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UFC 159:

From timid striker to knockout brute, Roy Nelson hopes to stay on tear at UFC 159

Nelson trails only former champions for most knockouts in heavyweight history

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Roy Nelson hits Mike Mitrione with a right during their bout at “The Ultimate Fighter 16” Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012, at the Joint in the Hard Rock Hotel. Nelson won by knockout.

'The Ultimate Fighter 16' Finale

Roy Nelson salutes the crowd after knocking out Mike Mitrione during their bout at Launch slideshow »

For the first three years Roy Nelson was a professional fighter, he never trained in boxing or hit any type of punching bag.

The Las Vegas native, and Cimarron-Memorial graduate, said he found striking unnecessary for mixed martial arts. He could rely on his wrestling background to take opponents down to the mat and on his black belt-level Brazilian jiu-jitsu to submit them once there.

It wasn’t until the 36-year-old’s eighth fight, when he scored a first-round TKO victory over Vince Lucero at an International Fight League event, that he realized he possessed some natural power.

“Such a fluke,” Nelson said. “I was just throwing punches and happened to knock somebody out. I just realized then that it was easier to knock somebody out than to take them down.”

“Big Country” hasn’t stopped since. He has compiled 16 wins by stoppage in his career — the first five were by submission and the last 11 were via knockout.

All five of his victories in the UFC have come by knockout. He’s two away from tying the heavyweight record for knockouts, according to UFC.com.

It’s created quite an aura around Nelson (18-7 MMA, 5-3 UFC) as he heads into Saturday’s UFC 159 bout against Cheick Kongo (18-7-2 MMA, 11-5-2 UFC) in Newark, N.J.

“When I saw the guy, I was like, ‘Damn, I have to face that guy? That’s not fair,’” Kongo said.

Kongo was surprised by Nelson’s strength when he spent two days watching tapes of his opponent’s fights. Kongo, who is tied for the second most wins in the history of the heavyweight division with 11, said he hadn’t followed Nelson’s career much aside from reading results after fight cards.

If Kongo started his studying with Nelson’s most recent outings, his frightened reaction makes sense.

Nelson snapped a skid that saw him lose three of four fights with two straight first-round finishes in 2012. He doomed Matt Mitrione with a combination at “The Ultimate Fighter 16" finale last December, seven months after putting Dave Herman out cold 51 seconds into a UFC 146 bout.

“I threw three punches, so I think that was probably the cleanest knockout out of all the fights I’ve had,” Nelson said of the Herman meeting. “But there’s not a favorite in particular. If I can just go in there and throw one punch, then I’d be happy with that.”

The days of Nelson flinging uncalculated haymakers, hoping to connect, though, are over. He ditched his embargo on working on his striking shortly after his first knockout.

Now, Nelson supplements his regular training regimen with workouts at Mayweather Boxing Club. He’s worked frequently with Jeff Mayweather, Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s uncle, over the past year.

“They are trying to make me fight like a man and learn a lot of science,” Nelson said.

“I’ve always been a procrastinator. I used to always try to train as late as possible, but now I’m training a little bit more and it makes things a lot easier.”

Nelson laughed and called himself lazy earlier in his career because, “as a heavyweight, you want to win the easiest way possible.” While Kongo talked up his opponent like he was a monster on the other side of a room in Madison Square Garden on Thursday, Nelson spent the media session in his usual jovial mood.

He joked about fighting outside of Las Vegas for the first time in three years, or five bouts, while the UFC continues its push to get MMA legalized in New York.

“The UFC is trying to bring the New York fans over, so the only way to get them is to bring me around,” Nelson said. “Sooner or later, I’m going to make the difference. Me fighting here is definitely going to be what makes them say, ‘They can actually bring money here.’”

The smirk will fade off of Nelson’s face when he enters the octagon to face Kongo on Saturday — even if it’s just for a few minutes. With his ever-developing striking, it’s difficult to count on a fight lasting much longer than that.

“At the end of the day, everybody asks me what kind of legacy I want to leave, and I want to be exciting,” Nelson said. “People ask me if I’m ever going to use my jiu-jitsu. And I’m like, ‘If you knock somebody out, the fans love the knockout more than jiu-jitsu,’ so I’m just trying to give the fans what they want to see.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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