Even when he’s playing a role in a television commercial, Gunnar Nelson can’t escape being portrayed as a steely-eyed and stoic threat to your physical well-being.
“That seems to be a go-to thing a lot of times,” said Nelson with a laugh regarding his participation in a Mottumars (Moustache March) cancer awareness television spot. The equivalent of Movember in North America, the commercial features a number of men of various ages singing in the locker room at a health club, when one decides to snap a towel against the backside of an unsuspecting gentleman paying little attention to the chorus around him.
As Nelson turns around to reveal himself to his “assailant” with what has become his trademark intense stare, the older man’s face drops.
“It’s a thing I’ve participated in in smaller amounts in the past, but this time, I’m in the commercial,” continued the 30-year-old Icelandic welterweight, who, contrary to popular myth, is exceptionally personable and good natured. “I’m honored to be amongst these guys and to participate in something like this; it’s a great cause.
“And I like to act and mess around. My sister is an actress and we would play all these kinds of games when we were younger, mess around with all these characters, stuff like that, so I’m into it. I like that stuff, although I’m not a great actor myself. But I’ll go with it and have fun.”
While he may have a future as “Henchman #2” in Hollywood, Nelson is presently occupied with working his way up the welterweight rankings and poised to return to that endeavor this weekend as he squares off against Leon Edwards in the co-main event of the UFC’s latest stop in London.
Nelson enters the pairing with the surging Midlands man off, arguably, the best performance of his career, a second-round submission win over Alex “Cowboy” Oliveira back in December.
The bout was Nelson’s first and only appearance of 2018, as a knee injury forced him out of an appearance against Neil Magny in Liverpool and resulted in his having 17 months between his loss to Santiago Ponzinibbio and his bout with Oliveira in Toronto.
The bout with “Gente Boa” left a bad taste in the soft-spoken standout’s mouth, as Nelson was on the receiving end of an uncalled, accidental eye poke early in the fight and never really recovered. He entered the fray with Oliveira bent on earning an impressive finish and did just that, enduring some more early fouls before taking the fight to the Brazilian in the second and securing the finish.
“For sure it was one of my biggest moments,” Nelson said of his UFC 231 performance, which included getting caught with a couple elbows to the back of the head early and an egregious fence grab by Oliveira that prevented a takedown.
“He was going to land on his head,” he added regarding the blocked takedown attempt, which referee Jerin Valel addressed in the cage as it happened. “There’s not time to be frustrated in the fight, but surely, when I go back and watch it, go back and sit in the locker room, you’re like, ‘M***********!’ I guess it happens all the time, but you definitely notice it when it keeps happening over and over again. Some guys just play a bit dirty and I seem to be getting these guys a little bit lately, but it’s part of it all. You wish it wasn’t, but it is and you’ve got to prepare for it, really.
“It’s inevitable to at least feel that way a little bit, but overall, I’m happy I got the win, so that’s the overwhelming feeling. It is frustrating, but we overcame it this time. I felt great for that fight — felt really fresh, recovered super-well in between rounds — and you’re seeing the best Gunnar Nelson you’ve seen and he’ll be even better this time around.”
Eager to build on the momentum from his win in December, Nelson jumped at the opportunity to compete this weekend in London, where he is 5-0 as a professional, though he’s aware of the tough challenge he’s facing and the possibility of not being the man backed by the British crowd this time around.
“This kind of momentum is huge and you’ve got to keep it going,” he said of his relatively quick return to action. “You’ve got to go in there and shoot yourself even further and when you have the momentum and then you hit that f****** boost button while you have that momentum, it shoots you even further.
“I’m honored to fight Leon, I have a lot of respect for him,” Nelson said of Edwards, who is currently on a six-fight winning streak that includes victories over Vicente Luque, Bryan Barberena and Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone. “Obviously he’s going to be the favorite — it’s his country — but still, I’ve spent a lot of time there, I know a lot of people there, I’ve trained there, held seminars there and I lived in Manchester for a while. I know my way around there and I’ve always enjoyed it, so I do feel a little at home there.”
Pegged as a potential contender from the time he arrived in the UFC just over six years ago, Nelson has not yet been able to string together the necessary wins and extended run of strong performances needed to make a real push towards the top of the welterweight division. Each time he’s been close, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and karate stylist has been slowed by injuries and stopped in his tracks by an elite talent.
But Nelson made some changes to his training program in advance of the bout with Oliveira, incorporating a strength and conditioning routine for the first time, and it paid immediate dividends, as he felt better and stronger than ever before heading into that contest, and he carries those same feelings through into this weekend’s showdown with “Rocky” at the 02 Arena.
“It’s made a huge difference in how fast we recover and the overall balance of the body,” he said of the work he’s done with Unnar Helgason. “How you feel in different situations, how you deal with different fatigue — the threshold is higher and you can take a lot more, but you’re also getting to know your body and when you need to calm down a little bit, where the point of no return is.
“Cardio is a lot about pacing yourself and knowing your own body, as well as knowing how the other guy is feeling and pushing the pace at the right moments. You start knowing a lot more about tiredness, fatigue and how to overcome it.
“March 16 is a big card,” he added. “There are going to be a lot of people there, there is going to be a lot of heat on that card, and it’s a great time to go there and show what I’m made of.”
As for how he sees things playing out with Edwards, Nelson believes the well-rounded, underrated Brit is a threat in every area, but will be focused on turning their co-main event showdown into a striking match, rather than opting to take his chances on the canvas.
“I think he’s probably going to want to keep it standing,” he said, offering his thoughts on how Saturday’s penultimate pairing could shake out. “He’s not uncomfortable on the ground and he’s good with his wrestling — he’s a very technical guy and he mixes it up well — but against me, he’s going to want to keep it on the feet; try to maybe soften me up and then get a takedown, get on top, use his ground-and-pound, stuff like that.
As always, Nelson is poised to deal with whatever the fight brings and do whatever it takes to secure another finish and continue working his way towards the top of the welterweight division.
“He’s going to try to work towards that kind of angle, I would say. But we’ll see. I’ll take him as he comes.”