When we last left our heroes...It's been a long time coming for Nelson. For longtime fans of the sport, it's felt like forever since he was touted as one of the top prospects in all of MMA. Not only was he young when he went pro, but in 2009 he kind of astounded the grappling world too, with ADCC wins over Jeff Monson and David Avellan. He astounded the grappling world in defeat as well when he returned (losing to Andre Galvao and Xande Ribeiro means you're still awesome and world class). And this doesn't even take into account his pedigree as a karate prodigy.
However, he took a lengthy break from MMA in 2008, returning 2 years later after concentrating on the grappling circuit. He also walked away from a potentially fatal crash that saw his pickup go off the road, and tumble down an Icelandic hill.
Nelson has essentially avoided the pratfalls of most prospects. Rather than dive right into the mix, he's been extremely patient with his career. At 11-0-1, other fighters would do well to take notes.
Across from him will be the Dagestani fighter Omari Akhmedov who made hus UFC debut in blistering, successful(ish) fasion. Like many Sambo fighters lately, he seems unstoppable even in a punch-induced coma.
It's kind of unfortunate these two have to fight each other, but I think Joe Silva and Co. suspect Nelson will look good in what plans to be a set up for a high profile, contender match in the wide open WW division.
What both men can do: It's hard to measure these things, but when you watch Gunnar fight, I get the sense that this is what we have the pleasure of seeing when prospects are brought along slowly, and wisely. You're not gonna see Nelson look hastily for a knockout when he can't get the fight to the ground, or predictably wade in for a double leg or trip takedown when things aren't going as well on the feet.
Granted, he hasn't needed to be desperate, but it's easy to see how things might have different against a fighter of Santiago's caliber. Then again, Nelson is a supernatural talent. Much is made of his ground game, and for good reason. His takedowns, rather than being an end in itself are the means of scoring a better position. His transitions into side control seamlessly. Once there he's extremely agile inside, always going knee to belly to create the necessary bridge for a transition into mount. His strong base keeps him from getting stuck on half guard on top; basically, he knows what the hell he's doing.
There's plenty more to talk about with respect to his ground game, but I want to talk about his striking. It's what will undoubtedly be called 'elusive' over and over by the UFC broadcast, because he does sort of resemble Lyoto Machida. The major difference, and what makes Gunnar a potential contender, is that whereas Machida wants the fight to stay on the feet, Nelson is looking to take the fight to the ground. Gunnar is constantly switching stances, and throws a crisp though looping right or left power shot down the middle. Unfortunately Connor hasn't done an article on his striking so I can't plagiarize him, but Nelson also developed a nasty right uppercut from his southpaw stance against Santiago.
He doesn't kick as much, but he flicks them out with authority (especially his left). As for Omari, he's a very dynamic fighter. He's active from his back, aggressive on top, and like many Sambo fighters has a knack for flailing efficiently, and violently. He has some serious power in both hands and favors the right leg from his traditional stance.
What both men can't do: Nonetheless, who can get his performance against Thiago Perpetuo out of their head? You never want to judge a fighter on one bout, and I'm not, but that was a hilarious display of just bleed, let me bang bro action that will not be soon forgotten. It's just too bad Rogan wasn't doing the commentary. I honestly don't know that his blood vessels would have survived.
Basically, Omari is in serious trouble if he chooses to fight Nelson that way. Nelson's punchers are much cleaner than Perpetuo's. Granted, if I'm going overboard on the Nelson hype, it's because I think he is champion material but I certainly won't overlook his flaws. For one, Nelson doesn't have the kind of raw power Perpetuo has (who for all of his faults can hit hard*).
Two, Nelson seemed to get too comfortable towards the end of his bout with Santiago, and got popped for his efforts. Like Machida, he keeps his hands low, which isn't always sensible when you know your opponent is in desperation mode. I'm picking Nelson for obvious reasons, but I also think Sambo fighters are never quite as good defensively as they are offensively despite its place as a very good foundation for MMA in general.
X-Factor: Omari could always land a huge punch and put Gunnar's lights out. Not sure what else I could put here.
In-Fight Soundtrack: Eddie Vedder's song used for one of Gunnar's highlight reels felt appropriate then, and appropriate now since Omari will end up on the next one. Just saying.
Prediction: Gunnar Nelson by RNC, round 2.
*Two words that always remind me of this boxing lost in translation moment (13:14 of the video).