Opinion: You don’t need to be particularly high on the emotional sensitivity scale to realise that UFC president Dana White is not a huge Roy Nelson fan. Time and again he has huffed and shaken his head when discussing Nelson in press conferences and interviews. White’s bone of contention is Nelson’s appearance - he just cannot stand Nelson being overweight the way that he is.
Most recently, White’s exasperation reached a new pitch at the post-UFC 146 press conference. Nelson had starched Dave Herman with a huge overhand right, thrilling the crowd, then raced over to where White and Lorenzo Fertitta were sitting to roar something that White later declared to be a “F--k you to me and Lorenzo” for comments they had made to him in a meeting shortly before the event.
At that meeting, Nelson had raised some issues of his own, particularly his difficulty in securing sponsors for his fights. Nelson says that the problem is caused by the UFC turning down prospective backers, as is its wont, but White took the comments to mean that Nelson was having trouble attracting sponsors full stop. He blamed Nelson’s appearance:
“When he shows up and asking me why he doesn’t have any sponsors, and how can I help him… I’m not a fan [of his image]. I don’t even know what that is, I think that thing is beyond a mullet, I don’t know what the hell that is now. It looks like a wig,” White sighed, shaking his head.
“And he’s got the big beard, his beard is grey…”
There definitely seems to be a fixation on the idea that fighters have to have a certain physique. Whether this is a straightforward marketing angle or a hangover from the (regrettable) relationship that MMA has with the pro-wrestling business model, I don’t know.
Either way, it is somewhat flawed. Certainly if every fighter looked like Nelson it might be an issue, but in a sport so dependent on characters and individuals to sell pay-per-view, Nelson’s unique appearance should be celebrated and even exploited.
Roy Nelson is an aspirational figure. He is the Everyman fighter. Across the United States, fans can swig their sixth or seventh beer, take a handful of nachos and ruminate on the fact that they too could be doing what Nelson does, if only they thought to put on some gloves and do a bit of training. Nelson’s portly physique not only gives them something to relate to, it gives their dreams wings with which to soar.
Don’t believe me? Consider this - while the platinum-blond, super-slim but busty glamour model has a solid fan base, how much more does the girl-next-door type figure in male fantasies? There is a reason for that. Daydreaming is a pleasant occupation, but it is more satisfying when it is plausible. The odds of you actually getting a second glance from Kim Kardashian are slim, but you could conceivably get something going with the girl on the front desk, if only you could get her drunk enough.
No doubt Brock Lesnar has a larger amount of fans, with his improbably pumped physique, but Nelson has a different set of fans to the ones attracted by Lesnar. The Nelson fan probably fits a certain criteria. He’s probably at the upper end of the average MMA fan age-range - say, late twenties, early thirties - and in full-time employment, probably with a long-term partner and maybe kids. At the weekends he likes nothing more than to sprawl out at home with a crate of beer and some ribs.
And while life’s path is all but set in stone for him, he’s young enough to still have hopes and dreams. Nelson inspires him - he makes the dream seem attainable. He has no hope of getting built like Lesnar or St. Pierre, but he could conceivably (in his mind) achieve something in MMA if Nelson can. All he would have to do, he reasons as he cracks open another tin of Old Style, is put down the beer and wings for a while. Maybe he’ll start on Monday…
I think the UFC is missing a trick in not marketing directly to this particular sliver of the fanbase. Nelson is literally unique among the fighters on the roster and that represents new marketing angles and product endorsements which other fighters couldn’t realistically engage with unless they wanted to look like hypocrites - soft drinks, beers, all-you-can-eat buffet chains and the like. Perhaps a brand like Just For Men would like to recolour his beard?
Without being facetious, Nelson is perfectly placed to advertise a lot of the unhealthy stuff that a sizeable chunk of MMA’s television audience love to indulge in. Not only that, how many rockers does he look like? Nelson could stand on stage with any amount of heavy metal bands and not look out of place - they seem to do alright with fans, so maybe the rock and metal crowd are another bunch that would take Nelson to heart.
Some months ago, White called a meeting with Nelson at the Zuffa HQ in Las Vegas and basically told him point-blank that he had to lose some weight if he wanted his career prospects within the UFC to stay alive. Nelson appears to have taken that on board initially - he was slimmer not long afterwards - but has then run into some further acrimony with White and has reverted to not caring about his appearance, via the aforementioned beard and mullet.
The sartorial rebellion by Nelson is clever and he certainly seems to feel justified in doing so. He and White are both clearly stubborn as mules so White’s attempt to make Nelson tow the line is not likely to meet with any more success than Nelson’s acting up and figurative middle-fingers are going to make White leave him alone.
Perhaps if Nelson could get some marketing angles of his own going with brands that we don’t normally see in MMA, White and the UFC would be forced to concede that there are some positives to be had from his portly physique.