Sherdog Prospect Watch: Gunnar Nelson

By Karl Maple Feb 23, 2010
It is what one would expect of a 21-year-old’s hotel room.

The bed is unmade. On the floor, a medium-sized suitcase rests unzipped with clothes spilling out onto surrounding chairs and fixtures. The window is open, the television muted. A hospital-based sitcom plays silently. In the corner of the room, a portable heater hums incessantly. Next to the suitcase, an open laptop emits the dull light of a standby setting. Gunnar Nelson sits cross-legged, his hair ruffled as if only recently awake, more relaxed than disinterested.

Nelson will not be 22 until July, yet the prodigious Icelandic talent already possesses a litany of accolades admirable in grapplers of any age.

He holds a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu under Renzo Gracie and placed fourth in the absolute division at the 2009 Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships. Nelson also took gold in the 2009 Pan American Championships -- both Gi and non-Gi -- and silver in the brown belt middleweight division at the 2009 Mundials. An impressive, brisk dispatching of the previously unbeaten Sam Elsdon at a British Association of Mixed Martial Arts event on Feb. 13 in London moved his MMA record to 6-0-1. All at an age when most have trouble renting a car.

Nelson’s start in combat came at 13, when he enrolled in a local karate class.

“My dad didn’t let me start until then,” he says.

His progression was swift.

“I did karate for about four years, and, after two, I moved onto Kumite (points sparring),” Nelson says. “I represented the international team for about one and a half years before a friend introduced me to grappling.”

It would prove a pivotal moment for the teen-aged Nelson, who quickly found his passion for karate displaced by a desire to learn the intricacies of the gentle art.

“I fell in love with jiu-jitsu very early,” he says. “I just started focusing on that, and my mind couldn’t concentrate on anything else. I think that’s why I progressed pretty fast. I would train with my friend like once a week, rolling around trying to get each other in headlocks. We didn’t know much, and, gradually, we started doing more of that and less of karate.”

Indeed, it was not long before Nelson stopped karate altogether, turning down a national scholarship in the sport to focus on jiu-jitsu -- a decision merited in full after a chance meeting with Gracie, a grappling and MMA legend.

“He came to Iceland about a year and a half ago for a seminar, and I trained with him there,” Nelson says. “He invited me to come and train with him in New York. I’ve been there like three or four times since, three months at a time. I’ll be going to New York at the beginning of March to help Renzo and the team prepare for their fights.”

Nelson speaks with a laconic American lilt, indicative of his calm personality and prolonged periods of training with both Gracie in New York and UFC lightweight champion B.J. Penn in Hilo, Hawaii -- an experience that made quite the impression on the young Icelander.

“I stayed over for three months and had a great time,” Nelson says. “Hawaii is amazing. They’ve got a great team over there. B.J., of course, is amazing, and his brothers … they’re all very, very good jiu-jitsu players. It’s very tough; they really know how to fight in Hawaii.”

With a formative experience in competitive karate and prodigious aptitude for grappling, the transition to MMA seemed a natural fit for Nelson, who took his first fight in May 2007 against Danish fighter John Olesen. That bout ended in a draw, but Nelson enjoyed the experience enough to know he had found a potential career path.

“It’s never easy when you start something, but after my first fight, I knew that I would want to do it again and again and again,” Nelson says. “I love striking. I love everything about MMA. I love to punch, I love to get the guy to the ground and I love to control him.”

After registering victories in his next five fights, Nelson decided to take a year off from MMA and return his focus to grappling. Placements and titles the world over followed, culminating in a fourth-place finish in the ADCC absolute division and the match that defines Nelson’s short career in combat to date.

As grainy amateur footage and photography leaked from the final day of the tournament in Barcelona, Spain, an enduring image emerged of one-time UFC heavyweight title contender and former ADCC divisional winner Jeff Monson hunched over, his knees on the mat, his tattooed arms rigid to the floor, his back controlled by a small, blonde fighter in a soaked-through rash guard. Nelson went on to win on points after a double period of overtime. The lightest man in the division had defeated the heaviest. It was a marquee moment for Nelson, and yet, if not for a serendipitous strand of affirmative action, it may never have happened.

“I wasn’t supposed to fight at the absolute because I lost my first match in my weight category, but I think they wanted as many different nationalities competing in it as possible,” he says. “The next day, when they announced who was fighting, I heard my name and I was overwhelmed. I was so happy. Maybe an hour later, I fought Jeff Monson. This hour was just me getting ready, getting a game plan against the bigger, stronger guy. It was difficult because you don’t have guys like that in every gym you go to, with that body type.

“I felt good though,” Nelson adds. “I knew that I could get him, that I could get control. I got his back in the end. I was doing pretty good in the first period of the fight. Then there were overtimes, before I won on points. He seemed tired in the beginning, but he just seemed to stay the same pace through the whole fight. It was a good match. I enjoyed that match.”

With his thirst for submission fighting seemingly sated for the time being, Nelson appears ready to devote his efforts to MMA.

“I think it will be all MMA from now on,” he says. “I’m pretty sure of that.”

The Nordic prospect looks to one of the greatest fighters of all-time for inspiration.

“I really like Fedor Emelianenko,” Nelson says. “It’s not possible not to like him. I’ve always watched him since I started watching MMA. I’ve always liked his style, and I like the way that he’s a normal guy. He likes to keep it quiet; he doesn’t get caught up in all the publicity. I don’t mind guys that do that if that’s what they want to do, but I’m more of an easy-going guy. I like the countryside, something easy. That’s why I like the way he does things.”

Nelson certainly appears to share the pervading tranquillity of his idol, and with a strong support network around him, including his father and manager, Haraldur, at his side, Nelson seems keen to perfect his craft and bide his time.

“I’m not in a hurry; I don’t want to get tied up,” Nelson says. “I want to be free and travel and do smaller competitions. If I want to do freestyle wrestling competitions, I’d like to do that. I like to be free for a little bit. I don’t have any schedule, but I definitely see myself in the UFC or Strikeforce or other big shows in the future.”

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