Lefko: Nelson’s UFC future a question mark

Showdown Joe Ferraro and T.J. Grant recap UFC 161 from Winnipeg.

One has to wonder about the future of Roy (Big Country) Nelson with the UFC.

He came into UFC 161 with a chance move closer to a title fight with a win, but his resounding loss to Stipe Miocic has ended any hopes of battling for a belt. And yet, Nelson has reached a pivotal point in his career in a different way.

His contract with the UFC has expired because he chose not to sign a contract extension leading into UFC 161, perhaps seeking the leverage with a victory. The UFC has the upper hand, but as a free agent Nelson has options.

What if Bellator, which has been picking off some of the UFC’s talent, decided to make a pitch for Nelson with a ridiculous offer, similar to what it’s done with Rampage Jackson, King Mo and Randy Couture? Bellator would be foolish if it didn’t at least present an offer.

Nelson could become a bigger fish in the Bellator pond than in the UFC, where he has gone as far as he can in terms of an upward trajectory. He can only go downward.

There have been rumours recently that longtime UFC veteran Cheick Kongo, whom Nelson defeated six weeks ago in the fight leading up to the one against Miocic, is close to signing with Bellator. Kongo turned down a contract extension with the UFC leading up to the fight against Nelson. After Nelson knocked him out early in the first round, the UFC chose not to sign Kongo to a new deal, effectively ending his UFC career.

Nelson’s fans – and perhaps the UFC brass – surely had to be disappointed by his lucklustre performance against Miocic following his explosive win over Kongo. Nelson recorded a technical knockout less than halfway into the first round, earning Knockout of the Night honours, his second in his last three fights. All three of the wins were knockouts in the first round, and he had a chance to tie a record by doing it a fourth consecutive time.

Previous to the streak, he lost to Fabricio Werdum in what was voted Fight of the Night at UFC 143. Werdum has put together a three-fight win streak and has to be rated third or fourth in the division behind champion Cain Velasquez and former champion Junior dos Santos, who are slated to meet for their trilogy match later this year, and Daniel Cormier.

Nelson ambitiously took the fight against Miocic, who had a sizeable advantage in height and reach, on short notice, which in retrospect was wrong. Miocic’s game plan to move away from Nelson’s devastating right hand and cycle backwards frustrated Big Country. He kept his hands down low far too often, leaving himself open to multiple shots.

“Get your s--- together,” his trainer repeatedly said.

But Nelson looked hopelessly gassed, and in the final 10 seconds did not have any energy to throw a punch. The Round Mound of Pound was ground into a sluggish defeat.

It was a sad ending for a warrior, who if you hadn’t seen him fight before would have thought he was simply an out of shape palooka.

Nelson has a heart as big as his gut, but his lack of cardio became a liability against Miocic, who executed a brilliant game plan. Nelson set a record for absorbing the most significant strikes in his UFC career without being knocked out.

Yes, he took a lot of punches and didn’t go down, but it’s a dubious honour.

You can simply chalk this latest loss up to Nelson beaten by a bigger, taller and younger opponent, who hadn’t fought in nine months. Miocic’s last defeat, against Stefan Struve, ended a streak of nine consecutive wins since he began his pro career. Miocic clearly had a different mindset than Nelson. Perhaps he thought he could simply score another easy knockout.

There will be other fighters poised to make a run toward the top, including Josh Barnett, who is returning to the UFC after leaving 11 years ago after he tested positive following a win over Couture for the heavyweight championship.

So it will be interesting to see which direction Nelson goes. He probably needs time off from his devastating defeat to Miocic, while also pondering his future. Assuming Nelson and the UFC agree to new terms, his future will likely be somewhere on the main card, if only because of his following, but his days in the co-main event are over.

Perhaps a fight against Mark Hunt, who has somewhat of a similar physical profile, makes sense. Both have just suffered crushing defeats, but they have never met and at some point a battle between the two would draw interest.

That said, both need ample time to regroup and neither have a chance to regain their fallen status, in particular Nelson.