Despite having spent over six years in the UFC, do not for one second make the mistake of thinking that Gunnar Nelson’s elite-level potential is by any means beyond him.
That potential should be clear to those who have followed Gunni’s career up to this point but as his 8-3 UFC record would indicate, all has not proceeded as smoothly as he perhaps would have hoped.
With that being said, the circumstances that led to each of his three career losses make things a bit easier to understand.
Nelson’s time spent within the world of the martial arts has been far more impressive than most realise. Training Brazilian jiu-jitsu with John Kavanagh and later under the famed Renzo Gracie, Gunnar stood out from his earliest days – taking just four years to reach black-belt status.
When you consider that most train for over twice that amount of time to do the same, it’s no wonder that at 21, this guy was one of Europe’s youngest black-belts.
Nelson is undoubtedly one of the most underrated guys in the sport today.
A potent finisher who has scored the stoppage in 16 of his 17 victories – only a split decision loss to Rick Story in his first five-rounder, a decision defeat to the legendary grappler Demian Maia, and a blatant series of eye-pokes that led to him being TKO’d by Santiago Ponzinibbio have set him back so far.
WOW Ponzinibbio fingers are knuckle deep into Nelson's eye sockets pic.twitter.com/6I8IPKff7z
— Johnny Villegas 💯 (@LatinBullBoxing) July 17, 2017
All of his defeats (with the exception of the Ponzinibbio fight) were necessary for Gunni’s growth and while he has certainly lost some of the hype he had when he came into the UFC – those in the know are very excited to see his name on the UFC London main-card this weekend.
That 94.1% finishing rate comes not only as a result of his slick work on the ground, though.
As a decorated karateka in his home-country of Iceland during his teenage years, his style in MMA is almost Lyoto Machida-esque in its darting movements and in his matchups against Alan Jouban and Santiago Ponzinnibio, Gunnar was able to stun both on the feet.
In the case of Jouban, the gullotine submission finish came shortly after he managed to land a beautiful right-hand and head-kick.
As for Ponzinibbio, it’s hard to know what would have happened if the Argentine hadn’t poked him in the eye but before things got murky, make no mistake, it was Gunni who had landed the harder shot first.
I spoke to Nelson just prior to his violent second-round TKO finish of Alex Oliveira at UFC 231 and in that interview, he explained to me how his pre-fight camp had seen him place a newfound focus on strength and conditioning for the first time.
“We’ve had a new conditioning coach for the last three months and I think that he is phenomenal – I’ve been training with him about two or three times a week and it’s really paying off.
“I think it’s mostly that, three months of doing strength and conditioning in training which I have never done before. I’ve done conditioning for my fights but not for this long and not at this level, not these kinds of sessions.
“One of the big differences as well is that I’m doing some weight-lifting, which I’ve really never done before. As well as keeping my diet very well and training very hard.
“This is the beginning of it you know. I’m going to start the proper climb now and get up there, fast.”
The skills are there for Nelson. They always have been and his record as a finisher is undeniable at this stage.
All we need to see at this point from this powerful Icelandic warrior is the big-name wins to back it up.
Who knows how things would have played out in his career had his UFC Glasgow showdown with Santiago Ponzinibbio back in July of 2017 gone his way but now, with an opponent of Leon Edwards’ quality in front of him – the promise of an elite-level test is there for the winner.
Edwards is certainly the man in-form this time around, coming in with a six-fight win-streak and wins over the likes of Donald Cerrone, Vicente Luque, Bryan Barbarena.
Considering the competitive nature of Nelson’s last outing against Cowboy Oliveira – it’s a fitting test for his current standing at 170lbs – one that should shoot him right into the top-10 if he can pull off the win.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena