Everybody has those fighters they just can’t help but have an affinity towards. Be it reasons of style, personality or success, there are athletes out there that we just feel aligned with in a sense; we’re compelled to watch and support them because we appreciate what they do.
For me, one of those is Gunnar Nelson, Iceland’s prodigal son of the combat world. Some of it stems from spells of watching him train when I was a student at SBG Manchester around eight years ago and the fact that, even though he was a nightmare on the mats then, he was always very humble and softly spoken, totally eager to learn. His ‘first in the gym and last out of it’ work ethic really resonated. People thought his ascension through the BJJ ranks was fast, but they didn’t see the hours that got him there, constantly refining and asking questions, not content with just being a part of a class but also drilling after every single one too.
I very rarely got the chance to actually train with Gunnar as I was still a relative newcomer back then and he was operating with the guys that were much more skilled than myself, but on the couple of occasions I did, I’ll always remember the feeling he imposed; one of sinking further into the quicksand whilst flailing inefficiently to no effect. All the while he moved stealthily and with fluidity, with nothing seeming like it took any effort at all.
Regardless of whether I’d seen some of the inner workings or not, I would have been a fan of his style. Even after I’d moved away from Manchester after university I kept tabs on his fights in the UK and Europe before he took a hiatus to focus on grappling. He travelled the world to train with many elite coaches and became a black belt under Renzo Gracie. In that time he also became somewhat of a cult figure in the BJJ community for his demeanour as well as his skills.
Nobody will forget him sat cross-legged on the tatami in front of John Kavanagh without a care in the world, before being called up to fight a heavyweight Jeff Monson at ADCC. He was summoned abruptly but you’d never have known as he proceeded to beat the former champion – who is an elite grappler in his own right – despite giving up huge amounts of weight and experience.
Although his laid-back, enigmatic character makes him hard to dislike, it was never really the reason I was intrigued to keep watching him. It was the nuanced movement that really encapsulated me. Things that looked so easy and basic were actually advanced way beyond my comprehension at the time. Someone once told me a while after, “the advanced stuff IS the basics,” which helped me connect the dots.
While a new guy is riveted by the accumulation of techniques, Gunnar did very few things, but did them perfectly. It’s the subtleties that don’t get millions on YouTube views, but evidently they do make you an elite level competitor. Tiny details of postures, pressures and timing. He sliced through guards like a hot knife through butter and controlled from the top with indomitable, awe-inspiring ease.
Though he was given his black belt from Renzo, this was a living, breathing (and fighting) show of the SBG ethos. He had been graded under them to brown belt and is a mainstay with them to this day. If ever you’d see them point to a fighter and say “this is it SBG BJJ”, I’m convinced it would be him. Every successful Brazilian Jiu Jitsu lineage has reliance on the fundamentals of course, but Nelson’s output was perfectly consistent with how he’d been coached.
His game is still built on these fundamentals. He still manages to control and submit people (I say people, I mean high-level UFC fighters) whilst making it look like he could be sat at home watching inane soaps on the television – I’m sure they have those in Iceland too. Therefore I’m still fascinated by his movement, and that’s why I’ve picked some of my favourite in cage performances from him that really highlight both his BJJ prowess and the constant refining of all-round technique.
Gunni was preparing for this fight in Manchester in 2007 and this was how I was first made aware of him. It seemed like a formality to hear the result as a victory via ground and pound. The thing was, you see pitter patter ground and pound finishes in rundown leisure centres all over the UK every weekend, but this wasn’t a pitter patter ground and pound finish. After breezing to the mount, it was the hip pressure of Nelson that gave Mairs absolutely no hope of escape. Usually having your hips so heavy so as to immobilise your opponent means you’re in a situation where it’s hard to get the posture to strike with real power. Not the case here. The shots were calculated and precise whilst dropping like Thor’s hammer, as clinical a ground a pound finish as I’ve probably still seen to this day.
This was one of the real ‘coming out party’ moments for Gunnar. Fadiora was an undefeated 9-0 with victories over highly touted opponents such as Bradley Scott and Danny Mitchell, who would both go on to fight in the UFC. Nelson was also undefeated at 7-0-1 and both had been tearing through their respective opposition. People knew Nelson was talented, but this was seen at the time as a very significant test. This is not to take any credit away from Fadiora who has had much success since, but the fight panned out as straight-forward as all of the others. Nelson timing to close the distance, Nelson controlling with a ridiculously tight top game, and then Nelson squeezing the life out of someone. When you watch him move it’s almost like he was built to throttle in close quarters. In reality it took years of concerted effort and purposeful practice, but it’s hard to ever imagine him struggling, he applies himself that well.
On an historic night in Dublin, Nelson was revered by a nation that have long since adopted him as one of their own. The major thing about this performance for me was the ease with which Gunnar seemed to be able to switch gears to take the finish when it presented itself. Being honest, it was an unremarkable performance up until that point. Not a bad one, but Cummings hustled well and tried to work things in the clinch whilst Nelson looked comfortable in the striking range. It was so-so. It seemed as though the Icelandic man was coasting, waiting. When Cummings grabbed a kick and latched onto the single leg, he had started to dig his own grave. Nelson got the snap down and transitioned to a punishing back control within seconds. Whilst things were fairly neutral before, here Cummings had nothing to offer. After a few shots the choke came in and sealed the deal. It looked like he could have done it at any point, and when you make something so hard to do (like submitting Cummings who was 2-0 in the UFC and 17-3 overall) look so routine, there’s a skillset anyone in the world should fear.
This was the combination and transition between ranges that made it so sweet, and the fact that Nelson was repeatedly told that he would only stand a chance if he could get it to the ground. Some doubted whether his wrestling would be enough against the bigger man in Thatch. It turns out he didn’t need it. We’ve seen his striking before but it was almost referred to as an oddity or a token gesture despite him dropping several opponents. “Ah, his karate, isn’t it novel.” It’s not just novel, it’s been adapted to be precise and concussive. Nobody was expecting him to drop Thatch to the mat with punches, but from there everybody knew what was coming. Very few people in the world could survive with Nelson on the ground at their best, let alone with their brain scrambled from his fists. The left-right followed by the classic Nelson mount and knee-ride pressure opened up the back, and from there he did what he does best. He controls you, submits you, and then strolls off like he’s wondering whether there’s any milk in the fridge.
Really you could pick moments from any Gunnar Nelson fight and show them to a novice with the idea of highlighting beautiful, effective simplicity, but they’d probably rather toy with the more exotic offerings of grappling training. Eventually though you reach a point of wittling down and dealing with the concepts. Posture, pressure and timing. That’s everything, and that’s Nelson’s game.
Nelson is supported by Tenacity Europe, who you can find via their official UK distributors at www.FightstorePro.com.