Plus-sized knockout artist, Roy Nelson, looks to take out former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) heavyweight kingpin, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, this Friday (April 11, 2014) at the Du Arena on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Nelson's mixed martial arts (MMA) career has established a clear pattern. Against the elite of the heavyweight division, "Big Country" is clearly defeated, often with little difficulty. However, he's also made a habit of absolutely demolishing anyone outside of the top 10 with his brutal overhand right.
It's time to find out exactly where the aging "Minotauro" stands.
This bout is especially important for Nelson, considering his current losing streak and poor relationship with Dana White. If he can land another big finish, he'll almost certainly buy himself a few more fights. But does he have the skills necessary to finish the legendary Brazilian?
Let's take a closer look.
Nelson may be a dangerous striker, but he is not an advanced one. He relies heavily on his natural power and has repeatedly been out-struck by fluid kickboxers with decent defense. That said, a single connection from "Big Country" can drastically change the course of the fight.
With his lead hand, Nelson tries to set up his overhand. He jabs often, either to move his opponent back towards the cage or to judge range for his right hand. Nelson uses both the 1-2 and double jab-right cross well. Similarly, he doesn't use the left hook as much of a power punch, but will tie it into combinations and use it to walk his opponent into the right.
The best example of Nelson's ability to maneuver his opponent into the right hand is his bout with Cheick Kongo. In many fights, Nelson just whips his overhand forward and catches slow heavyweight with bad defense. Verses the Parisian, he pushed Kongo against the fence with his jab and takedown attempts. Once he stopped Kongo from backing up with the fence, he threw repeated left hooks and left hand feints. Kongo took the bait and moved to his left, directly into an oncoming overhand right.
As I mentioned, Nelson often lands his overhand merely due to his opponents' defensive flaws more than his own striking prowess. However, Nelson also does his best to create opportunities, repeatedly throwing the overhand at every opportunity.
The problem with this is that Nelson does not win if his overhand does not land cleanly. Recently, Stipe Miocic clearly picked apart Nelson with simple boxing and movement, never allowing his more powerful opponent to line up the shot. Nelson kept throwing the overhand to the end, but it never landed, and Miocic earned the decision.
Things get worse for Nelson if his opponent can strike well and hit hard. Junior dos Santos and Fabricio Werdum carved Nelson up with punches, kicks, and knees at will. In those fights, Nelson didn't just get out-pointed, he got beaten up. Despite these losses, Nelson's striking has shown little evolution.
The story of Roy Nelson's grappling is a sad one. Originally a jiu-jitsu fighter, Nelson discovered his knockout power pretty early in his career but would still use both parts of his game. Then, he was stood up by the referee in the midst of a deep kimura attempt on Andrei Arlovski and was soon knocked out. Since then, Nelson has made few attempts to take the fight to the mat outside of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF).
When Nelson does utilize his wrestling, he shows just how capable he is. Either from the shot or clinch, Nelson is strong and controls position well. From the clinch, he prefers to push forward and then switch to an outside trip. In his bout with Kongo, Nelson managed to secure double underhooks against the fence early and was actively looking for takedowns.
Until the ref broke them apart.
If he attempts to shoot, he mostly uses a single leg. After securing the leg, he will either run the pipe or just drive forward and look to off-balance his foe.
Nelson's takedown defense is generally quite strong. Daniel Cormier had some early success with takedowns, but Nelson was able to return to his feet quickly and defend them more as the fight went on. The only fight where Nelson was dominated in the takedown department was his match with Mir, who literally threw "Big Country" around, though Nelson claims he had walking pneumonia at the time.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
A Renzo Gracie-trained black belt and Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC) competitor, Nelson is one of the more experienced grapplers in the UFC's heavyweight division. Though he hasn't used his submission skills offensively in years, Nelson has shown that his defense is still top notch.
His guard game is far from weak, but Nelson is primarily a top grappler. From there, his immense strength -- and gut -- wear down on his opponent. He's a very active guard passer and is incredibly difficult to move once he gets to a dominant position. For example, his fight with Mirko "Cro Cop" FIlipovic was over in mere seconds after he got the back mount, as Nelson put a ton of pressure on the Croatian and left him nowhere to go.
On TUF, Nelson used the crucifix position twice to earn easy technical knockout victories. Perhaps he didn't want to risk a slug fest due to the short amount of time between fights, but this was one of the few times he really went back to his grappling post-Arlovski. Regardless, Nelson completely controlled strong men from this position and took almost no damage, giving himself an easy route to the finals.
Off his back, Nelson's priority is returning to his feet. In his bout with Cormier, Nelson did an excellent job using butterfly hooks to create space. From there, he was able to secure underhooks and eventually separate himself completely from the Olympic wrestler.
In addition, Nelson showed off his defensive jiu-jitsu against Fabricio Werdum, who made Nelson slip with a hard leg kick, hopped onto his back, and secured a both hooks early in the first round. For most fighters, this is a death sentence, as Werdum has some of the best grappling in MMA. However, Nelson stayed calm, got one of his legs outside of Werdum's hooks, then escaped to his feet as Werdum tried to adjust. As he did all this, he held onto one of Werdum's arms, ensuring that he wouldn't be able to slip a choke in.
Best chance for success
Nelson's main goal in this fight should be to keep the match standing. On the ground, he's not completely outgunned, but Nogueira is almost certainly at an advantage. Additionally, it's unclear who has the cardio advantage, so Nelson should go in with his usual game plan.
Knock his opponent out in the first.
In his recent UFC fights, Nogueira has looked to rough up his opponents against the cage. Though his defensive wrestling is generally strong, Nelson has been controlled and touched up inside the clinch. He cannot allow Nogueira to control him there, as it would heavily tax his conditioning. Instead, he should seek to turn Nogueira then break away. If he succeeds, Nogueira is already pinned against the cage at a range where Nelson can throw his right hand.
If he does get taken down, Nelson cannot rush back to his feet. Nogueira excels at capitalizing on small opportunities left by desperate opponents, but Nelson has no reason to be desperate. His defense is good enough that he can slowly work back to his feet, even if it does cost him a bit of time.
Can Nelson defeat his first former UFC champion, or will Nogueira prove he still has something left in the tank?