nelson says. “I don’t know how golden, but he’s the longest employed heavyweight for Zuffa, 10 plus years. So, to put a mark on my belt, to say I beat the longest employed heavyweight, says something about me. He’s a two-time UFC Heavyweight Champion. He’s beaten Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. He’s beaten Tim Sylvia. He’s one of the best UFC guys they’ve got. I’m looking forward to it, dude. It’s not a hometown thing. I still live in my house. He doesn’t come to my house.”
The consequences of this fight, according to Nelson, go far beyond where each fighter will do bench presses. With champion Cain Velasquez recovering from surgery and Brock Lesnar and Junior dos Santos coaching The Ultimate Fighter, the title picture has slowed down, leaving room for any heavyweight with a winning record to make his move. Nelson believes he is only one or two wins away from getting a shot at the most coveted title in combat sports.
First, he must get through Frank Mir, who, according to Nelson, is a stylistic nightmare. “At the end of the day, Frank is dynamic from all aspects, from standing to the ground. He’s probably the weakest in the wrestling aspect. But the thing is, it doesn’t matter. He knows if he keeps it standing, he can keep it standing. If he fights off his back, he can fight off his back. It’s one of those things—as a fighter, you don’t know the safe spots. Like [Shane] Carwin. Carwin is a guy who, standing up, is dangerous. On his back, not so much. With Frank, you have to feel it out and see where you are more prone to beat him.”
Nelson’s tongue-in-cheek compliments have nearly dried out.
“Frank pretty much knocked out [Cheick] Kongo and then choked him out. He basically knocked him out and then jumped on the choke.”
He wanted the submission bonus instead of the knockout bonus?
“Yah, because one he can get, and one he can’t,” says Nelson. One guy who can get knockout bonuses, just not against Roy Nelson, is Junior dos Santos. The Black House team member could not finish Big Country at UFC 117, but he did nearly everything else. “Cigano” spent the bulk of the 15-minute fight punching and kicking the head, body, and legs of Nelson, but Nelson still refused to go down. It was a display that won the hearts of droves of fans for his show of grit and toughness—qualities in high demand for fight fans. Like most fighter’s post-fight mentality, Nelson did not see it as a blowout. When asked what went wrong in the fight, he simply answers, “He threw more punches than I did.”
After dos Santos landed the first significant strike of the fight in the first round, Nelson went to recover and blew out his knee, immediately changing the landscape of the fight. Less than a week after, Nelson had to surgically repair his damaged knee. “If I could stand with the best of the best in the UFC and maybe not come out on top—well, the thing is, I got more fans out of that fight by going through a three-round war. It was a PR stunt,” he says with a smile.
Win or lose, Nelson is determined to make his mark on the sport for the better. The UFC image has rocketed the sport into mainstream success, but Nelson is worried the roots of what makes the sport great could be lost. He receives all sorts of off-color comments from fans, but one especially makes him cringe. The round, smiling face immediately darkens. “I always hate when people say, ‘I respect that you get in the cage, the fact that you just get in the cage, I don’t know how you do it.’ I think that’s the most retarded thing you can say. You take any gangbanger or any guy in jail and they will fight all day long in the cage. Basically, you’re saying I’m just like that. I’m not.”
The adrenaline-soaked lust for a brutal knockout at a UFC event is a necessary evil in Nelson’s eyes. But, it’s the technical chess match between athletes that needs to be the center focus. He credits the quiet crowds in Japanese MMA events, where the attendees are fully tuned in to the intricacies of every aspect of what they are seeing. Nelson feels that’s what is going to make the UFC bigger than the NFL. “It’s like when you go to the UFC and there’s a fight in the crowd. People turn to the fight in the crowd instead of the fight in the cage.”
Nelson is quickly led away for his camera time for the Countdown show. The interviews are closed door. But, his next interview will be a great one, too. If there is one thing that resonates the most about Roy Nelson, it’s his candid response to anything even remotely considered out of bounds. The mullet, rubbing the belly, and machine gunning one-liners is simply Nelson embracing himself. While keenly aware of what fans think of him and his antics, there is no denying that he knows who he is and what he is capable of. He’s a proud man on the throne of his palace, even if that throne is 50 square feet of wrestling mats on his dining room floor.