All week long, Ireland’s top MMA names have been making the media rounds to hype tomorrow’s UFC Fight Night: Dublin. It’s an exciting time, with the country welcoming home several stars to a sold-out O2 Arena.
Rising featherweight star Conor McGegor, who will appear in the main event, made a series of (typically) bold statements with Ariel Helwani on Wednesday — boasting he would win UFC gold before the year is out. “Sit back, relax,” McGregor smiled, “and watch me take over the game.”
McGregor’s coach John Kavanagh of Straight Blast Gym Dublin is, to say the least, a bit more low-key. But in his media appearance on Monday, he predicted he had another future champion from his camp: Gunnar Nelson, the undefeated Scandinavian grappler (and not the 1990’s rock star) who will fight in the UFC Fight Night: Dublin co-main.
Kavanagh believes UFC Welterweight Champion Johny Hendricks will defend against contender Rory McDonald soon, and then —
“Rory’s going to get the belt, probably within the year, and Gunni’s going to take it off him.”
Bold words. So who is this “Gunni,” or, as the rest of us call him, Gunnar Nelson?
A native of Iceland who has trained in the US as well as this new adopted home in Dublin, the 25 year old is noted as a decorated jiu-jitsu competitor, with a karate background. He has appeared on two UFC on Fuel cards and one UFC Fight Night — but with each bout in Europe on lesser shows, he’s missed the attention of American audiences. Let’s have a look now.
Nelson quickly, and calmly, made his first UFC appearance a showcase for those vaunted jiu-jitsu skills: earning a submission victory over journeyman DeMarques Johnson in short order. Against a higher caliber opponent in his next Octagon visit, Jorge Santiago, Nelson looked just as relaxed.
“He looks like he’s about to do a sparring session, and he’s fighting in front of 10,000 people,” Jon Anik quipped on commentary.
Anik’s partner on the broadcast, Kenny Florian, disagreed. “He looks like he’s about to take a nap.”
Nelson would use his karate skills well, switching stances to hit unorthodox kicks and punches — a la a methodical Lyoto Machida. An uppercut late in the third round staggered Santiago, but the veteran held on.
Nelson mixed in takedowns with fluidity as well. Once on the mat, Nelson showed excellent top pressure, landing the occasional strikes and guard passes. Santiago, like Nelson a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, had never been caught in a submission in an MMA bout — and wouldn’t be here. Unable to score something spectacular, Nelson settled for efficiency, earning a unanimous decision win.
Nelson scored another quick and dominant submission victory against Omari Akhemedov in his last UFC appearance, earning “Performance of the Night” honors. It was classic Nelson — calm and calculated from beginning to finish, exploding when ready.
But, again, it was not against a top opponent.
Nelson’s opponent tomorrow, Zac Cummings, is a late replacement due to injury, and is similarly unheralded. Coach John Kavangh wants Nelson to next fight a top ten, or even top five, opponent — and begin a serious run at the welterweight belt.
I’d like to see it too.
Nelson? For his part, regardless, one gets the feeling Nelson will be chill.
In this 2012 video from Stuart Cooper Films, Gunni expresses what may set him apart:
“It’s easy to calm myself. A lot of people, I look at them and they’re stressed — a lot of things going on in their minds at the same time. It’s easy for me to not think of anything.”
Is he a champion in the making? Time will tell. But Gunni’s unique approach certainly makes him one to watch.