Published February 3, 2016
The excitement was almost palpable on the evening of December 12, 2015, as Icelanders gathered in pubs, clubs and at house parties to witness local MMA hero Gunnar Nelson fight Brazil’s Demian Maia in a high-profile UFC fight beamed straight from Las Vegas via satellite. The highly publicized fight was dream matchup between two world-class grapplers, an experienced veteran and his hotshot challenger. Anticipation levels peaked as the two fighters stepped into the ring, with viewers from all over the world tuning in to witness the potentially legendary fight.
- Nickname: Gunni
- Age: 27
- Record: Fourteen wins, two losses, one draw
- Born in: Akureyri, North of the Wall
- Trains out of: Mjölnir MMA
- Developed an Irish twang to his accent from training with: Conor McGregor
- Has had a black belt from Renzo Gracie since: 2009
- Joined the UFC: in late 2012
- Knows the roster of the first Mortal Kombat game: by heart
At Irish pub The Dubliner in downtown Reykjavík, the crowd turned wild as the fight commenced. And then, it fell silent.
It quickly became apparent that Gunnar Nelson was no match for Maia, who quickly asserted his dominance over the young contender. Our hero didn’t seem to stand a chance. The audience gathered was at a loss for words, much like the Icelandic sport commentators covering the match. Gunnar showed no signs of recovering. By the third round, people had averted their eyes from the screen, instead focusing on finishing their drinks.
Something had gone horribly wrong. Gunnar’s usual spry and confident demeanour was absent in the ring, replaced by what seemed like half-hearted efforts to stay in the fight, which was far from enough against veteran Maia. Gunnar spent the majority of the fight’s fifteen minutes soaking up punches and avoiding Maia’s deft submission attempts.
Wrestling with inner demons
After taking a few weeks off, Gunnar agreed to meet for an interview. Stepping into his gym, Mjölnir, I find it absolutely bursting at the seams. Making my way past a throng of people hitting the showers, I descend to the large boxing and fitness room, where I find Gunnar in the middle of a deep stretch, smiling and laughing with a few friends of his. Saying his goodbyes, he joins me on a couch, squatting, not sitting, sipping on coconut water.
As we discuss that fateful December night, Gunnar doesn’t appear upset over the proceedings. He attributes his positive demeanour to having spent the last month with friends, family, and his eighteen-month-old son. “Lately I’ve been playing Zombie Mode on the new Call of Duty with my friends,” he says, “and going back to the gym.”
Speaking at a measured pace, Gunnar tells me that although he has yet to watch the Demian Maia fight, he’s paid a lot of thought to it. His technique and skills aren’t to blame for the loss, he says. Rather, it was the result of a sort of condition or bad habit that has followed him for a long time, and stopped him in his tracks that night. He’s felt it before, he tells me, but hasn’t been able to properly pinpoint it until now. He describes the sensation like a need to open up his chest, and when affected he feels slowed down, and unable to self-motivate.
“I’ve fought through it in the past, sometimes winning fights in spite of it,” he explains. He felt it during the Rick Story fight of 2014—his first professional loss—he confirms when I ask, noting that it wasn’t as acute then as was with Maia. He explains: “Dealing with it is a part of me becoming comfortable in my own skin and getting to know your body.”
Gunnar tells me that he’d long been excited about the prospect of fighting Maia. Having discussing the intricacies and challenges of such a matchup with numerous confidants, he says, he specifically requested it happen. “I’ve watched him from the beginning. I have the feeling that he’s on his way out, so I knew this was my chance.”
However bad his defeat might have seemed, it’s clear from talking to Gunnar that he doesn’t see it as anything more than a bump in the road. “You lose, and there’s nothing you can do about it but get back up on your feet,” he calmly explains, betraying the stoic demeanour that has become his trademark.
International acclaim, local fame
In the three and a half years that Gunnar has fought with the UFC, he’s won five fights, and lost two, garnering well-deserved international acclaim and becoming a bit of a national icon in the process.
Indeed, Gunnar’s many achievements at the highest level of the MMA world—such as making it to the top fifteen of the UFC’s welterweight division—have served to popularise the sport in Iceland. It has, for instance, resulted in an influx of new members at Mjölnir, the gym where he trains, making it one of Europe’s biggest. To meet demand, Mjölnir will move to a new 3,000 square metre space this summer, with twice the floor space.
Gunnar hasn’t gotten into a fight since he was a kid, he says, and he believes that his sport has nothing to do with violence. Instead, he explains, it taps into something very primal, something that perhaps appeals to Icelanders in particular.
“In all my travels, I’ve discerned that Icelanders are pretty rough people,” he says. “We like full contact sports and action. MMA is just man against man, woman against woman—it’s conflict in its most basic form, with a good set of rules. Maybe I’m biased, because I enjoy it and so do the people around me, but I think it speaks to something instinctive within us.”
As Gunnar grows increasingly popular in Iceland and MMA becomes more prevalent in the local media, detractors have predictably come out of their woodwork, raising various concerns over the merits of “a sport that celebrates barbaric violence” and Gunnar’s own standing as a public figure. Lately, whenever kids get into a schoolyard tussle, a mini-moral panic erupts, where he and his sport are called into question. Most recently, Gunnar was taken to task by commentators after two ten-year-old boys got into a fistfight a couple of days after the Maia bout.
At this point, the discourse is fairly routine. First, various commentators respond to an event by claiming that Gunnar is a bad role model. His defenders will then respond, perhaps noting that kids have been getting into fights since time immemorial and this isn’t likely to change. Predictable and petty as this verbal sparring is, Gunnar becomes visibly frustrated when the topic is brought up, saying he’s fed up with having to repeat himself again and again.
When asked whether he considers himself a role model, he responds that he’s not the person to answer that. “I try doing what I do to the best of my ability. It’s up to other people to decide if I am a role model, and if so, of what kind.” We discuss role models in general, and their responsibility to the public. After pausing for a moment, Gunnar admits that he’s not sure. “You have to realise the impact you can have, and base your decisions on that,” he says. “Yet at the same time, people have to understand that you’re just living your life. Knowing that young boys and girls might look up to me makes me want to be careful to remain true to myself, and stick to my own values.”
Gunnar is known for seeming stoic and calm, rarely showing emotion. His friends, however, know that he can be very impatient, and that he hates being delayed. Right now he’s back to training full time and says he’ll be in fighting shape again in a month or two. He’s aiming for three or four bouts this year.
He says he doesn’t want to decide who he fights next, while noting that he wants many fights in quick succession. “The UFC never match you against someone who is far behind you, so we always just say yes to what they suggest. They’re all tough guys, and you can always learn from them, which is what motivates me as a fighter. I’m interested in improving as a fighter, learning new movements, and putting myself into intense situations. I want to keep going and fight the top guys, and then pass on my skills when I’ve retired.”
The Calm Warrior: Gunnar Nelson takes life one fight at a time
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.
It Wasn’t All Bad: Highlights From Last Year In Sports
Following a disappointing loss to Rick “The Horror” Story in 2014, Gunnar Nelson, Iceland’s premiere cage fighter, took some time off and went back to the drawing board. Gunnar had earned a name for himself for his prodigious grappling and his methodical approach to fighting before getting signed onto the UFC, and he displayed exactly those qualities when he returned to the octagon in July to fight and beat Brandon Thatch in just two minutes and 54 seconds.