A Visit with Gunnar Nelson in Iceland
The long departed German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel believed when a thesis combated its antithesis, a newer and higher level of truth would emerge. For combat sports connoisseurs the world over, no greater example of this dialectical relationship can be found than inside the UFC’s Octagon.
Where once there was a division between stand-up competition like boxing and karate, and ground competition like wrestling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, now we have mixed martial arts. If Hegel could have only lived for 170 more years, it’s my optimistic, former philosophy major opinion that he would’ve loved to see his model come to life in the form of flying triangle chokes and Knockout of the Nights as much as we all do.
On a seemingly unrelated note, the week before Thanksgiving, I took a trip with my girlfriend to the island country of Iceland. While MMA / UFC is one metaphor for synthesis, the European nation dubbed “The Land of Fire and Ice” is an equally perfect paradigm. A swath of existence on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge formed by volcanic lava and cooled by glacial rivers. An independent republic whose population speaks a nearly untouched, thousand-year-old language, and, at the same time, is one of the most developed countries in the world economically, politically, and technologically. The country’s character stems from a constant blending of opposing forces, which creates the unique experience that is Iceland.
It should come as no surprise that Iceland’s preeminent MMA athlete is an incredibly dangerous, dual threat of both striking and grappling: Gunnar Nelson.
I had the pleasure to meet and talk with Nelson, as well as his Icelandic inner-circle, at his home gym Mjolnir. Our lengthy conversation covered Nelson’s international martial arts journey to the UFC, his impressive Octagon debut win over DaMarques Johnson at UFC on FUEL TV in September, and his personal fighting philosophy. Afterward, I had the masochistic opportunity to no-gi grapple with Nelson, where he made me tap at will, which was slightly less humbling than tasting Iceland’s traditional fermented shark (it tastes about as terrible as the Wikipedia article makes it sound).
But first, Nelson’s wildly successful foray into fisticuffs began like all UFC fights do: on the feet.
The 24-year-old first son of Reykjavik is a walking, talking, spin-kicking, rear naked choking embodiment of synthesis. The black belt in karate and black belt in BJJ is currently an undefeated, welterweight terror with a professional MMA record of 10-0-1, with all wins by finish. Well before he began collecting stoppages inside the cage, starting at the age of 13 he was cleaning up trophies and championships on the Icelandic kumite circuit. For the few uninformed, non-Jean Claude Van Damme fans, “kumite” is a one-on-one karate sparring sport, which Nelson was the juvenile champion of in Iceland for three consecutive years.
“I started off with Okinawa Goju-Ryu,” remembers Nelson. “About two years in, maybe less, I started focusing on 'kumite', which is free-fighting. Shortly, I started training just that with a group of people who were also only training just that. Every now and then, we do some more technical training, but even with that we didn't really do the ‘katas’ or as my coach called them 'basics'. We kept some and I do appreciate them. When I was young I had a lot of energy and it was hard to be still and do things in this one way that they wanted you to do them. I was able to be a lot more free when I was free sparring.”
At 17, Nelson was introduced to submission grappling. Friend, coach, and member of Iceland’s national Kumite team, Jon Vidar Arnthorsson innocently enough asked Nelson if he wanted to “roll”. After several minutes of being put into many foreign locks and holds, “Gunni” only had eyes for this new martial art, BJJ. From there, the escalation of coaching was immediate, with Ireland’s first BJJ black belt John Kavanagh to New York City’s dynamic duo of Renzo Gracie and John Danaher to former UFC lightweight and welterweight champion BJ Penn in Hawaii, just to name a few. Nelson earned more than just frequent flyer miles as he quickly rose to the top of the BJJ ranks, winning numerous gold and silver medals in IBJJF Pan-American and World Jiu-Jitsu tournaments.
“I guess I got my black belt in four years,” tells Nelson. “One and a half years, not too stable, but from then on, very stable. I was training every day and I spent a lot of time doing it. And even though I spent a lot of time doing it, I never rushed myself. I always stayed relaxed. I know when I'm rushing. I know when I'm training every day and I'm training hard and spending a lot of time doing it. And I know when I'm rushing. It's two different things. It's not the years, it's the hours you spend on the mat and thinking about it and working on it. I do believe I have a lot of hours in it.”
In 2007, Nelson didn’t decide to try MMA as much as he tackled it by taking five fights within eight months. To prepare for this new combat sport, Nelson trained with Kavanagh at his Straight Blast Gym in Dublin. The two first met a year prior to Nelson’s MMA debut when Kavanagh taught a BJJ seminar in Iceland, and the pair continue to work together to this day. It was Kavanagh’s own competition experience in MMA, BJJ, kickboxing, and submission wrestling that early on helped shape Nelson’s mindset for BJJ as well as MMA fighting.
“[MMA] was different to kumite because there was no stopping,” says Nelson. “There was a lot more contact in general because there is grappling as well, and when you hit you keep hitting. It was not just one good punch, then stopping and giving points. It was more like a fight. It was more like having a fight as a kid, but technical. I wasn't sure if I really wanted to do this because I liked jiu-jitsu and I liked rolling. After my first fight, I really enjoyed that state of mind and that experience. Not beating someone, not at all. But it's different. Time feels different, everything feels different when this is happening. I kind of liked that state. I don't like the idea of whipping anyone, but I do believe it is healthy to experience this. I know it's not for everybody, but there are people who want to do this and want to do it professionally. There are a good set of rules to take care of the fighters. I love the sport. I love doing it.”
Nowadays, Nelson’s massive home gym, Mjolnir, which boasts 800+ members, is a living testament to his martial arts beginnings and will be the launching pad for his future. Walking around the gym is slightly intimidating, as the walls are littered with newspaper clippings, trophies, belts, and markers of all of Nelson’s accomplishments, as well as centuries old Viking proverbs about fighting to your very last breath on the battlefield. The second floor is a former theater rehearsal room, which has been re-outfitted with jiu-jitsu mats and a cage. As Kavanagh taught gi BJJ up top, down below in the spacious ground floor is an adult gymnasium, where Arnthorsson was playing the dual role of drill instructor and DJ to his “Viking cardio” class. Of course, somewhere in between, a rhythmic thwacking echoed through Mjolnir as Nelson worked out on a heavy bag.
“At first, there were karate guys and there were jiu-jitsu guys and we kind of all came together and that became Mjolnir,” tells Nelson. “Since then, we've joined with a boxing gym and they're bringing their stuff in and that's helped everyone a lot. The wrestling, I've obviously been training everywhere and I've brought a lot of wrestling in here and the guys have been picking it up. The idea is it's just all grappling. They've put it into different sports, but it's just all grappling. Work on your grappling on the feet, on the ground, on your guard passes, your takedowns. It's all the same. You can say that about fighting as well. It's just fighting. It's just martial arts.”
For Octagon enthusiasts, Nelson’s particular brand of “it’s just fighting” was on full display in Nottingham, England as he quickly swarmed and overwhelmed The Ultimate Fighter 9 finalist DaMarques Johnson at UFC on Fuel TV last September. In a short span of three minutes, “Gunni” switched between a southpaw and orthodox wide karate stance and exploded toward Johnson as soon as the referee was clear of the action. Nelson took the fight to the floor, actively passed from position to position, capitalized on scrambles, and secured a rear naked choke finish. Part improvisation and part judiciously trained, the victory over the 10 fight UFC veteran was Nelson’s fifth first round submission win in a row.
“I hadn't seen much of DaMarques before, but I watched a few of his fights and he seemed to be pretty decent everywhere,” reveals Nelson. “I stick to my plans always. It is pretty much the same plan to whoever I'm fighting. I'm trying to react to whatever he does and take the fight wherever I think it is the best place to win. For me, that really doesn't show until I'm in the ring. I think that could be very hard for some people, but once you get in the habit of it, to me, that is the best way to fight. I don't decide too much before I get in there. It worked out very well for myself. I was very happy with how it worked out. I don't think either of us took too much damage. I like that as well. I know that will not always be that way, but I like the idea of a clean fight. And that fight was very clean.”
Fight fans love finishes, and, in that, Nelson is a welcome addition to all to the UFC’s welterweight roster. Of his 10 stoppages, all but one occurred in the opening round. It’s the idea to “be first” and the idea that “an offense is the best defense” that Nelson is advantageously using on his opponents. Additionally, Nelson doesn’t allow his opponents to get comfortable in the cage, as they are constantly adjusting to him instead of the other way around. It’s not a blind bumrush, as “Gunni” crosses the cage, attacks, and pushes his opponent to an area where he can immobilize them as quickly as possible, which is the root idea of martial arts.
“I do push for finishes,” explains Nelson. “My thoughts toward this sport have always been the same - self-defense is number one. People ask me, ‘if it is about self-defense then why do you have to finish your opponents so early?’ That is self-defense. The more time I spend in there with him, the more time I'm giving him to figure me out and beat me. That's always been my strategy. I've always been, I don't want to say 'aggressive', but when you're in there and it is 'go time,' you don't want to give anything up. In training, you give so much up because you're playing. But in there, you push the fight more because you don't want to leave it to the judges and you don't want to spend more time in there than you need.”
Personally, I experienced half a dozen of Nelson’s submission finishes. Nelson reminded me of how people describe rolling with one of Nelson’s coaches, Danaher: every decision made is the wrong decision. As for the size relationship, I’m five inches taller and 100 pounds heavier than Nelson. While I’m an almost translucent white belt and he is an obsidian black belt, one of Nelson’s most famous BJJ wins was over former UFC heavyweight, BJJ black belt, and former NCAA Division I wrestler Jeff Monson at the 2009 ADCC Submission Wrestling World Championship.
“I'd say, I would have an idea on how to beat a guy like Jeff,” states Nelson. “It's kind of simple if you think about it. He's very big and he's very strong, but he's not going to be as fast as me and he's not going to be able to have as many scrambles as me. He's going to want to grab a hold of me and slow the match down and use his strength. Regardless of whatever specific technique he does, that's the pace of things that he would like. But me, I would like to keep it more open, quick scrambles, make him move. Make him react to everything and not to let him grab a hold of me. He can grab a hold of me a little, but then I escape and that tires him out again. That's kind of the game. I had this idea before the match and I had a feel for how to do it. I've had a good deal of experience of training with guys like this. Obviously, I would have liked to have finished the match, but I couldn't do that in that time period. I was able to do most of things or a lot of things I wanted to do in that match. As I said before, this is self-defense and I was able to stay safe, but not work as much offense as I would have liked. I had the idea, I had a feel for how to do it, and that's all you need.”
Up next for “Gunni” is a rumble in London on February 16th at UFC on FUEL TV with TUF 13 alum Justin Edwards, who is coming off a Submission of the Night win over UFC vet Josh Neer. “I know the fans like an exciting fight and I do believe I will always try to put that on naturally,” asserts Nelson, who will look to continue his undefeated/stoppage streak against the 8-2 Edwards. “I do believe the best way for me to fight is an exciting fight because I will push for the finish and I'm constantly working on the ways to finish fights - to be safe in that way. Not to be safe by pushing your opponent away from you, but safe to end the situation. They should expect me trying to end the situation.”
As the leader of Iceland’s martial arts movement, Nelson has already solidified himself as an explosive fiery striker and as a calculating cold-as-ice grappler. Now, Nelson is synthesizing skill sets to climb the MMA mountain with his sights set on UFC gold. Standing or on the ground, fighting is fighting, and Nelson is ready to finish wherever what’s been started.