UFC Nottingham: The Iceland-Ireland Axis
Fergus Ryan looks at the relationship between Ireland and Iceland in developing the UFC's latest star Gunnar Nelson.
It is weigh-in day over at the Capitol FM Arena, Nottingham for the fighters taking part in the UFC event tomorrow night. We’ve already talked to John Kavanagh, Ireland’s world class MMA coach, who’ll be making the walk to the Octagon with Iceland’s Gunnar Nelson. Now let's hear of Kavanagh's protegé who is establishing himself one of Europe’s finest ever welterweights.
Born in 1988 Gunnar, or Gunni, has dedicated his life to training in martial arts and globetrotted the world to compete in MMA and grappling tournaments. At 13 he began karate training and by 16 he was champion at black belt level in his native Iceland.
Around the same time he began training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and crossed paths with John Kavanagh at a seminar in his home gym shortly after.
John recalls the beginning of their friendship, “I was brought to Iceland to give a BJJ seminar at Gunni’s gym, which his father Halli runs (Mjolnir) and is part of the SBG network. After the seminar I was introduced to a ‘strange’ 16 year-old kid who booked me for a private session. We hit it off and shortly after that he came to Ireland and lived with me for about 3 months and trained with us at SBGi in Dublin. That’s pretty much how it started and we’ve been good friends since.”
When not training in Iceland or Ireland, Gunni trains at the Renzo Gracie Academy in New York under Renzo Gracie and the New Zealand grappling genius John Danaher. He has also trained at SBG in Manchester under Karl Tanswell.
According to Matt Thornton the founder of the SBGi gym he believes Gunni is destined for MMA greatness. "Over the last twelve years of my involvement in BJJ and MMA I have had the privilege of working with many top athletes. This list includes people like Randy Couture, Dan Henderson and Forrest Griffin, to name just a few. Gunnar Nelson from Iceland is an up and coming athlete that I believe has all the qualities and skill needed in order to compete at that same level of athletic achievement. I have no doubt that Gunnar will be a champion of this sport, should that be where his heart takes him."
In 2007 Gunni made his MMA debut in Denmark the same night Irish world champion Aisling Daly first set foot in the ring. Though he fought to a draw that night he has since won his next 9 fights across some of Europe’s biggest promotions, including Cage Rage, BAMMA and Cage Contender.
YouTube Credit: Mjolniskastalinn
In 2008 he took his first sabbatical from MMA to concentrate on grappling tournaments. During this period he took silver at the IBJJF World Jiu-Jitsu (brown belt) and gold at the IBJJF Pan American Championship (Gi, brown belt). He beat Clark Gracie of the founding family of BJJ en route to capturing the gold, which was enough for Renzo Gracie to award him his black belt in BJJ.
As if to underline his black belt status, Gunni went on to capture gold in the IBJJF Pan American Championship (No-Gi) at middleweight and silver in the open-weight category.
Returning to MMA after three more fights, taking his record to 9-0-1, Gunni took his second sabbatical to travel, train and teach martial arts. He made a successful return at Ireland’s premier promotion Cage Contender, beating seasoned veteran Alexander Butenko in the first round by submission.
Having had two changes of opponent (Pascal Krauss then Rich Anttonito), Gunni will make his UFC debut against DaMarques Johnson at UFC: Nottingham on Saturday. No doubt he’ll have just as many Irish fans as Icelandic cheering him on.
For more information on the life and career of Gunnar Nelson, check out his website here.
Gunni’s fight will be streamed live on the UFC Facebook page. First fight is scheduled to take place at 18:30, with Gunni and John making the walk after that.
Irish viewers can tune into the main card on ESPN from 2100 on Saturday night.
I’ll be live tweeting from the Arena and will keep you posted on how John and Gunnar get on @GusRyan100.