Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace, Gunnar Nelson, will look to strangle rising knockout artist, Santiago Ponzinibbio, into submission this Sunday night (July 16, 2017) at UFC Fight Night 113 inside The SSE Hydro in Glasgow, Scotland.
Expectations were extremely high when Nelson joined UFC. An unbeaten jiu-jitsu prodigy with a great deal of kickboxing experience, many expected Nelson to quickly rise through the Welterweight ranks and force his way into the title mix.
Five years later, where is he exactly?
Nelson has scored some slick finishes and solid wins, enough so to earn a spot in the Top 10. Unfortunately, he also lost pretty clearly to the two best fighters who he has faced (Rick Story, Demian Maia). At 28 years old, the Icelandic athlete’s ceiling is still unknown, and he’s facing a reasonable tough style match up here.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Nelson is a black belt in Goju-ryu Karate ... and he very much fights like it. Additionally, all that time training with Conor McGregor has rubbed off on him somewhat, as Nelson has adapted some of the Lightweight champion’s strategies into his game. Though he’ll occasionally move into Southpaw, Nelson does most of his work from the Orthodox stance. His Karate background is obvious, as Nelson keeps a very sideways stance and bounces lightly at all times. While bouncing, Nelson is ready to spring forward into the fray or backward away from harm at any time.
Nelson’s sudden burst forward surprises fighters. Because of his calm facial expression and occasionally lazy-looking movements, Nelson has been able to shock people with the speed at which he closes distance. While he’s usually all about the right hand, Nelson cracked Brandon Thatch with a sudden left hook (and then a cross) to send him to the mat (GIF).
That sudden forward attack is something of a staple of Karate fighters, and Nelson does it better than most. Part of the reason its so effective is distance. Nelson gets his opponent accustomed to having to reach for him, expecting him to have to make an athletic movement to close range. Instead, Nelson will allow himself to inch toward his foe, only to unleash a sudden cross into the jaw (GIF).
The other half of the classic Karate approach is to give ground and counter. Like his “Notorious” team mate, Nelson does well to bounce back, plant, and fire the cross, although it of course isn’t as devastating. Additionally, Nelson will look to parry his opponent’s punches as he moves backward, slipping in a check hook. For the most part, Nelson is a low-volume fighter. He attacks with one or two hard, sudden shots at a time, be it offensive or on the counter. He will, however, flurry with punches to raise his opponent’s guard, which opens up his takedowns.
Another part of Nelson’s attack worth mentioning is his kicking ability. Nelson fires smooth kicks with good speed, usually choosing not to step in order to make the strike faster. The kicks come directly from his standard Karate stance, making them more difficult to counter. Nelson has also flirted with some fancier kicks — be they spinning or up the middle — which are dangerous even if they haven’t played a significant role just yet.
Defensively, Nelson is sharp early on. However, his stance has a natural weakness to low kicks. His lead leg is turned sideways, meaning outside low kicks land to the hamstring (ouch) and knock him out of position.
Additionally, Nelson’s game relies a lot on fast feet and reaction time. If his lead leg is beaten up, or he’s fatigued, Nelson is far more hittable. Rick Story demonstrated this well in their five-round battle, whacking Nelson’s leg early and often. By the third round, there was little bounce to Nelson’s step, and he walked into punches far more frequently. Even Demian Maia had little trouble landing his left hand after slowing down Nelson with his brutal top game.
Nelson’s wrestling is perhaps the most underrated aspect of his game. He’s succeeded in dragging some pretty tough wrestlers to the mat, and only Maia has had any success in keeping him pinned.
Offensively, Nelson has a pretty interesting approach to wrestling. Unlike many fighters, he prefers to shoot from the open. Often, Nelson uses the MMA-style blend of double leg: A running hybrid of a traditional double and a body lock from the clinch. Ideally, he’ll have his legs wrapped under his opponent’s body and below the center of gravity, but it ultimately doesn’t matter if he has enough momentum.
To land his shot, Nelson has two real approaches. On one hand, he can level change at the end of combinations. Alternatively, he can allow his opponent to reach for him and attempt to duck under those punches. He actually does his best when initiating, as Nelson times the shot well and is crafty in producing the actual finish. Nelson doesn’t just drive his opponents backward, he’ll look to cut an angle and sneak a knee behind their legs to topple them. Sometimes, he’ll even drop fully into a trip, sacrificing good wrestling form for a chance to get on top.
Defensively, Nelson is a submission threat with quality wrestling technique. That keeps him up much of the time, with only Maia — the one man who’s better at jiu-jitsu — able to suck him into a world of grappling and win.
A decorated black belt, Nelson has proven to be a vicious grappler. His top game is immensely heavy, as Nelson weighs down on his opponents, forces a mistake, and ends the bout.
In order to land the submission, Nelson first has to pass the guard, which is the subject of his technique highlight.
Once Nelson is in the mount, he forces his opponent to make a move with elbows. Despite keeping his posture low and grapevining the legs, Nelson is still able to land hard shots by framing the face and attacking with elbows.
Before long, his foe will attempt to scramble. If the man on the bottom attempts to elbow escape or generally turn towards Nelson at any point during his passing attempts, Nelson will jump on a high elbow guillotine (GIF).
More often, his opponent elects to give up the back rather than eat elbows. Once that happens, Nelson is skilled at locking in a body triangle and slipping his hand underneath the neck (GIF). Switching the choking arm often, Nelson creates lots of opportunities for him to slide under the chin and finish the choke.
This is a great match up for Nelson because it tests whether his strength can outwork his weakness. If he’s able to find the takedown or stun Ponzinibbio early, it’ll very likely be an easy night of work. If not, it will be a real test of his kickboxing.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an amateur fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport's most elite fighters.