LAS VEGAS – Much like ex-UFC light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz a few years earlier, Roy Nelson views the world through a vastly different lens than Dana White.
Nelson has won three fights in a row, as well as four of his last five. Just about every one of his matches is either a Fight of the Night or a Knockout of the Night contender.
He can he punch, he can wrestle and he's one of the better jiu-jitsu players in the heavyweight division.
But even after a devastating knockout of Cheick Kongo at UFC 159 that bumped him to a No. 5 ranking in the division, there isn't a clear pathway to the belt for Nelson.
And that goes directly toward his dispute with White, the UFC president. Nelson has never gotten along with White, but as Nelson's tenure with the company has increased, so has the animosity with the UFC boss.
Nelson is now selling a T-shirt on his website at roynelson.com with a quote from White that refers to Nelson as the "Smartest guy on Earth."
Nelson has a deadpan sense of humor, so it's often hard to grasp what he's getting at. Asked about the comment, which White has repeatedly made sarcastically, Nelson said he was appreciative.
"That's the first time Dana ever said anything nice about me, and he was really sincere," Nelson said.
But when White was asked about it, he responded, "What do you think?" And he wouldn't give Nelson credit for trying to provoke a feud with him in order to make himself popular with the vocal portion of the fan base that dislikes White.
In some ways, Nelson seems to be trying Ortiz's tactic of thumbing his nose at management as a way to become a popular counter-culture figure. White disagreed and said Nelson was simply being himself, not executing a well-thought out plan.
"He's not doing that," White said. "He's not. It's nothing he's thought about and is intentionally trying to do. He's not that smart. Let's be honest. He's just not a smart guy. He's just that guy who is irritating. He thinks he's smart, but he's an absolute pain in the ass.
"He jumped up on the Octagon [after beating Kimbo Slice] and said to me, 'Go get me a Whopper,' as if Burger King or McDonald's would ever want to have a guy who looks like that endorsing [its] product. He think's he's funny, but to me, he's an idiot."
Whatever he is, there's no dispute Nelson is one of the world's elite heavyweights. At the core of the White-Nelson dispute are two very different visions of how the UFC works.
Ask a UFC fighter who he or she wants to face next, particularly at a news conference, and the answer is predictable. The fighter will defer to White, often with the phrase, "I'll fight whoever the boss wants."
The UFC is White's vision and clearly his company. Those in and around it know that White is unquestionably the boss.
But the fighters are independent contractors, not employees. And so Nelson, ever the contrarian, sees himself – not White – as the boss.
"In a sport like baseball, there are a few players who will stand up [and speak out against management], but they do it in, what I guess I'd say, is a politically correct way," said Nelson, who meets Stipe Miocic on June 15 at UFC 161 in Winnipeg. "They definitely can get their point across through the media. You have to remember that they're also employees. There's a big difference when you're an employee.
"When you work for yourself, the whole point of working for yourself is that you're the boss. Some people don't understand the sports business. In this business, as an athlete, you're a commodity. If you're a bartender, you can't say certain things because there are a lot of bartenders out there and you could be replaced. It's not hard to replace a bartender. If there was another Roy Nelson, OK, but there is not and so it's harder to replace the athlete. We're not a dime a dozen. Very few people can do what we can do. Very few."
Nelson got off on the wrong foot with White during his first bout on "The Ultimate Fighter." After Nelson defeated Slice, he hopped up on the cage, spied White watching and shouted the Whopper line.
Needless to say, that didn't go over well with White. And things haven't gotten better.
Asked if it is possible that with a win over Miocic that Nelson could get a title shot against the winner of the upcoming Cain Velasquez-Junior dos Santos championship match, White said, "Anything is possible."
But then he suggested that Nelson hasn't done enough to earn it yet.
"Roy loves to say I'll never give him a title shot," White said. "But dude, beat someone and then I'll give you the shot. Roy is knocking off these guys ranked six through 10, but when he gets to fighting the top five guys, he can't do the same thing. You're not going to get a title shot for beating No. 6 and No. 8. You have to beat the top guys."
While Nelson is fifth in the current UFC ratings, he's 0-3 against fighters in the Top 10, losing to No. 1 dos Santos, No. 3 Fabricio Werdum and No. 7 Frank Mir.
Nelson points out that he had a serious knee injury when he fought dos Santos, suffered a gaping cut on the forehead early in his bout with Werdum and had pneumonia when he faced Mir.
To White, all fighters fight injured and all three bouts were losses.
And so, Nelson sits in a sort of limbo, a gatekeeper to the upper reaches of the heavyweight division.
Beat Nelson and you're clearly a contender; lose to him, and you've still got a long way to go.
Nelson is used to being berated by White, and he accepts it with a shrug. It's hard to imagine he likes it, but he doesn't speak out against it.
Instead, he keeps winning and he keeps tweaking White.
"You know, I've always been at the top of the food chain," Nelson said. "What's different now is my demeanor. After having long talks with [UFC CEO] Lorenzo [Fertitta] and Dana, it's put my mind more at focus."
It's a jab, though a subtle, insider-type jab, because White has a very different recollection of those meetings with Nelson.
But White said that despite his dislike for Nelson, he'd never get in the way of giving him a title shot.
"Look, everyone knows how I feel about Roy, and everyone remembers how I felt about Tito," White said. "But I never prevented any fight for Tito from happening. If [Nelson] goes out there and beats the guys ranked head of him, then yeah, he'll get one. But he's not going to get one just by talking about it and doing whatever the hell he is trying to do. He's going to have to fight for it, just like everyone else."
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