Gunnar Nelson. A mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a gi that will choke you out or bend parts of you in directions that they weren’t made to go. And all without changing expression.
He hails from Iceland but there are no Viking berserker rages from this young man - I’ve literally gone through more facial contortions while choosing a brand of coffee in the supermarket than Nelson displayed in his UFC debut fight against DaMarques Johnson.
Impassive, zen-like, Nelson folds over his opponent with the cold inevitability of a northern winter. I went to a seminar of his a few months ago in Manchester and heard him say that in his opinion, people do too much grunting and face-pulling in training than he feels is necessary. Its a waste of energy, he says.
That may be so, but most of us don’t possess the inhuman skill levels he does nor the inhuman calm. Where experienced veterans like Matt Wiman have confessed to going to bits backstage despite multiple UFC appearances, Nelson’s take on his debut is largely that its the same as fighting anywhere else, but bigger.
Does he feel any pressure at all then, this Icelandic welterweight Fedor?
“Yeah you always feel a small bit of pressure. Its mostly the pressure you put on yourself. I don’t feel too much difference in pressure between the UFC and other fights but its definitely very exciting. Everything is bigger and there is more going on, I guess this is where its at and I am very happy to be part of it,” he says, absolutely deadpan.
An emotional fighter he may not be, but he has legions of fans already. In Nottingham they comprised English MMA fans who know him from the UK scene, jiu jitsu aficionados who know his exploits on the mat - and a load of Icelandic lunatics who seemed charged with the duty of being extrovert on Nelson’s behalf. By the standards of UK crowds, always noisy, the Iceland contingent did themselves proud.
“I heard a big cheer, I guess a lot of people from Iceland were here and I fought in the English MMA scene before so I have a few fans here. That feels good, I am glad people like what I am doing,“ Nelson recalls/.
“I am not sure about an accurate number [of fans from Iceland] but I think they flew two full airplanes here so maybe two, three hundred people. There were at least fifty people from my club Mjolnir, the club organised the trip, and there was a lot of people just went on their own. Its good; its definitely good that people support you.”
Nelson’s debut could not have been more auspicious. True, the lead up left something to be desired - original opponent Pascal Krauss pulled out, followed by replacement Rich Attonito. Then Johnson stepped in on a week’s notice - and promptly missed weight by a country mile, leaving Gunnar fighting basically a middleweight.
He was unruffled though, and made short work of the American. A lot of people know Nelson’s BJJ achievements but they don’t know he was also karate champion of Iceland for three years running. And so when he took a karate stance, hands low, there was some confusion in the crowd. Moments later that turned to awe as Nelson nearly took Johnson out with a head-kick from nowhere.
But its the floor that Nelson calls home and when he got Johnson there, it looked like a moment of irony was about to strike. Johnson, an able grappler who trains under Jeremy Horn, was able to lock up a tight-looking omaplata from the bottom. Imagine the gall if Nelson was submitted when it was he who tipped to do the submitting?
It was nothing to Nelson though, at least outwardly. Wearing a quizzical expression he half-turned this way and that before hopping over Johnson, negating the hold and taking top side control. From there he moved to mount, back-mount and body-triangle on the way to an RNC win. The victory was impressive, but it was his total lack of concern in Johnson’s omaplata that got me. He looked like someone doing an enjoyable puzzle.
“That’s what fighting is. You have to solve that puzzle that’s in front of you and be in that state of mind where you can react very quick because you might not have too much time to solve the puzzle,” he concurs.
“When he got me in the omaplata he did good, he was strong on the ground and he moved well, he didn’t freeze up like some people do on the ground I was able to get out of that and get the side-control and… that’s pretty much all I remember. I don’t remember how the fight was exactly now.
“I will have to watch it, because sometimes when you fight you don’t really remember what happened. You’re in a special state of mind, I guess.”