UFC's Gunnar Nelson a quiet phenom marked for glory

Martin McNeil, SB Nation

As a child, Gunnar Nelson wanted to try martial arts, interested as he was in Bruce Lee. His father Haraldur said no. This came as a bit of a surprise decision from a man who had sat there alongside the boy and watched the movies with him, a man who himself had studied karate and kickboxing. But in his estimation, Gunnar wasn't ready. He was too wild and too immature. He lacked discipline. And so, he waited.

When he was 13, it was time. He had mellowed out, and he could focus. Oh, could he focus. He started with karate and immersed himself in it, and within 1 1/2 years, he had become Iceland's junior national champion. But that sport had its limits, while mixed martial arts did not. So Nelson dove headfirst into all of its possibilities and permutations. If he liked karate, he loved MMA, particularly the complexity of the ground game. Brazilian jiu-jitsu became an obsession, to the point where everything else stood in the way.

Soon, Nelson began to skip school. Eventually, he quit altogether. School, after all, is but one way of charting a future, but he already had his direction.

"There was no point staying in school," he told MMA Fighting. "I just wanted to get out there and dabble. Whether I'd be the most successful fighter in the world or a successful fighter at all, I still wanted to do this, to train and teach, eventually. To study this. Maybe I would’ve studied something else, but what I was doing in school, I wasn't interested in the way I was interested in this."

His interest was only matched by his aptitude for learning. Earning a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu is for many a lifetime quest. Some never receive it. Others take 15-20 years. Nelson received his in four years, and from Renzo Gracie, no less.

Nelson does not trumpet this accomplishment. In fact, he downplays it. A black belt "doesn't mean anything," he says. The meaning is in the journey.

And for Nelson, the journey these days is one to the octagon. After nearly six years of fighting, he is still undefeated, with only a lone draw causing a mar on his 11-fight record. In his UFC debut, he had two opponent switches and his eventual adversary missed weight by eight pounds. It was no matter. Nelson finished him in less than a round, tying him up in another submission.

It was an eye-opening debut. At least for those who hadn't heard of him. For others, it was just a validation of what they already knew. That Gunnar Nelson was the real deal.

Gracie, who has known Nelson for about five years, had predicted his arrival as a force for years. In fact, he voluntarily offers a bold declaration, that Nelson will "absolutely" win the UFC championship. That Nelson fights at welterweight, a division that features long-reigning champion Georges St-Pierre at the top, doesn't seem to faze that prognostication.

"I'm very grateful for his belief in me," Nelson said. "It's awesome to hear. I like when people believe in me. It gives me a lot of energy."

If it also sounds like a bit of unneeded extra pressure, Nelson diffuses that notion, saying that he can only be responsible for his own personal expectations.

While that may be true, there are many observers curiously following his course, interested to see how he performs at Saturday's UFC on FUEL 7, when he faces former Sengoku champion Jorge Santiago, a decorated veteran who is also his most experienced opponent to date. He might also be the biggest; Santiago has fought more than half of his 35 professional fights as a middleweight. But now, attempting to make an impact in the UFC, he's reshaped himself at 170, the division in which he began his career.

To Nelson, the size is meaningless. So is the opponent, to a certain degree.

"I’m as happy to fight Santiago as I would be to fight anyone else, to be honest," he said.

That's a funny way of putting it, because Nelson doesn't portray any overwhelming emotions like happiness when he fights. To the viewer, he portrays the stoicism of a surgeon who is focused on a serious and complicated task. When he defeated DeMarques Johnson in his UFC opener, for example, he barely cracked a smile, celebrating only by briefly raising his hands in victory.

Nelson acknowledges that he doesn't feel a huge amount of joy in the immediate aftermath of a win. Most of his satisfaction comes in the gym, with progress and development. The fight? It has real consequences.

"There is a small bit of tension release because you know the situation is over," he said. "There is a different energy after the fight, but I'd say my mind is more with my opponent than myself in being happy. At least in that stage."

To date, there have been many opponents to be concerned about. Nelson has finished all 10 of his victories; seven by submission and three by knockout. Only once in those 10 fights has he needed more than the opening first round. Despite that finishing rate, Nelson says his first rule of fighting is "defense first." The way he views it, the more time he gives his opponent, the greater the likelihood he will be solved. So his offense is part of his defensive strategy. Even as he's progressed, the philosophy has worked brilliantly.

These days, Nelson's father is his manager, and the kid who once wasn't allowed in to participate in the martial arts is now a 24-year-old phenom. He's in no rush to reach the position that Renzo Gracie and others have predicted for him, but he's always been something of a savant in whatever he's pursued. The kid who dropped out of school has studied a library's worth of fighting knowledge, and now, there are lessons to be doled out.

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