On the streets of Tokyo, Roy Nelson and Josh Barnett are larger than life, sort of like two giant Redwoods in the asphalt jungle.
It’s more than just their immense size. Both are popular MMA figures in Japan, so it figures that their five-round heavyweight main event Saturday night at UFC Fight Night Japan is an anticipated event.
“It’s like walking into Walmart in Las Vegas,” Nelson said. “When I go to Tokyo, I get recognized. People want to take pictures.”
Nelson has fought previously at Saitama Super Arena – the site of Saturday’s bout against Barnett – losing via knockout to Mark Hunt last year. Barnett, inactive in the UFC since December 2013, is a familiar face in Japan, having lived there at times over the past 12 years as he competed in MMA and pro wrestling.
Both also were coaches on the recent made-for-TV series “Road to UFC: Japan,” a competition featuring eight Japanese fighters hoping to win a UFC contract. The show, which began airing in Japan in July (it’s available on UFC FIGHT PASS), features fighters on two teams training and fighting in Japan and the U.S. Saturday’s card will include the finale between featherweights Mizuto Hirota and Teruto “Yashabo” Ishihara.
“I definitely saw a lot of potential in those guys,” Barnett said. “They have some of the best hearts you’ll see in fighting sports anywhere. That’s something I wouldn’t take lightly.”
The 6-foot-3, 250-pound Barnett (33-7, 5-2 in the UFC) is ranked No. 8 among UFC heavyweights despite his layoff. His last fight was a first-round knockout loss to Travis Browne at UFC 168, but the break in fighting hasn’t necessarily been a detriment, he said.
“I’ve been so incredibly busy with everything else out there,” he said. “It takes so much effort to get going and get ready at 37, but it’s not a normal 37. I started fighting at 19, so it’s almost 20 years of being a professional fighter. Most people don’t manage to stick around that long.”
Conversely, No. 11-ranked “Big Country” Nelson (21-11) has remained active. This fight will mark his fifth in the past two years, all in the hope of earning a title shot. He has never fought for the UFC belt and has struggled against fighters currently in the top 10, going 0-7. But he and Barnett are can’t-miss heavyweights: Combined, they have 24 knockouts, 14 by Nelson, and 22 submissions, 18 by Barnett.
“The whole point is to get to the belt,” Nelson said. “Two fights ago (Mark Hunt) beat me and got a title shot. I’m always relevant. That’s the thing. If I beat Josh, I’ll probably be talking about fighting for the title soon just because the heavyweight division moves that fast.”
Nelson’s one-punch power makes him a dangerous foe. But it also makes him vulnerable.
“Don’t get hit by his big shot,” said Barnett, who held the UFC heavyweight title in 2002. “Don’t get hit by his right hand, and keep the pressure on him. The best way to beat Roy is to out-fight him, out-pressure him, out-pace him.
“The thing is, do you have to guts to stand in front of his weapons and just say, ‘OK, whatever, man. I’ve seen people throw punches at me and yours aren’t going to be any different’?”
That’s what is likely to make their fight so exciting. Each wants a knockout, and each is willing to take a punch to throw a punch.
It’s also what makes heavyweights so intriguing.
“You have to watch every second of every fight,” Nelson said. “If you blink, it could be the end of the fight. The little guys, you could watch 25 minutes and you’re like, ‘I didn’t miss much.’ ”
Neither expects this one to last a full 25.
“I’m not going to show up and not fight Roy Nelson,” Barnett said. “I’m going to take him out. It’s not going to be a decision. I’m not looking to run around him and chip shot him and gather points. I’m looking to go out there and completely obliterate my opponent like always.”
It won’t be easy. The bearded Nelson packs 263 pounds on a 6-foot frame, but he prefers not to compare himself to a sumo wrestler.
“I’m not big enough,” he said. “You’ve got to be at least three or four bills for that.”
Even so, their stature is one reason both have fan bases in a country that embraces mammoth-sized men.
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“I stick out regardless,” Nelson said. “But being famous makes you stick out even more.”
Michael Martinez is a longtime sports journalist and former staff writer at The New York Times, the San Jose Mercury News and FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @ByMMartinez