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Takedown breakdown: How Gilbert Burns seized initiative vs. Gunnar Nelson

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A few small details were giving Gunnar Nelson the edge over Gilbert Burns in their wrestling exchanges. Burns adjusted when it mattered the most.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Copenhagen-Nelson vs Burns Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports

Nearly ten years removed from his gi and no-gi IBJJF World championships, Gilbert “Durinho” Burns is shaping up to be an all-round threat in the welterweight division.

Under the guidance of Henri Hooft, Burns has quickly picked up the Dutch style of kickboxing for MMA, leaning on his power and physicality to bang out lightweights and welterweights alike.

However, as he jumps levels in competition, it’s safe to assume that his core grappling skill set is what will make the difference at the elite level. To best impose his ground game, Burns has worked diligently on his most important ancillary skill: wrestling.

In his bout with a fellow decorated grappler in Gunnar Nelson, Burns demonstrated both strong points and flaws in his “wrestling for MMA” game.

UFC Fight Night: Nelson v Burns Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Burns battles back-and-forth with Gunnar Nelson

The basic idea behind Gunnar Nelson’s approach is to be a tricky outside “karate” style striker, force his opponents to pressure a bit recklessly, then plant and counter with strikes or grappling entries. Against opponents without tidy pressuring habits or key cage-cutting weapons, it works like a charm.

While it was rough, Gilbert Burns did manage to trap Nelson along the fence and tie up, crashing in and digging double unders.

Unfortunately, his outside trip attempt off the bodylock was countered.

VIDEO CLIP: Gunnar Nelson reverses the trip attempt of Gilbert Burns

Burns clamped high on the underhook and laced his left leg over, preparing to swing back to his left and take Nelson over backward. However, as soon as Burns’ weight was unbalanced, Nelson pushed in with his whizzer, widening his base and disrupting Burns’ momentum.

Burns proceeds to force the trip and Nelson is able to pivot on his base leg from double overs, releasing his right-side overhook to post and retain height, covering up on top of the falling Burns.

While a few adjustments would make that a viable takedown from Burns, it was enough of a struggle to get Nelson on the fence to begin with.

As time passed, his chase became less frantic, and Nelson found the timing for his own entries.

VIDEO CLIP: Gunnar Nelson presses forward and sticks Gilbert Burns on the cage

There were two major dynamics at play which allowed Nelson to take initiative.

The first was that Burns was clearly uncomfortable on the backfoot, and the energetic blitzes of Nelson were enough to prompt disorganized linear retreats. In terms of covering the space from the center of the mat to the cage, that did the trick.

The second important piece is the high guard of Burns. A common critique of the Dutch style in MMA is that without big gloves, the high guard becomes much less effective as a protective shell. Another criticism I would add, from a grappling perspective, is that it opens up gaping windows for someone like Gunnar Nelson to dig underhooks or snatch up a bodylock once they close the gap.

Even when Burns wasn’t covering up, he was swinging for counters, which essentially gave Nelson the same openings. In general, his reactive defensive striking game is all on one level, making entries of this sort fairly reliable.

Burns found himself stuck on the cage for extended sequences - in some cases all of Nelson’s weight was on the underhook side where he would be attempting to create space from, otherwise Nelson was stingy about handfighting and making sure Burns couldn’t pummel and move.

Fights are often won by exploiting simple dynamics - control a few key factors and limit your opponent’s offense, while emphasizing your own. How wide or narrow the victory is usually depends on the skill competency gap between the two. In this case, Burns and Nelson were fairly even technically, meaning Nelson couldn’t simply dominate long stretches without serious resistance.

After bursting in and entering the clinch under Burns’ high arms yet again, Nelson fought persistently to retain the rear-standing position and take the back.

To prevent this, Burns turns in hard toward Nelson and gets his own back to the fence, hiding it, simultaneously slapping on a whizzer to bring the bodylock higher and reduce its efficacy. Standing taller, but still on the back, Nelson began to pressure in. If he could bump Burns forward, he’d find space behind Burns’ back.

VIDEO CLIP: Gilbert Burns tosses Gunnar Nelson

Seizing that momentum, Burns rips the whizzer, pulls the tricep on Nelson’s remaining arm, lowers his level and throws his near leg across the hips to block. Essentially, Burns is using the upper body ties to drag Nelson over the blocking leg, his own hips were a bit high and off to the side to be truly involved.

But, as Nelson was already coming forward, and because Burns appears to be powerful, even up at 170, Nelson was flung onto his head.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Copenhagen-Nelson vs Burns Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports

Burns did not retain control, but he escaped another potential period of cage control and gave himself a fighting chance.

By all accounts, the fight came down to the third round.

With one minute remaining, Nelson made his move, blitzing and getting Burns on the cage once again. If the trend from the fight thus far held, it would mean that’s where the round ended.

But Nelson took a risk.

As the two pummeled, Nelson switched off from underhook and wrist control to underhook and collar control, squaring up his hips and leaving Burns a free arm. Feeling Burns swimming out of the underhook, Nelson looked to create space for attacks from the double collar tie.

Burns took that space and ran with it.

VIDEO CLIP: Gilbert Burns reverses Gunnar Nelson and nails a fight-winning double leg

Gilbert Burns reverses Gunnar Nelson

Burns uses the collar tie to pivot off to his left and steer Nelson away.

Nelson reaches up with his opposite side collar tie to pull Burns back in, and Burns punches through a strong underhook to bump him forward and straighten him up, disrupting his base.

The keys here are timing, misdirection, and the mechanics of Burns’ underhook. If Burns had simply pushed straight with the underhook, he would have created space, but it would only allow him to disengage at best.

Instead, Burns flared his elbow, “opening the window” and jacking up Nelson’s arm, making it a controlling tie rather than just a strength-based push.

This small adjustment allowed Burns to continue to adjust his path, then switch off to a straight pushing underhook to drive Nelson to the cage.

Within the transition, Burns retained wrist control on the other side, allowing him to switch to another grip without resistance.

As soon as they hit the cage, Burns slid down the underhook to the legs, switching his wrist control hand to the double as he level changed.

The level change was shallow, but Nelson stood tall, and Burns’ quick thinking allowed him to secure his hands underneath Nelson’s butt. It was all Burns needed to hoist him up, flare the double off to the side and bomb forward to complete an athletically impressive takedown.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Copenhagen-Nelson vs Burns Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports

Burns was awarded the victory, and now he faces Tyron Woodley, the former defending champion. Considering how willing Woodley is to put his own back on the cage, these small details with regard to Burns’ clinchwork may make a difference. Moving forward, I’d like to see Burns pressuring behind his jab, using round kicks to cut off lateral retreats, and utilizing level-changing strikes to both work the body and give himself easier takedown entries as he hits the cage. These tools will be essential to press his advantages with the least resistance.

Or maybe Woodley just knocks his block off as he attempts to close the gap.