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Gunnar Nelson felt painful ‘pop’ in grappling match with ‘Game of Thrones’ star ‘The Mountain’

All Gunnar Nelson wanted was an armbar from his back. All that stood in his way was “The Mountain.”

In May, Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson had agreed to film a friendly grappling match with Nelson, his fellow Icelander. The goal was to “have a little wrestle, videotape it, and just have fun,” Nelson said, if fun was what he considered an afternoon of trying to manipulate the limbs of a 352-pound guy who once deadlifted 1,105 pounds on ESPN. For the rest of the world not up to date on World’s Strongest Man history, Björnsson is the guy who crushed Prince Oberyn’s head with his bare hands on “Game of Thrones.”

Nelson, at 185 pounds, had already caught him once with an armbar from the top.

“It was fun,” he said Wednesday on The MMA Hour. “I enjoyed it.”

That is, until he tried to get that sub on his back. Somewhere in the second round, Nelson said, Björnsson collapsed on top of him, and he heard “a nasty pop.” Seconds later, he could feel the upper right side of his ribs swelling.

“Something in me was like, ‘I’m not going to say anything now,’” Nelson said. He thought he could survive until the end of the round, his pride mostly intact. Then Björnsson landed on him again, and it got even harder to breathe. Rib injuries affect everything when you’re grappling. He’d just recovered from one suffered before his most recent fight, a unanimous decision loss to Gilbert Burns in 2019.

“I’m just thinking, I have to wait for him to show his neck, and we can get this over with,” Nelson said. “Cause, it’s too late to stop now and say I hurt myself. I was a really fun thing, but it was probably stupid.”

In January, stories circulated that Nelson was ready to make his octagon comeback. “The Mountain” made that impossible.

“It takes a long time, and it can be so crippling,” Nelson said of the back-to-back rib injuries that have now kept him out of the cage for over two years. “They’re just terrible. It was at the top here, so the top ribs, so it affects the shoulder, it affects the breathing, it affects everything.”

Nelson thinks he may have done some additional damage to his ribs in the stunt. But he also put another win on the board for jiu-jitsu, which is all about making smaller guys a threat to bigger ones. He tapped Björnsson twice (and didn’t get tapped). He never told “The Mountain” about his injury.

“It’s hard to stop when you’re in it,” he said. “Like, not that we were going crazy, but it’s just, you know. ... It was not his fault or anything. It just happened. He wasn’t going spastic or anything. He’s just 160 kilos. He was just trying to do his best there.”

The worst thing about rib injuries is you can’t do much to speed up rehab. Even when he could work out, he said, he would have to tap in certain positions from the pain in his arm. But seven months later, he is ready to go.

Wearing his favorite Friends sweatshirt, Nelson on Monday targeted a March UFC event expected to take place in London as the prime spot for his comeback. His coach, John Kavanagh, piqued UFC fans’ interest by proposing Khamzat Chimaev as a return opponent. Fans ate up the potential clash of dominant grapplers.

“Yeah, you know I’ll fight anybody,” Nelson said. “If he wants to fight me, then let’s do it. He’s very good.”

Not a lot of people have volunteered to face the surging Chimaev, who’s decimated three opponents in short order. But if Nelson has proven anything in the last year, it’s that he’s not intimidated by a challenge, no matter its size.

“If he wants to fight me in London, then of course, I’ll be honored to share the cage with him,” he said.