When Georges St-Pierre vacated his title and announced he was taking a sabbatical from the sport of mixed martial arts, the UFC welterweight division immediately became the most compelling and intriguing weight class in the organization.
Historically one of the most deep and competitive divisions in the sport, the fighters in the mix to potentially follow the Canadian atop the division are obvious, starting with the men that will battle for the vacant title later this month at UFC 171, Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler.
In addition to the upcoming title combatants, others like Carlos Condit and Tyron Woodley, Rory MacDonald and Jake Ellenberger, Tarec Saffiedine and Matt Brown are all jockeying for position, vying for a place at the top of the list of potential title challengers. There are veterans and dark horses on the periphery, fighters that are a couple wins and a few favorable breaks away from being “in the mix” in this wide open division.
Hovering just below the radar is Gunnar Nelson.
Heralded as one of the top prospects in the sport prior to his arrival on the big stage, the unbeaten 25-year-old from Iceland has already validated his advanced billing, earning a pair of victories over veterans DaMarques Johnson and Jorge Santiago in his first two trips into the Octagon.
Unfortunately, injuries have stalled the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt’s progress, keeping him sidelined since defeating Santiago last February.
Saturday night, Nelson returns to the cage, squaring off with 13-1 powerhouse Omari Akhmedov in the opening bout of this weekend’s UFC Fight Night card at the O2 Arena in London. Though he favors allowing his performances to speak for him, the stoic Nordic standout knows the opportunity is there to add a couple more victories to his current unbeaten run and put himself in the middle of the title conversation in the wide open welterweight division.
“Since Georges retired, it’s maybe fewer fights to get a title shot because there are so many guys right up there. St-Pierre was a champion for a really long time - and he was a really good champion - but now there is going to be a new champion, and there are a lot of guys right up there. Maybe it would be easier to close in on a title shot now than when Georges was here.”
While some fighters go a little stir crazy sitting on the sidelines, that wasn’t the case with the returning welterweight, though he’s happy to be returning to action this weekend.
“The rehab went pretty well,” admits Nelson. “I was away from the gym for a while because of the injury that I had and rehab, and I had to concentrate on other things because I couldn’t train, but it hasn’t been too difficult. I have lots of things to do here with my friends and family, so it hasn’t been bad. But it’s better to be back, definitely.”
Nelson’s rise as a prospect was fueled by his success in the grappling world. In 2009, he earned medals at the Mundials and the Pan American Games, and garnered a fourth place finish in the Absolute division of the ADCC Submission Wrestling World Championships, surprising many by beating Jeff Monson and David Avellan along the way.
That success has led to Nelson being classified as a grappler, and while his pedigree on the mat is proven, there is much more to the undefeated emerging talent than his submission skills.
“I’ve been known for my ground game, but when I started training, I was a striker - I came from karate and I had done a bit of kickboxing. I was always a lot better on the feet and very bad on the ground. I started training on the ground and that just took off - I fell in love with it.
“I got a lot better on the ground than I was on the feet, and now I feel like it has swapped again a little bit - my interest has gone more into striking, and I think that’s just where it’s needed. I’ve been concentrating more on my striking than my grappling. I think that’s a natural thing to go back and forth like that.”
In addition to going back and forth between disciplines, the talented welterweight spends time shuttling between various training camps as well. While he spends most of his time working out of his home gym in Reykjavik, Mjolnir, Nelson has always made a point of spending time at different gyms as well, including the Renzo Gracie Academy in New York City and John Kavanagh’s Straight Blast Gym in Dublin.
“It’s been a huge thing for me to be able to go to Dublin to John’s and train with all them guys, as well as going to New York to train at Renzo Gracie’s to train with all the guys there. When I was younger, I went to Hawaii for a while, and I was spending a lot of time with my trainer Karl Tanswell in Manchester as well. Every little thing like this has really added something to my perspective and my game.
“Now, I spend a lot more time at home, but I do these little trips. I’ve mainly been going to Dublin or New York now, and it always helps - do a couple of weeks or a month somewhere else, get some different sparring partners, get different feedback. Mixing it up opens your mind up again and helps you grow.”
Saturday night, Nelson will look to showcase his continued development and begin what he hopes will be a busy and successful year inside the Octagon, but he’s facing a tough task in the 26-year-old Akhmedov.
One of the many new arrivals on the UFC roster from Dagestan, the International Master of Sport in Combat Sambo earned Fight of the Night honors in his organizational debut, a back-and-forth affair contested at middleweight that ended with Akhmedov felling Thiago Perpetuo.
Riding an 11-fight winning streak, Akhmedov is a proven finisher, having only gone to the scorecards twice in his career. Though he boasts a handful of submission wins, it’s his power that stands out to Nelson, though the Icelandic competitor admits his focus is never on what his opponents bring to the cage.
“I’m not particularly looking at specific opponents or specific fights - it’s more situations that I feel I should get better at and that interest me and that I think are high percentage; something I want to work on or add to my game. When we’re looking at opponents, we just look at them quickly, do a rough analysis: how they move their body, are they power-based or endurance-based, how they work their body?
“You never really know until you get in the cage, and I like the idea of going in there and being able to figure out what to do and overcome while I’m in the cage - not to pretend that you’re all that prepared for this.”
And that’s exactly the approach he’s looking to employ Saturday night in London against Akhmedov.
“He’s a very powerful guy - he lets you have it. He swings and he brings it. He’s got power. He goes for his moves, but like everybody, there are holes in there that you can capitalize on.
“And like I said before, I’ll be in there, I’ll adapt, I’ll react, and I believe I’ll get the win, as always.”
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Gunnar Nelson: Adapt, React, Win
"I’ll be in there, I’ll adapt, I’ll react, and I believe I’ll get the win, as always." - Gunnar Nelson