After his first business trip to Japan last year ended up with a loss to Mark Hunt, Roy Nelson decided to switch things up a bit this time around as he prepares to face Josh Barnett at Saitama Super Arena this Saturday.
“Now I found a Subway,” Nelson said of the sandwich shop. “It’s the only place in Japan that sells turkey.”
This is a man speaking after spending an entire fight week in one of the great food cities in the world – Tokyo – taking his meals at the Sizzler steakhouse which was a couple blocks away from the host hotel last September. But there was a method to the madness of “Big Country.”
“When it’s fight week, fish can be tainted pretty fast, and I’m not a big fish eater anyways,” he said. “And the thing at Sizzler is, it’s all you can eat salad.”
Salad and Subway turkey. It kind of takes the steam out of the romantic notion that Nelson feasts on cheeseburgers, shows up on fight night, loads up his right hand, and knocks people out. But for all the jokes and wisecracks, Nelson is a serious mixed martial artist and businessman, and though fans have latched on to the belly-rubbing “Big Country” persona, someone doesn’t last this long in the game without being a serious athlete.
It’s why Nelson was chosen, along with Barnett, to not just headline Saturday’s UFC Fight Night event, but to coach a bunch of Japanese hopefuls on the Road to UFC Japan series that aired earlier this year. It’s Nelson’s second time in a televised coaching capacity, having served that role on season 16 of The Ultimate Fighter, but he admits he took a different tact with his charges.
“This time around, instead of trying to help them in terms of what I wish somebody would have told me, I just took it as more of a sit back and see what information they actually want to hear and that they can actually accept,” he said. And despite not speaking Japanese, Nelson found communication to not be an obstacle as the process took the coaches and fighters from Las Vegas to Japan and back to Vegas over a month’s time.
“The communication was more about a vibe and getting to know body language, and by the time we went to Japan, we already had a good vibe where we could talk without actually talking,” he said. “It was cool. It was like hanging out with one of your buddies.”
And more than 11 years after he turned pro in 2004, Nelson has become “Big in Japan,” with his second headlining gig approaching just as MMA is making a welcome comeback in the Land of the Rising Sun.
“Apparently MMA fans are starting to come back in Japan and I’m happy to be the one that helps elevate it to the next level,” he said. “That’s what I’m happy about, just the pure fact of going from last year to this year, and then being on terrestrial TV now in Tokyo.”
It’s an important role for Nelson to be in for the sake of the sport, and for the sake of Businessman Roy, who knows that if MMA returns to its glory days in Japan, that’s a good thing for him as well.
“For myself, back in the heyday when Japanese fans were just salivating for it, and filling up a 40,000 seat room, as a fighter, more fans means more money for me. That’s the way I look at it.”
More money also comes with more wins, and the 39-year-old Nelson, who is 1-4 in his last five, could use a big victory this weekend. Of course, the Las Vegan’s 1-4 looks different than most in the same position, simply because that “4” includes the names Daniel Cormier, Stipe Miocic, Hunt and Alistair Overeem. And even against “The Reem” in his most recent loss in March, Nelson dropped the former Strikeforce champion in the third round and looked to be coming on when the final horn sounded. When it was over, Overeem was astonished at Nelson’s ability to walk through his power shots. Nelson wanted one more round.
“The thing Overeem was astonished with was the fact that I just kept coming forward,” Nelson said. “The first couple, he surprised me, and after that I figured him out. That’s the reason why in the third round I put him on his back and almost knocked him out.”
So is five rounds an important factor in getting the win over Barnett?
“Every time I approach a fight, it’s that I’m going to win, regardless,” he said. “The only reason why the other guy wins is because I ran out of time, that’s it. And that’s the reason why a lot of guys don’t want to re-fight me. It’s just a continuation of the last round.”
Not that Nelson is looking for a decision. He’s a bonus-hunter, even if his old standby – the Knockout of the Night – is a thing of the past. He’ll take a Performance of the Night check just as eagerly, but he did like it when things were simpler.
“They did get rid of the Knockout of the Night bonus, and that was so much easier,” he chuckles. “All you had to do was knock the guy out.”