Gunnar Nelson has shown few weaknesses. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday returns to Stockholm with a solid if not outstanding offering on its UFC Fight Pass platform. This is effectively the median UFC Fight Past card, with a mixture of debutantes, up-and-coming prospects and a few established, ranked fighters.
Iceland’s Gunnar Nelson looks to continue his undefeated career with a fifth consecutive UFC victory, but he faces a stiff challenge in the form of perennial top-15 welterweight and all-around bruiser Rick Story. Lanky, tireless striking impresario Max Holloway faces off with brawler Akira Corassani in the co-main event, while Niklas Backstrom, Ilir Latifi and Nico Musoke attempt to carry the banner for Swedish fighters further up the ladders of their respective divisions.
Let us take a look at each UFC Fight Night “Nelson vs. Story” matchup:
WELTERWEIGHTSGunnar Nelson (13-0-1, 4-0 UFC) vs. Rick Story (17-8, 10-6 UFC)
THE MATCHUP: Icelandic prodigy Nelson returns to action against longtime welterweight staple Story in a huge test for the rising fighter. Nelson has won four straight since debuting in the UFC, with the most recent victory coming over Zak Cummings in July. Story has alternated wins and losses over his six outings, with a tapout to Demian Maia and contentious split decision losses to Mike Pyle and Kelvin Gastelum balanced out by victories over Quinn Mulhern, Brian Ebersole and Leonardo Mafra Texeira. A win here would signal that Nelson is ready for a top-10 opponent, while Story could bring himself back into that conversation with a victory.
I termed Nelson a prodigy deliberately. He was a karate competitor as a youth, had a successful grappling career that culminated in an Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships run in 2009 and has made his way into the top 15 of one of MMA’s most stacked divisions at age 26. Any one of these would be an enormous accomplishment, and Nelson has done all of them with breathtaking ease.
Nelson’s work at range retains that unorthodox karate style. He switches stances frequently, takes a wide, narrow base and stays very light on his feet, which allows him to cover distance quickly. His straight punches from either stance are lightning-fast and powerful, and he throws his kicks quickly and without telegraphing them. Nelson’s clean technique in the clinch makes him difficult to control despite his lack of bulk relative to the division, and he throws sharp knees. Although he has no formal wrestling background, Nelson boasts an explosive, well-timed shot and a variety of chained finishes to his takedowns. He beautifully integrates that wrestling game with his world-class grappling, often following a takedown directly with a guard pass. Patient and efficient on the ground, few opponents can stop Nelson’s positional advancements and withstand the accurate stream of ground strikes with which he precedes the inevitable submission attempt.
Story, on the other hand, is a much more orthodox fighter. His absurd strength renders more effective his preferred game of physical clinch work, takedowns and combination punching. Few fighters in MMA display as much dedication to body shots as Story, whose basic approach consists of ripping rights and lefts to the torso like Rocky Balboa in a meat locker. His aggressiveness makes him fairly hittable, however, and he seems to accept as a given that he will eat some shots in the course of working his way into a phone booth. That willingness to engage usually brings Story to his bread and butter -- the clinch. He excels at controlling even the biggest and strongest welterweights against the cage, grinding away with knees to the body, constant head pressure and the occasional takedown attempt. Top-position grappling is a strength for Story, though he is not a particularly slick ground specialist.
BETTING ODDS: Nelson (-325), Story (+265)
THE PICK: This shapes up as an intriguing matchup. Nelson is and should be the favorite, though that price seems fairly high to me. Story has a distinct path to victory based on pushing the Icelander to the fence, outworking him with combinations and controlling him in the clinch. The more likely outcome, however, involves Nelson keeping the fight in the center of the cage and avoiding Story’s bull-rushes. The American’s defensive wrestling is not impenetrable, and in open space, the quickness of Nelson’s shot gives him a good chance at snagging the takedown. If the fight does go to the ground, and I think it will, Story does not have a prayer of shutting down Nelson’s top game. The pick is Nelson by submission in round three or four.
Next Fight » Max Holloway vs. Akira Corassani