When mixed martial arts fans hear the word "prodigy", they immediately think of B.J. Penn. The former UFC lightweight champion's obsession with fighting and Brazilian jiu-jitsu garnered him the nickname, mainly due to the fact that he was the first non-Brazilian to win the World Jiu-Jitsu Championships along with earning his black belt in only three years. The term hasn't been used in quite a long time, but our #7 ranked welterweight prospect, Gunnar Nelson (8-0-1), may be one of the only fighters in the world today who might embody what the term represents.
Offensive Skills: Nelson's background is extensive and amazing. He began at age 13 with Goju-ryu Karate, winning multiple titles in Iceland from 2003 to 2005. That background would almost assure him a career as a kickboxer in those parts of the world, but Gunnar transitioned from Karate to Brazilian jiu-jitsu at age 17 despite his success. In only four years, Nelson would be handed his Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under the tutelage of Renzo Gracie, and his successes in grappling tournaments around the world would solidify him as a top talent in the Brazilian jiu-jitsu world. He earned a silver medal at the 2009 Mundials in the brown belt division, gold at the 2009 Pan American Championships, and fourth place at the 2009 ADCC Championships in the absolute division. Quite the feat for a youthful 21 year old.
Interestingly enough, all of these highlights occurred while he was steadily transitioning into the sport of mixed martial arts, a new venture that many people feel he can also dominate just as quickly as he did the art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He proved that his Karate and kickboxing experience could be just a fruitful as his grappling credentials in early bouts, but his Brazilian jiu-jitsu wizardry on the ground quickly became his calling card.
Make no mistake. Gunnar Nelson has the offensive weapons to be a future star in this sport. While his striking still needs some added power and tweaking, he works quick combinations and kicks into his routine effectively. He has a stance that many liken to Lyoto Machida, and his springy footwork acts as a catalyst for his quick kicks and punches. His grappling credentials speak for themselves in the cage, and it's amazing to watch the 22-year-old effortlessly transition to dominant positions.
Defensive Skills: Nelson has yet to be truly tested by any of his opponents. While he did fight to a draw in his first professional bout, I wouldn't put too much weight on it. His subsequent battles provided an array of highlight material, and his grappling ability served its purpose in putting his opponents entirely on the defensive for most of his bouts.
The only concern that I could find was that Gunnar has a tendency to keep his chin rather high when he wades in to strike, but he offsets that problem with speedy footwork and a quick delivery of combinations and kicks. A power puncher who can throw with accuracy and speed could take advantage of that weakness in spectacular fashion, but at the cost of giving up a takedown. Nelson's threat to bring the fight to the ground alone may keep him conscious for a very long time.
Progression & Learning Ability: Obviously, this category is a bit moot. Nelson's credentials in the grappling arena along with his achievements at a very young age in Karate prove that this kid has the intelligence to soak up all the techniques of any given martial art thrown at him. The question is whether he can combine all of those talents and effectively use them in different situations in the cage.
Environment: Nelson splits his time between his local gym, Mjolnir, in Iceland and Renzo Gracie's Academy in New York City. While his local gym provides him with the continued training to keep him in shape and progressing his stand-up skills, Renzo's gym in New York should give him a taste of what to expect should he be called up to the big leagues. He's also made his way to Hawaii and trained with B.J. Penn, and from what I've read in interviews with Nelson -- it was a great experience for him. More trips to some of the best camps in the world could do wonders for him.
Potential: I know what you're thinking. Why isn't Nelson in the top three at the very least? There are a number of reasons, the first being that there is some doubt as to what Nelson will do next. He's been what some would call a free spirit, and he seems content with experiencing his youth and dipping his foot into the many aspects of mixed martial arts. He's talked about entering the amateur wrestling circuit before, rolling in lower level grappling tournaments, and possibly taking time off to improve his striking. All of this within the context that he'll be traveling the world and enjoying life.
There is some concern as to how he'll perform at the highest level as well, and his fight footage reveals some of the holes in his game that may be open for exposure against the high level wrestlers in the States. His takedowns, at least in his mixed martial arts battles, lack the tenacity we normally see from him in the grappling arena, and his striking needs a little work to be fully effective in MMA. While his speed and accuracy is at a high level, his unorthodox style gives off a hint of uneasiness at times, especially when he's lunging forward with his overhand.
His strength of record brings him down a bit on our scale, but that's not a huge factor here. Obviously, prospects need some time to hone their skills in regional action, and I fully understand what Nelson is working toward in taking the steady approach. The good news is that his recent bout with Eduardo Fadiora was a huge step up, and he prevailed as expected with a quick submission win at BAMMA 4 in September.
Nelson has all the skills to be a top ten talent in the future, but there is still some mystery as to when he will fully commit to a career as a star athlete in this sport. He seems to be content at this moment at steadily progressing and improving his skills. There is no harm in that, and to be perfectly honest -- the added time to season his skills for MMA is probably for the best. For now, he'll sit at #7 on our rankings, but he could make his way to the UFC at any moment. It's just a matter of when Nelson is ready to step up and fight a big name.
Sam Elsdon vs. Gunnar Nelson
Gunnar Nelson vs. Niek Tromp
Gunnar Nelson vs. Driss El Bakara
Gunnar Nelson vs. Barry Mairs
Gunnar Nelson vs. Adam Slawinski
Gunnar Nelson vs. Iran Mascarenhas