Bouncing back and forth inside the octagon-shaped cage in Nottingham, England, Icelandic fighter Gunnar Nelson lands a kick to DaMarques Johnson’s head, evades a flurry of blows, and then pulls his opponent down to the canvas. Avoiding a shoulder lock, he then secures a hold of his opponent’s back and slowly but surely slips his right forearm under DaMarques’s chin, finishing him with a “rear-naked choke.” DaMarques taps out, forfeiting within the first four minutes, securing Gunnar his first win in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), Mixed Martial Arts’ (MMA) premier league.
Gunnar Nelson takes life one fight at a time
Joining the league two years ago, Gunnar is Iceland’s only fighter signed on to the UFC. He is part of the new generation of MMA fighters who grew up watching UFC fights and has trained in multiple martial arts from a young age. The 180 cm tall welterweight (77 kg) has a record of eleven victories and one draw against competitors from around the world in a sport that was unheard of in Iceland just ten years ago and remains illegal to compete in; boxing has been banned since 1956, although an exception was made for Olympic boxing in 2002.
MMA is a full contact sport in which fighters test their mettle against one another, drawing from a toolbox of different fighting styles. When the UFC started airing tournament-style competitions in the early ‘90s, it brought masters from different disciplines together to duke it out until an opponent was knocked unconscious or submitted. In the first UFC event, a kickboxer fought a Sumo wrestler, a Brazilian jiu jitsu fighter clashed with a boxer and a Greco-Roman wrestler took on a Karate fighter.
It became apparent after a few years that no one martial art was superior to others, as an MMA fighter had to be proficient at fighting both standing and on the ground. To that end, the marriage of Thai kickboxing and Brazilian jiu jitsu was particularly fortuitous, with the former combining punches, kicks, elbows and knees for a diverse striking arsenal on the feet, and the latter offering holds, joint locks and chokes for a plethora of ground and grappling submissions. Other martial arts also found a home inside the cage, including Japanese Karate and Judo, Russian Sambo and western wrestling and boxing.
As the sport grew in the late ‘90s, so too did the rules of the game, ensuring the safety of competitors inside and outside of the ring. Tournament-style competitions were abandoned within the UFC and replaced by nine weight divisions. Events now include several matches, each consisting of three five-minute rounds in which fighters compete to progress through the rankings of their weight class until they can challenge the champion of their division. These changes toward a more professional game have catapulted the UFC to the forefront of the MMA world.
A Young Fighter
In anticipation of his next fight in March, Gunnar invites me to meet him at his parents’ house after a family lunch. Sitting down with Gunnar, it is apparent that he embodies the antithesis to the testosterone-fuelled alpha male. He is humble, relaxed and non-confrontational.
Outside of the ring, he describes himself as “just a typical guy” who likes to hang out with his friends, go swimming at the various pools of Reykjavík and sit down over a cup of coffee. He is a frequenter of art galleries and during the warmer parts of the year he can be spotted riding his motorcycle through downtown Reykjavík. Sitting at the top echelons of the worldwide MMA ladder and competing in its biggest fight circuit, Gunnar treasures the opportunity to escape the city and spend time with his grandparents on their farm in Ólafsfjörður.
As a kid growing up in North Iceland, he tells me he was fascinated by the action film star Bruce Lee and the video game Mortal Kombat. When he moved to Reykjavík, he quickly became immersed in Karate, winning the Icelandic Juvenile Championship titles in 2003, 2004 and 2005. He was selected as Iceland’s most promising up-and-coming Karate talent of 2005, and joined the national team before losing interest in the stagnant sport.
That year, his friend and current director of Mjölnir, Jón Viðar Arnþórsson, invited Gunnar to join a programme consisting of techniques from grappling and Brazilian jiu jitsu. “It’s such an incredibly technical sport,” he says, “unlike anything else I had ever done.” After getting a taste of grappling, Gunnar left Karate behind and focused on mastering Brazilian jiu jitsu and MMA.
Instead of being dissuaded by the brutal reputation of MMA fights, Gunnar was drawn to their unfettered displays of competition. “Competitors come out of these fights with bruises and black eyes, but they rarely get seriously injured,” he says. “Even if the sport looks rough to some, there are many crueller and uglier things in life. That’s just how it is.”
In 2007, he dropped out of upper secondary school to become a full-time MMA fighter, working a series of menial jobs to finance his passion before getting a sponsor. That year he went on to improve his fighting skills in Dublin and Manchester before making his MMA debut in Denmark. Gunnar has since travelled far and wide, going to New York to earn his black belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu from Renzo Gracie in 2009, but his base of operations has always been Iceland.
A Full-Time Job
Today, Gunnar’s record reflects this strength in grappling, with seven of his eleven victories coming from grappling submissions, primarily the rear-naked choke, a sleeper hold which can knock people out in a matter of seconds without causing any lasting damage. Gunnar, however, cannot depend on his prodigious ground skills alone and focuses on being a well-rounded fighter.
“It’s satisfying to master certain moves, and maintain them through practice, but it is equally important to get a good feeling for areas that need improvement,” he says. “You constantly have to work on the weaker parts of your fight game, it’s about being a complete fighter.”
Fight commentators have remarked since his start that he looks less fluid standing on his feet, but he silenced his critics in his last fight with Jorge Santiago by showing that he could stand confidently and trade blows. Following this fight, US sports network ESPN picked him as one of three breakout UFC candidates for 2014.
Having recovered from a torn meniscus knee surgery last spring, he is back to training every day of the working week, once or twice a day for at least three hours in order to be in shape and ready at all times for the next fight in case the UFC promoters offer him a match with short notice.
Gunnar gets paid per fight in addition to his sponsorship deals with JACO Clothing sports brand and Iceland’s CCP Games. For his two UFC fights, he was paid $5,000 for each with a $5,000 win bonus, according to the UFC, which releases the salary of its fighters after each fight. As fighters climb up in the rankings, their salaries increase, with champions of each weight division being paid up to $400,000 just for stepping into the ring.
Additionally, Gunnar teaches a few classes at the rapidly growing local gym Mjölnir. When Gunnar joined Jón Viðar’s grappling programme in 2004, there were no more than ten people training. Without any Icelandic phenoms to guide them, students relied on fight tapes and instructional DVDs. “We were just roughhousing,” Gunnar says, “browsing the internet to pick up new techniques.” Initially the students were rolling around on the scratchy Karate gym mats, but over time the programme became more serious and merged with another grappling club, becoming Mjölnir.
“Now we have a massive club, one of the biggest and best in Europe, and we have many high calibre athletes,” he says. “It’s now a great club to train in.” The gym’s membership has gone from ten to 1,200, offering boxing, grappling, MMA and combat conditioning classes. “Some come to the gym wearing suits, and others painter’s overalls,” Gunnar says.
The coaches at Mjölnir aren’t too worried about a police crackdown for training fighters in a sport that’s illegal to compete in domestically. “It’s all done in a protected environment under proper supervision,” he says, “and besides, we have practically all of the police force training here.”
Several members compete in international grappling tournaments and professional MMA fights, although they haven’t garnered as much attention as Gunnar, as his winning streak continues. The Icelandic state media has shown Gunnar considerable interest, inviting him to talk shows and interviews, but Gunnar doesn’t let it go to his head. “You may have less privacy with fame,” he says, “but you can harness that attention and transform it into extra energy for when the going gets tough.”
Staying Calm In The Cage
Last year, when Gunnar stepped into the UFC ring for the first time, a goal most MMA fighters yearn to reach, he didn’t appear animated, excited or nervous. He simply stepped in calmly, stretched, and waited for the fight to start, as if he were going for a workout on any given Friday afternoon.
That’s not to say he doesn’t get nervous or scared before a fight like everyone else. “When you are at your hotel with the other fighters nearby and journalists everywhere, it’s easy to lose yourself and get nervous, but I just try to hang out with my friends and relax,” Gunnar says.
“Then when you get into the cage,” he says, “you feel like you are where you need to be, and it’s all finally happening.” Even in describing this rush of emotions, Gunnar looks calm, almost serene. “That’s when the fun begins.”
In post-fight interviews, many fighters talk about fight plans, complicated thought processes during a critical moment in the match, and what they expected from their opponents. Gunnar, in contrast, says he doesn’t think about anything, or follow any premeditated plan. He says—much like the 17th century warrior-philosopher Miyamoto Musashi did in his magnum opus ‘The Book Of Five Rings’—that thought was slow compared to instincts and reflexes.
“Occasionally, I’ll have a tactical thought, but it’s about instinct,” he says. “You react a lot quicker when you don’t think about what you are doing, so I’ll try to think as little as possible, instead focusing on what is happening and acting on instinct.”
The Road Ahead
Gunnar says his ultimate goal is to challenge the UFC champion for the title. “I can easily see that happening in the next couple of years,” he says, without batting an eye.
His next scheduled fight is with Russian Omari Akhmedov on March 8, at London’s O2 Arena. Omari has earned a name for himself as a finisher of fights, knocking out his last opponent after a spectacular scrap in his UFC debut. Omari has won 12 of his 13 matches, finishing five in the first of three rounds, two of which he ended in the first two minutes. With a record of such early wins, one of Gunnar’s keys to victory may lie in surviving Omari’s early onslaught and not engaging in a rough brawl.
Omari has a strong background in the Russian Sambo martial art, which Gunnar describes as often being wild and reckless. “They aren’t as technical as us Brazilian jiu jitsu practitioners when it comes to grappling on the ground,” he says, “but they are capable of everything.” Gunnar believes Omari’s extensive experience will make him a very tough opponent, but he believes that will also be Omari’s weakness. “He might overreach and leave himself exposed as he charges forward.”
Gunnar’s performance at this coming fight may very well dictate his place in the UFC’s welterweight division and how quickly he can be counted amongst the top ten contenders, or make a run at the title. Not surprisingly, Gunnar doesn’t want to count his chickens before they hatch. “I’m just focused on myself and what’s in front of me,” he says, displaying that uncanny calm demeanour that you see from him in the cage.