Simon Head: Ireland’s Icelander Gunnar Nelson primed for UFC 231 return

Norse Nelson is practically one of our own he's been here so long, and now he's getting back in the octagon for Toronto's UFC 231...

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In a year where we’ve seen trash talk, controversial incidents and questionable behaviour aplenty, it’s refreshing to know that Gunnar Nelson is set to appear on our television screens this weekend.

Nelson is set for action at UFC 231 in Toronto on Saturday night, where he’ll face off against in-form Brazilian Alex “Cowboy” Oliveira in a fascinating welterweight contest on the main card.

It marks the first time we’ve seen Nelson in the octagon since his controversial knockout defeat to Argentinian contender Santiago Ponzinibbio in July 2017. Nelson claimed that he was poked in the eye during the fight, which caused him to see double, then he was caught with the knockout shot. His team appealed the result, but it was rejected.

LAS VEGAS, NV – DECEMBER 12: A doctor checks out Gunnar Nelson after his welterweight fight against Demian Maia during UFC 194 at MGM Grand Garden Arena on December 12, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images)

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Now, after almost a year-and-a-half away, Nelson is ready to return in Toronto as he looks to score an eye-catching win and re-establish himself as a contender at 170lbs.

For those used to watching the attention-grabbing antics of Conor McGregor, Nelson is a refreshing change. The Icelander is as even-tempered, calm and composed as any athlete you could care to meet in the UFC. He steps into the octagon looking like he’s just woken up from an early-evening nap and delivers interviews with a laid-back demeanour that makes you wonder if anything at all can excite him.

He’s equally composed during bouts, too. For a man who competes in arguably the most intense environment in non-team sport, Nelson remains incredibly calm and controlled, and even after he captures victory his celebrations get no more raucous than the raising aloft of his hands. He really is the ice-man.

It’s the complete polar opposite of McGregor, which makes the fact the two are great friends and teammates all the more remarkable. The ying to McGregor’s yang, Nelson has been an integral part of the SBG team that has produced a clutch of Irish-based MMA stars. He’s such an integral part of the SBG team that his accent now has a distinct Irish lilt, and Irish fans have taken him as one of their own.

McGregor is undoubtedly the most successful, but Nelson is every-inch an elite operator himself. He’s a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under the legendary Renzo Gracie and is coached not just by SBG’s head coach John Kavanagh in Dublin, but also by his father Halle at their Mjolnir gym in Reykavik.

Iceland’s Gunnar Nelson (R) and US Rick Story fight in the ring during the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Fight Night at the Globe Arena in Stockholm on October 4, 2014. AFP PHOTO / JONATHAN NACKSTRAND (Photo credit should read JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images)

His grappling is simply sublime, and it’s backed up with a languid karate style that makes Nelson deceptively dangerous on his feet. Indeed, some of his notable victories have been as a result of not just his superb submissions, but also his ability to use his striking to create openings to get his opponents to the mat.

A perfect example of this was at UFC 189, when he faced Muay Thai exponent Brandon Thatch in Las Vegas. Thatch was on form and had a significant size advantage over Nelson. Many believed the American held a striking edge, too, but Nelson proved otherwise.

The Icelander dropped Thatch with a huge right hand, then followed him to the mat and locked up a rear-naked choke to secure a highlight-reel victory.

Against Alex Oliveira this weekend Nelson will face a fellow BJJ black belt and a man who is more than happy to stand and trade. He’s lost just one out of his last six outings and is riding a two-fight win streak heading into this weekend’s contest. He’s also alternated wins via KO/TKO and submission across his last five victories, illustrating his versatility.

It represents the perfect test for Nelson to prove his credentials, and if Nelson can secure victory he’ll be thrust straight back into the mix and pushing for a Top 10 bout in early 2019.

THE ODDS

Gunnar Nelson 4/6, Alex Oliveira 11/10

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