Is ‘Big Country’ Nelson the man to rescue Bellator’s heavyweight division?

Roy ‘Big Country’ Nelson has always been a little underappreciated. Underappreciated by the fans, underappreciated by his employers. Hardly surprising, you might say, in light of his own nonchalant approach to his sport, as reflected in his rotund physique and dishevelled appearance, but the fact remains. If you’re a fan of ‘Big Country’, you keep it to yourself.

Now, though, having turned 41 and signed with Bellator, there’s renewed interest in Nelson. Fans realise his time could soon be up and have consequently warmed to the idea of him moving promotions – leaving the UFC – and making one final run at a title. Good for him, seems to be the consensus. What’s more, as Nelson’s competition figures to drop a rung or two as a result of this move, so increases the possibility that he’ll get some wins, some knockouts, and put on exciting fights. And that’s the Roy Nelson people appreciate. That’s the one they’ll miss when he’s gone. (Not the one who lost five of his last seven fights in the UFC and appeared on the slide and not all that fussed about it.)

But the question is, what’s left? Is Nelson, at 41, still capable of perfoming? Is he good enough, even in a presumably faded state, to win a Bellator heavyweight title?

He just might be. After all, of the five defeats mentioned, only one was a stoppage (produced by Mark Hunt, no less), and Nelson’s durability, it would seem, has yet to desert him. Moreover, it could be argued the likes of Hunt, Alistair Overeem, Josh Barnett, Derrick Lewis and Alexander Volkov are a level or two above the kind of heavyweights he will come up against during his Bellator tenure.

They are certainly superior to the man he meets on Saturday, Javy Ayala, at Bellator 183, that’s for sure. Ayala scored two tremendous first-round knockout wins in 2016 – against Sergei Kharitonov and Rob Broughton – but has yet to appear in 2017 and has five defeats on his record, four by stoppage. Nelson, you’d imagine, should hustle his way past him. He might even look good doing so.

Should Nelson win, and should he look good, we could be left with the distinct possibility that ‘Big Country’ soon fights for a heavyweight title (something that eluded him during an eight-year run in the UFC). He could even become champion. Roy Nelson – heavyweight champion. He hasn’t been able to call himself that since 2007, the year he won an International Fight League (IFL) belt, but he’s gearing up to revisit those heights a decade on, make no mistake. He sees an opening, an opportunity, and knows a rough patch in the UFC doesn’t necessarily signal a veteran’s demise, nor suggest he’s unable to turn things around if he knocks about in the smaller leagues for a while.

Because that’s precisely what he’s doing here. Nelson, you see, is not stupid. He has seen what Cheick Kongo has achieved since joining Bellator. He’s well aware of his five-fight win-streak, just as we’re aware of the fact Nelson crushed Kongo inside a round in 2013. He also knows Fedor is no longer Fedor, Vitaly Minakov, the undefeated former Bellator heavyweight champion, is away fighting in Russia, and that the organization has been in search of two men fit to compete for the title since it officially became vacant in May 2016. Nelson, in time, can help fill this breach; he has the name and the credentials to bring something to the table and give the whole thing a semblance of authenticity. First, though, he needs a win or two.

In many ways, then, Saturday represents a key moment not only for ‘Big Country’ but also Bellator’s heavyweight division. Win and Nelson becomes a valuable commodity. He can be steered towards becoming the face of the division (who saw that coming?). He can help give it some momentum and stability. Lose, however, and Nelson, 22-14, knows the game is up.