Gunning for the Top

By Yael Grauer Mar 6, 2014
Gunnar Nelson owns nine first-round finishes. | Photo: Dave Mandel/

Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight Gunnar Nelson may be best known for his grappling -- seven of his 11 wins have come by first-round submission -- but before he began honing his potent ground game and prior to his move to MMA, the highly touted prospect was a karateka, training in Okinawan goju-ryu and kumite, or point sparring.

When he transitioned to MMA, Nelson continued training in karate, even competing with the national team in Iceland. He was eventually offered a karate scholarship but declined it.

“I just knew I wasn’t going to be doing that,” Nelson said. “I’d already fallen in love with MMA and jiu-jitsu and all that, so I turned it down; I just knew that it wouldn’t have been right and I wasn’t going to be training karate anymore or using that money for what they intended it to.”

Nelson trains at local gym Mjolnir and Straight Blast Gym Ireland. Straight Blast Gym International President Matt Thornton has been vocally critical of traditional martial arts since the early 1990s. While Nelson shares the sentiment, he did not dismiss karate as a discipline altogether and pointed out that Kyokushin kaikan includes full-contact sparring.

“I do think that most people that train karate aren’t doing it right and that 90 percent of the people training in traditional martial arts might be wasting their time if they want to be better at fighting and self-defense,” he said. “Karate itself is a great art if you do it right, but you have to train it the way we train MMA and jiu-jitsu. You have to train it alive. You have to spar and do drills. Some guys in different styles train well, but I think mostly it’s just dead patterns.”

Even before he found MMA, Nelson expected a career in sports all along.

“To be honest, I always kind of knew I’d be a professional athlete,” he said. “That was always my goal. I knew I wanted to spend so much time on it that it’d have to be my profession. When I started training MMA, I knew right away that that was what I’d been after. Karate wasn’t quite it for me, but MMA was.”

Nelson quit school at age 18 and began working at a geothermal company, along with some construction and landscaping, to earn money to travel and train. The ground game was his most glaring weakness, so he jumped headfirst into improving those skills, training in Hawaii and at Renzo Gracie’s academy in New York before competing internationally. Before long, Nelson turned to MMA. Although Nelson still includes some travel in his training -- he and Straight Blast Gym Ireland coach John Kavanaugh travel to each other’s gyms -- he now does the majority of his training in Iceland.

“It used to be the other way around,” Nelson said. “I’d go abroad, come home for a couple weeks and then go to U.K. or Ireland or New York. Now I’m mostly at home.”

Although his gym does not utilize an MMA coach, it does offer Nelson access to boxing and kickboxing trainers that help him sharpen his striking skills.

“I do love home, and that is the reason I stay,” Nelson said. “It’s a beautiful country; there’s no doubt. It’s popular for tourists, especially in the summer. Even in the winter now, I notice there’s a lot of foreigners, so I guess they’re starting to notice. Word is getting out. The main thing I notice when I get out of the airport coming home is the air. The air is just different here from anywhere else I’ve been. It’s so fresh, and there’s just something in the air that just fills you with joy. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s just, for me, home.”

Nelson will put his unbeaten record and 11-fight winning streak on the line when he faces Dagestani prospect Omari Akhmedov at UFC Fight Night 38 on Saturday at the O2 Arena in London. The 26-year-old Akhmedov has finished his last nine opponents in the first round.

“He looks very powerful,” Nelson said. “He’s probably going to be a bit heavier than me; he’s probably going to be a little bit slow. He uses a lot of force.”

Nelson, who has not fought in more than a year, defeated “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 9 finalist DaMarques Johnson and former Sengoku champion Jorge Santiago in his first two Octagon appearances. The 25-year-old Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt tries not to put too much stock into who is on the other side of the cage.

“I never really get too attached to my opponents because I don’t get ready for them,” Nelson said. “I just get myself ready, and it doesn’t really matter who my opponent is, if he’s this way or that way, because I try to get myself as ready as I can be and work on everything I need to be working on at the time. Then when you get in the cage, it doesn’t really matter. When you get in there, that’s when you start realizing and figuring out what way he moves and what you have to do to overcome.”

Nelson prefers to adjust as a fight progresses.

“I’ll change the game plan when I get in there and when I feel how he moves,” he said. “I change what I do all the time and do what suits each situation, but it always is better if you’re able to trust yourself and trust your instinct and react instead of fighting too much with your mind. You have to use your mind every now and then to make things simpler; never complicate things with your mind like people do a lot. You have to make it a little bit simpler and be smart, and then you have to react and trust your reactions.

“That’s why we train and that’s why it’s so important that you work on everything and work on your weaknesses and work on yourself, not for your opponents [but] for the big picture [and] not just for this one fight,” Nelson added. “The more time you spend training, the easier it will be when you get in there to figure out what the situation is that you’re in and then overcome it.”


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