In the battle of the bigs in the UFC’s second venture into Abu-Dhabi, Big Nog, Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira takes on Roy “Big Country” Nelson in a heavyweight tilt where no implications other than a W or an L are on the line.
Should Nogueira win, it puts him in deeper waters in a division where he’s already up to his chin, a division where deep-water predators Travis Browne, Fabricio Werdum, Junior Dos Santos, Alistair Overreem, and Bigfoot Silva await. Already, two of those options are off the table given Nogueira’s relationship with Dos Santos and Silva. Add to the fact that Werdum submitted Big Nog soundly in their last meeting, and Werdum’s matchup with Browne already on the horizon, and list gets whittled down further to one.
Nogueira is 5-4 since joining the UFC in 2007, with three of those losses coming from former and current heavyweight champions. With the top of the heavyweight food chain off of Big Nog’s menu, a win over Big Country likely earns him a fight with the rest of the top ten to top fifteen, represented by Josh Barnett, Todd Duffee, Mark Hunt, or Matt Mitrione. None of whom, outside of Barnett—maybe—gets him one step closer to a title shot.
So what s Big Nog doing here? He’s 37, and his body has seen much better days—like when he was nine. when he was 10, he was run over by a truck, fell into a four day coma, lost a rib, lost part of his liver, and was hospitalized for almost a year. And this was before he decided to take up prizefighting. At 37 years of age, Big Nog looks like he’s 47. He could play backup in The Highwaymen. KOs to Cain Velasquez and Frank Mir and a vicious submission by Frank Mir in a rematch which landed Big Nog with a broken humerus have put more miles on a body that had already seen its odometer spin wildly during his stint with Pride FC. Even Big Nog has admitted his best days are behind him.
By comparison, Big Country, on the surface, seems to be the younger fighter simply because his total number of fights is less than Big Nog’s career number of wins. But that’s the surface. Roy Nelson is just as old as Big Nog, and at 37, has seen recent setbacks with losses from smaller heavyweights in Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier (who now fights at light heavyweight). Against top 10 opponents, Roy Nelson makes fellow heavyweights look average. Against top five opponents, however, Nelson is always the bridesmaid and never the bride. Should he beat Big Nog, what is next? Probably the same buffet of heavyweights that Big Nog would encounter if he bests Nelson. It’s like replacing a quarter for five nickels. The value doesn’t change.
So why then should this fight happen? In a word, fun. But is there room for fun fights in the MMA landscape?
Fight pundits gets hives when they hear a fight will be fun. It’s the “F” word to them. Fun conjures the idea of a catchweight fight. Fun means that one of the original opponents in the fight must have been injured. Fun is an understudy. Fun screams, “Don’t take things seriously.” And MMA must be taken seriously. After all, how is it going to catch on in the mainstream if it’s not serious? Won’t the other major sports leagues looks down their noses at MMA and ridicule its ridiculous shoes if the sport is fun? For them, fun does not equal legitimate.
GSP was one of the most decorated and consistent performers in the UFC, and his title reign personifies legitimacy. Yet, a great deal of his fights left many fans unsatisfied because they weren’t fun to watch. His consistency won GSP an abundance of respect, but the dominance also got to be so redundant that it took all the fun out of watching him fight. It wasn’t until his recent fights, those against Johny Hendricks and the brief moments with Carlos Condit, where he was pushed into trouble that the fights became fun to watch because the audience got to see a different side of GSP. As a matter of fact, it could be argued there is so little room for fun in MMA that GSP retired to go have fun. Big Nog and Big Country are two of the most fun fighters in the sport because they have shown flashes of brilliance, dominance, trouble, and vulnerability.
Outside of Dan Henderson, no one has been as written off as much as Big Nog, and no one has had as many encores. After a devastating KO by Cain Velasquez, Big Nog rebounded by a KO of his own against Brendan Schaub. After a broken arm by Frank Mir, Nogueria went on to armbar Dave Herman (who went on record before their fight as saying Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu doesn’t work). His wars with Fedor, his comeback win submitting Tim Sylvia, his serving of crow to Dave Herman… fun, fun, fun. I mean, seriously, Big Nog is so loved and well-respected, Anderson Silva would like to just eat him up.
Also, nothing says fun like fun-sized, and no fan has a more fun-sized time at a live event than when the lights dim and Roy “Big Country” Nelson makes his way to the Octagon under the soothing sounds of Weird Al Yankovic’s I’m Fat. Is it an obvious ploy at a cheap pop from the audience? Yep. And they eat it up every time. Nelson aims for the finish every time he fights. Does he always make it? No. But that is part of the fun. Anticipating a Big Country KO followed by a post-fight Truffle Shuffle. In addition, the opportunities he gets to razz boss Dana White is a special kind of fun we all wish we could have with our supervisors in the 9-5 world.
It’s partly their personalities. It’s partly their fighting styles. It’s partly the road they’ve travelled to get to the UFC. It’s all of those things. It’s fun to talk about.
The reason Big Nog and Roy Nelson are fan favorites should be reason enough to want to see them collide. Will a win for either man advance his cause to further a title fight? Maybe, even if it’s more a nudge to a title shot than a full-on march. But what’s that cliché about the journey of a thousand miles and first steps? Between them, these men have journeyed more than most. Why not enjoy the journey with them and worry less about the destination?