Roy Nelson may never be regarded among the UFC's heavyweight elite, but at 37 years old he's still the perfect man to guard the door.
With his long hair braided primly at the base of his skull and the ever-present (but shrinking?) padding around his midsection, he certainly looked the part of gatekeeper on Friday against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.
Nelson’s approach is one-dimensional and ponderous, but he remains a tough out for anyone in the division. The best fighters can outmaneuver him, foiling his head-down power punches with better technique and superior strategy, but even for them it can be a painstaking and difficult process.
If you’re not one of the UFC’s top 265-pounders? Yeah, he’s probably going to knock you out.
Such was Nogueira’s fate at Fight Night 39. The aging former Pride titlist and UFC interim champion had the right idea against Nelson, but lacked the physical wherewithal to complete the task, falling victim to a thunderous and frightening KO three-and-a-half minutes into the first round.
A submission master once renowned for his boxing, Nogueira came out of his corner with a game plan that had been successful against Big Country in the past. He moved forward, trying to thwart Nelson’s murderous right hand with pressure and an active jab.
It was a good concept, and it worked for all of 56 seconds before Nelson floored him with an uppercut and a winging overhand right. The obstinate Brazilian stuck around for another 2:40, but Nelson had already developed a taste for it. He was just going to keep slinging those rights until Nogueira caught a bad case of rigor mortis. Eventually, that’s exactly what happened.
After back-to-back losses in his most recent appearances, the walk-off win proved that Nelson continues to lord over a very important fork in the heavyweight road. A fight against him is the perfect way to see if an old lion still has it, to forge instant contenders, or turn away the unworthy.
Fighters the ilk of Junior dos Santos, Stipe Miocic and Fabricio Werdum have emerged from their tests against Nelson ready for A-list matchups.
Guys like Dave Herman, Matt Mitrione and Cheick Kongo were judged and found wanting.
Now, Nogueira, too, has received painful notice that he no longer belongs with the upper crust and that perhaps he’s overstayed his welcome.
For Big Nog, this loss seemed to have an immediate chilling effect. He’s just 3-5 since winning the interim UFC title in February 2008, and all of those losses have come by first- or second-round stoppage.
Nogueira had his moments in this fight, but the overall impression was one of a heavyweight well into his decline. He gave his best years to Pride, and was already 35 fights into his career before arriving in the Octagon in 2007. Now 37, his management says he’d still like to take on Frank Mir a third time before hanging up the gloves, but even they concede that the end is probably near.
It says something about the standing of both these guys that Nelson’s win merely reaffirmed his position as heavyweight key master. His next fight figures to be more relevant to the 265-pound top 10, but at this point it seems reasonable to assume he’ll always have to battle and scrap to hold his place.
Nothing wrong with that. He’s a worthy litmus test for up-and-comers and a dangerous draw for veterans out to prove they still belong.
He's probably never going to be champion, but anybody who wants to get there is still going to have to go through him.