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Roy Nelson compares Bellator World Heavyweight Grand Prix to March Madness tournament

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No stranger to tournaments, Roy Nelson was all for taking part in another one when Bellator officials came calling.

“Big Country” is one of eight fighters participating in the Bellator Heavyweight World Grand Prix that kicked off on Jan. 20 with Chael Sonnen winning a unanimous decision over Quinton Jackson at Bellator 192 to advance to the semifinals. The 41-year-old Nelson hopes to have the same success when he meets Matt Mitrione in an opening round bout this Friday at Bellator 194 in Uncasville, Conn.

On Monday, Nelson told Ariel Helwani on The MMA Hour that while his opponent might not be happy about having to go through three opponents instead of one for a chance to win the heavyweight title, he sees this as an exciting opportunity to build the Bellator fanbase. He compared the Grand Prix to the NCAA’s massively popular March Madness basketball tournament that draws in millions of viewers every year.

“The one thing I like about the Grand Prix it makes it easy for fans to follow our sport,” Nelson said. “When March comes, everybody’s good to watch college basketball because it’s March Madness and they’ve never watched college basketball all the way up until March. So the one thing I like about our Grand Prix is casual fans, hardcore MMA fans, they’re going to watch every fight because they’re gonna go, ‘Dude, okay, who’s Roy fighting next?’ or ‘That guy’s in the other bracket, if he beats him, then…’

“They can start analyzing it and then they can dictate their life around the fight versus other organizations where it’s like, ‘Well, who’s gonna fight? I know he’s the number one contender, but nobody likes him, so do they like that guy? So we’re just going to make that fight happen.’”

“This allows fans to get back into the sport,” Nelson continued. “We need the shot in the arm because MMA hasn’t had this in a while. Our sport was founded on the tournament.”

The last time Nelson fought in a tournament, it was to win a UFC contract on The Ultimate Fighter 10 back in 2009. Nelson defeated Kimbo Slice, Justin Wren, James McSweeney, and Brendan Schaub over the course of the season to claim the TUF 10 crown and went on to compete 19 times in total for the UFC. He signed with Bellator in 2017 and won a unanimous decision against Javy Ayala in his debut on Sept. 24.

Bellator’s Heavyweight Grand Prix bracket includes a few unconventional entrants, including Sonnen, a two-time UFC middleweight title challenger, and Ryan Bader, the reigning Bellator light heavyweight champion. Nelson sees these divisional interlopers as a chance for him to gain some extra (unofficial) trophies on the way to another tournament victory.

The Bellator Heavyweight World Grand Prix bracket
Bellator MMA

“If I beat Matt, Matt thinks he’s number one, so then I’ll be the Bellator heavyweight champion,” Nelson explained. “And then my next fight will be against the light heavyweight champion, so I’ll have two belts. And then I’ll have three when I win the third one, which will be the World Grand Prix.”

Nelson’s trophy case already includes a few more substantial titles, including a championship belt from the now-defunct International Fight League. To win that one, Nelson conquered a four-man tournament back in 2007, knocking off Bryan Vetell and Antoine Jaoude.

This time around, Nelson could find himself facing an awkward situation depending on how the chips fall. Bader’s opening round opponent is Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal, someone Nelson calls a “good friend”, and if Lawal can pull off the upset than it will force he and Nelson to battle for a spot in the finals.

Nelson proposed that Lawal consider bowing out of the tournament in the event that they’re matched up, though he doesn’t expect that to happen.

“To fight Mo, I’m not even worried about that because I’ve gotta get through Matt. And then Mo has to get through Ryan. And then we’ll deal with it then,” Nelson said. “I want Mo to win and then Mo go, ‘You know what, I’m a light heavyweight. I’m the light heavyweight champion, I just beat the light heavyweight champion of Bellator, I’m still the light heavyweight champion, now I’m gonna go.’ That’s what I would prefer.

“But that’s not Mo. Mo’s all about putting on a show and going out and fighting.”

As one of the Grand Prix’s four true heavyweights and one with plenty of tournament experience, Nelson has good reason to be confident in his chances. But when he was asked why he expects to come out on top, “Big Country” didn’t feel compelled to bring up his credentials or offer any sort of detailed explanation:

“I’m the favorite,” he said. “Just because I’m Roy Nelson.”