Everyone seemingly knew who Gunnar Nelson was even before he entered the UFC Octagon for the first time in September of 2012.
Yes, he was undefeated in 10 mixed martial arts fights, but it was his grappling that drew the most attention. A black belt in jiu-jitsu under Renzo Gracie, Nelson had won gold in the 2009 IBJJF Pan Ams and silver in that year’s IBJJF World Jiu-Jitsu championship, all by the age of 21, making him that rarest of rarities: a true phenom.
But what may have intrigued the most about Nelson wasn’t his talent, but where he came from. Iceland was no hotbed of mixed martial arts, yet “Gunni” emerged from there and also from a small gym in Dublin, Ireland called SBG.
Yet unlike one of the SBG Ireland team’s future stars, Conor McGregor, Nelson was far removed from “The Notorious” one in terms of temperament. That the two were friends and training partners surprised most, but not Nelson.
“We’re a good team,” he said in 2015 of his relationship with the future featherweight champion. “We’re polar opposites in a lot of ways, but we work well together and he’s fun to be around. He’s not always that hyper.”
Nelson was never that hyper, and it became a running joke in the MMA community that emotions were not in the Reykjavik native’s toolbox. He took it all in stride, even joking about it when asked in 2014 whether the fans would ever see him smile from ear to ear on fight night or do a little chest beating on the way to the Octagon.
“No,” he deadpanned. “That would be in my next life. I’m saving it.”
That a young man who carried himself like a gentleman and didn’t get involved in any pre-fight antics was even an issue was something troubling, but it never troubled him. And any chats with the welterweight prospect proved him to be a compelling interview subject with a unique take on his sport and the world.
“I think people sometimes mistake me for that guy from Rocky or some character like that, but I’m really not,” he laughs, referring to the Ivan Drago character from the iconic boxing film series. “Maybe I don’t carry my feelings on the outside. When I’m somewhere where there’s a lot of people, and especially in the cage, I don’t really feel much then. I try to save my feelings for my friends and my family.”
And he saved his fighting for the Octagon, where he spoke volumes. Loudly.
Nelson won his first four Octagon bouts, three by submission, picking up Performance of the Night bonuses for his finishes of Omari Akhmedov and Zak Cummings. Even when he lost for the first time against Rick Story in October of 2014, he took the defeat with class and moved on, impressively finishing Brandon Thatch in a single round at UFC 189 in July of last year.
Now 27, Nelson, who is coming off a decision loss to Demian Maia in December, returns to the Octagon this Sunday to face Albert Tumenov in Rotterdam. He’s no longer the kid, the phenom from Iceland about to take the world by his own quiet storm. He’s on the verge of being a contender at 170 pounds, he’s a father, and he’s carved out a niche for himself in the sport’s premier promotion.
He’s made it. But he’s not done yet.