Roy Nelson was a perennial top-10 contender during his time with the UFC, but never managed to put together the run needed to earn a title shot. Now, at 41, he finds himself three wins away from claiming heavyweight gold in Bellator.
This Friday at Bellator 194 in Uncasville, Conn., “Big Country” meets Matt Mitrione in a rematch of their Dec. 15, 2012 bout that Nelson won by first-round TKO. This time, the two will be fighting to advance to the semifinals of the Bellator Heavyweight World Grand Prix, with the victor of the eight-man tournament being rewarded with a championship belt.
Chasing that title. and then attempting to hold onto it, will likely be enough to keep Nelson fighting into 2019 and possibly longer.
“At least one or two defenses, so at least a year and a half. At least 18 months,” Nelson said during an appearance on The MMA Hour on Monday when asked if he was thinking of retiring soon. Pressed further, he extended the deadline: “I’ll give you two [years].”
It’s been a long road for Nelson, who recalled debuting back in 2003 at a one-night tournament on an Indian reservation. He’s married with a child now, and can remember how much simpler it was when all he had to worry about during his career was training and the fight itself.
“If anything, I wish I could go get that same mentality that I had then that I should have now,” Nelson said. “The younger you are, the easier it is to fight because you don’t have a care in the world… When it’s just you, you’re like, ‘Dude, I can sleep in a gutter. I can do this, I can do that, I can suffer through.’
“But life goes on, you start building your family and everything else up, then you start thinking about all the other stuff that they could take away or what you can’t get, so it’s easier when you’re younger.”
One major change that Nelson recently made was jumping from the UFC over to Bellator. “Big Country” signed with the promotion last May and debuted the following September, winning a unanimous decision against Javy Ayala.
Nelson competed inside the Octagon 19 times, but after a loss to Alexander Volkov in the last fight on his contract, it was an easy to decision to move on to greener pastures. He points to WME-IMG’s purchase of the UFC as one reason why he knew his time with the organization was up.
“When you’re already one foot out the door because there’s no pleasing them, there’s no ‘thank you’, there’s no appreciation,” Nelson said. “I think that was just with the new management, I think came in and I don’t think they know how — that’s why the UFC’s kind of going the opposite with the new management type of thing versus getting the fans back involved.”
“You can definitely sense the difference,” Nelson continued. “The morale is different, the employees are different. Before, back in the day, you remember when employees would talk, like, ‘Let’s talk about fighting!’
“Now it’s just like, ‘Oh, there’s a fight next week.’
‘Where is it at?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Who’s on it?’
‘I don’t know.’”
Before joining the UFC as a cast member of The Ultimate Fighter 10, Nelson had been fighting for five years and already stepped in the cage with former UFC heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski. According to him, UFC officials contacted him several times prior to TUF 10 about signing with the promotion outright, but he made the call to take part in the long-running reality show as a “PR move”.
That led to an eight-year run with the UFC and now he’s just getting his feet wet in the Bellator cage. Nelson said he’s interested in doing more film work whenever he actually hangs up the gloves for good, as he’s currently taking part in the rebooted Kickboxer franchise that also boast the talents of Jean-Claude Van Damme, Mike Tyson, Snoop Dogg, and fellow MMA star Cody Garbrandt.
As far as where his mood currently stands, Nelson sounded completely content when asked when is the happiest he’s ever been in his fighting career:
“Right now. By far.”