Gunnar Nelson’s pursuit of martial arts coincided with his friends’ pursuit of the opposite sex.
“I was playing hockey and I was pretty happy with what I was doing,” Nelson told FOXSports.com. “Then all my friends started doing other things, like chasing girls. So, I kind of fell out of it as well. That’s when I started doing karate and then mixed martial arts.”
Nelson was about 13 when he ditched the skates in his native Iceland for the mat. A little more than a decade later, Nelson (10-0-1) finds himself among the top challengers in the ultra-competitive UFC welterweight division — an ascension that could continue with a victory over Jorge Santiago at UFC on Fuel TV 7 in London on Saturday.
Nelson, 24, grew up watching Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies as a kid, something he said first piqued his interest in martial arts. His father and manager, Haraldur, was another influencing factor since he trained in karate and kickboxing in his younger days.
But it was a trip Renzo Gracie — still an active MMA competitor at the time and a descendant of the MMA pioneering Gracie family — took to Nelson’s Reykjavík gym in 2008 that put Nelson on his current course.
“I always watched Renzo, so when he came to Iceland to train with us, it was an honor,” Nelson said. “He was very fun to be around. He’s very high energy. He invited me to come train and four months later, I was there.”
“There” was New York, a major cultural shift for Gunnar. Renzo Gracie Jiu-Jitsu is headquartered in Brooklyn.
“He was amazing, for training in Iceland a tiny country, I saw a future UFC champion right in front of me,” Gracie said in a recent UFC phone interview. “He was very talented, a lot of potential. But in reality he needed to come to the US to get the best out of that potential, to train harder and to learn how to be an athlete and a professional fighter.”
The transition from Iceland to New York was eased by the intense training schedule Gracie designed.
“New York is a lot more fast-paced,” Nelson said. “Everybody is busy, so sometimes it was hard not to get caught up in that. But I was very focused on my training. After a long day in the gym, I really just went home and slept.”
Nelson had already turned pro by that point using what could be described as a traditional (maybe even old-school) approach. He’s trained in several mixed martial arts disciplines, making him unpredictable, especially on the ground where he’s submitted more than half his opponents with either a rear-naked choke or an armbar.
“When he first came to New York he trained two and three times a day for six months and became a very, very good fighter,” Gracie said. “I was amazed how quickly he earned his black belt. And his striking – everyone says – is just as unpredictable as his jiu-jitsu.”
Nelson signed a deal with UFC last July, although the only thing stable about his debut bout was the event (UFC on Fuel TV 5 in September).
He was slated to fight Pascal Krauss, but Krauss was forced out with an injury. Krauss’ replacement, Rich Attonito had concerns about making weight, so Nelson eventually faced DaMarques Johnson. At the weigh-in, Johnson failed to make the 175-pound cutoff, due in part to taking the fight on such short notice. Nelson took the fight anyway and submitted Johnson with a rear-naked choke in the first round.
This time around, his opponent has only changed once. Nelson was originally scheduled to face Justin Edwards before an injury led UFC officials to insert Santiago last month.
In a division stacked with champ Georges St-Pierre and challengers like Johny Hendricks and Carlos Condit, Nelson has a few fights to go before he’s considered among the elite. As Gracie said, however, it’s just a matter of time.
“He absolutely will win the UFC title,” Gracie said. “I have no doubt he can beat the very best in the division. How fast he wants to win it is up to him, but I think he can beat everyone in the division within the next two years.”