When Renan Barao went down with an injury just weeks before he was supposed to headline UFC 161 against Eddie Wineland, the UFC was caught in an unfortunate—albeit familiar—predicament. High profile fights get cancelled all of the time, but to lose a main event so close to fight day on a PPV card is one of the toughest obstacles UFC matchmakers Joe Silva and Sean Shelby have to overcome. In order to avoid another fiasco mirroring the cancelled UFC 151 card last year, the organization had to work quickly in securing a new bout to try and save the fight card.

Without Barao and his interim bantamweight belt, the UFC’s next PPV suddenly didn’t have a title fight, and a once solid UFC main card now desperately needed a bout to help spark some interest. The problem was, it’s hard to find fighters that are willing and able to accept a fight on less than a month’s notice, and it’s even harder to convince top-ranked fighters in the sport to decide to put their spot in the division on the line without a full training camp.

Over the years, there have been several fighters known as “company guys”, a term used to describe well known fighters that the UFC could call on short notice and feel relatively certain that they would accept the fight. Rich Franklin, Josh Koscheck and a few others earned this moniker over the years due to their willingness to throw caution to the wind and take a fight on a few weeks notice, and many of these fighters have cited their loyalty to the UFC as a major reason why they accepted the bout.

Roy Nelson doesn’t exactly fit this mold, but “Big Country” was the big name fighter that answered the promotion’s cry for help and stepped up to fight at UFC 161. Since Tito Ortiz decided to hang up his gloves last summer, no active UFC fighter has been able to get under the skin of UFC President Dana White quite like Nelson. Everything from Nelson’s sarcastic personality to his less than stellar physique has driven White crazy since Big Country won The Ultimate Fighter 10 a few years ago.

Even in the days heading into a PPV event that Nelson believes he “saved”, there’s no love lost between them. The feud between Nelson and White has always been one of the more fascinating aspects of Big Country’s UFC career, but as Nelson prepares to try and earn his fourth straight victory on Saturday against Stipe Miocic, the longtime beef could find itself on a much larger scale sooner or later.

This is a somewhat risky bout for Nelson to take at this point in his UFC career, but if everything goes according to plan, the reward could be well worth it for Big Country. Taking a short notice fight against a relatively unknown opponent like Miocic is the type of thing that many top contenders don’t want to do, as most of the time the risk of losing to unranked and unheralded fighter provides too much of an opportunity for things to go wrong. These risks double in the heavyweight division, where every punch thrown can seemingly end the fight.

However, Nelson has one advantage over nearly every other fighter on the UFC roster in his ability to overcome ridiculous amounts of punishment without being finished. Nelson has an epic beard on him—both literally and figuratively—and his ridiculous ability to take shots and keep coming forward makes it tough to give an underdog like Miocic even a puncher’s chance at pulling off the upset.

So, while taking this fight against Miocic is indeed a risk, it’s a calculated one. If Nelson pulls off the victory he’ll be in the sweetest spot of his MMA career. Not only will a victory over Miocic give Nelson his longest UFC winning streak and catapult him into the title mix for the first time since getting crushed by Junior dos Santos almost three years ago, it will fulfill the final fight on Nelson’s current UFC contract. This gives Nelson the chance to head to the negotiating table as a bonafide top-five heavyweight, and even if he underwhelms a bit against Miocic, he will still have knocked out three of his past four opponents in the first round. The UFC’s heavyweight division is still among its most shallow, so keeping Big Country on the roster is a bit more important than people realize. As a result, Nelson will have a lot of leverage when it becomes time to sign a new deal. I’m sure Dana White is thrilled.

Even with an impressive win this weekend and a potential new contract as a reward, Nelson won’t make any progress towards his eventual goal of a UFC title this weekend. A win over Miocic is pretty much expected from Big Country at this point, and while Nelson did the UFC a huge favor by accepting to fight on this card, it isn’t likely going to help him get into the title fight that Nelson already feels he deserves. Dana White has made it clear that Nelson would actually need to defeat someone near the top of the division in order to earn a title fight, and Miocic isn’t on that level.

A win this weekend will probably be enough to earn Nelson the high caliber opponent that he needs to defeat in order to get his shot at UFC gold, but even if Big Country does go out and wreck a top-ranked contender in his next fight, don’t expect him to be next in line for a heavyweight title shot. Over the last year we’ve seen several fighters get passed over for title shots in favor of others far less deserving, and Nelson seems like the type that could get snubbed by the UFC. Nelson’s a popular fighter, but he’s not a proven PPV draw and it’s easy to envision Dana White and company deciding to give a fighter like Alistair Overeem or Josh Barnett a chance at the belt after winning just one or two fights to Nelson’s four or five. Some of the blame can easily be pushed towards Nelson’s feud with White and the amount of drama he’s caused over the last few years, but the reality of the situation is that Nelson just doesn’t fit the image of a fighter that the UFC wants to put forward.

Guys like Jon Jones and Georges St-Pierre look like championship level athletes; Nelson does not. With all of the muscle-bound Goliath’s showing up in the heavyweight division, it’s not hard to see why the UFC wouldn’t want one of their champions to look like his diet is more doughnuts than Dolce. As the UFC still tries to grow and gain respect and recognition as a sport, odds are that Big Country is going to have a tougher road to the belt than some of his less talented but more chiseled counterparts.

As unfair as this seems to Nelson, Big Country needs to take care of business in his next few bouts if the MMA world ever wants to gripe about his lack of opportunities. A loss to this weekend will send Nelson tumbling back down the heavyweight rankings, and could solidify Nelson’s spot as the premier gatekeeper north of 205 pounds. A win would give Big Country a four-fight winning streak heading into contract negotiations, a clearer path towards his ultimate goal of becoming a world champion and hopefully an opportunity to fight one of the best heavyweights in the world in his next outing. As it turns out, while Stipe Miocic may not be the biggest name that Nelson has fought over the years, the fight between the two at UFC 161 may end up being the most important of Big Country’s UFC career.

Photo: Roy Nelson (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

About The Author

Vince Carey
Staff Writer

Vince Carey has been writing about the sport of mixed martial arts since 2010. Although he is just 21 years old, the Omaha-based writer is looking to provide readers with interesting content on all things related to MMA.