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LAS VEGAS -- When Rashad Evans met Roy Nelson on the set of the reality series "The Ultimate Fighter" in the summer of 2009, he wasn't sure what to think.
Thing is, he knew who Nelson was. He wasn't the average TUF contestant with a 3-1 record who had turned pro a year before. Nelson was a reigning heavyweight champion in the International Fight League and had been fighting professionally since 2004.
But the man who extended a hand to him that day didn't appear to fit the description. This guy was, well -- he was a fat guy.
"I see this guy come in, and he's fat," Evans told ESPN.com. "He doesn't look like he's in shape, and he's got two knee braces on. I'm like, this dude is sloppy, and his legs must be shot.
"But then we spar, and he just smashes everybody."
Evans' first impression is a common one to anyone seeing Nelson for the first time. When one thinks professional athlete, a mullet-topped, 270-pounder with a stomach resembling a pregnant woman isn't what usually comes to mind.
His physique (mostly the belly) has given Nelson an image to market. Fans know him for it. Reporters ask about it. Opponents like Frank Mir, whom he'll meet this weekend at UFC 130, tweet about it.
In the background of all of it, though, are Nelson's true feelings on the topic -- it's irrelevant. It's an old joke. He struggles to keep a straight face when interviews inevitably turn to it because, to him, it's a dumb question.
If you paid me $2 million, I'm sure I could lose my belly. But I don't get paid to look a certain way. I get paid to win fights. That's what I concentrate on” -- Roy Nelson, on his physique
"Do I have fat cells on my body? Everybody has fat cells," Nelson said. "Do I have more than most other athletes? Probably.
"There are athletes out there trying to get every advantage they can, including things like muscle and low-fat percentages. I feel if I'm the better fighter, I'm the better fighter. If you paid me $2 million, I'm sure I could lose my belly. But I don't get paid to look a certain way. I get paid to win fights. That's what I concentrate on."
Nelson has a point. The fans filling message boards with the opinion he doesn't stand a chance this weekend because he's too fat and slow and has no cardio probably haven't seen him fight.
Hit Nelson on an outlet pass, and he can dunk a basketball on the other end. Looking the exact same as he does today, he tried out and made a Las Vegas semipro football team as a linebacker after graduating high school. Eight times in his career he's had to fight a full 15 minutes; of those, he's won a respectable four contests.
Nelson's matter-of-fact belief that physique has nothing to do with athletic abilities isn't easy to shoot down. Matt Mitrione, a fellow TUF contestant and former NFL player, didn't think twice when he saw Nelson's body. He'd seen worse in pro sports.
"I come from the NFL, where bad bodies abound," Mitrione said. "Some of the most athletic people in the NFL have the worst bodies you could imagine. Look like chewed-up bubble gum. So, no, I didn't think less of Roy at all when I saw him."
Nelson doesn't care when fans assume he's just a fat guy. He actually welcomes it. Everyone's interested if the overweight guy can survive a fight. More fans watching means he's more valuable to the UFC.
What does bother him is when reporters suggest he might want to drop a weight class to 205. "How do you think you'd do if you lost those extra pounds, Roy?" In Nelson's mind, he'd do the same -- he'd win fights.
|Roy Nelson has some pretty good cardio -- and not just for a large man.|
A win over Mir would conceivably place him, at most, two victories away from a title shot. Does that sound like a fighter who needs to a drop a weight class? To Nelson, results are what matter in sports, and he feels his are pretty good.
"I already beat people up at heavyweight, so what's that say?" Nelson said. "I don't mind people thinking I suck, but what's that say about everybody else?
"It usually comes up in an interview, 'How would you feel if you were 205?' I feel if I weighed 155 pounds, I'd kick everyone's butt. Same with 170, 185 and 205. That's the attitude you have to have."
There is one part, however, of the attention his physique gets that Nelson admits he downright enjoys.
If there's one absolute truth about Nelson that few people know, it's that he considers himself the Richard Simmons of MMA.
He very much likes the idea that his fans can relate to him and be inspired by him -- perhaps more so than a perfectly sculpted instructor in a typical workout video.
Nelson eats what he wants, wears oversized T-shirts and 100 percent loves himself despite being a "fat guy" in a sport full of muscle. If he can help his fans feel the same way, that's all right.
"My biggest thing is I want to be me," Nelson said. "I always thought the best part about sports was the bigger, faster kids who were supposed to be more athletic than me -- I always beat.
"I have a different fight philosophy than everyone else. You create your own opportunities by being yourself."
Brett Okamoto covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at bokamotoESPN.