The last time Gunnar Nelson stepped into the UFC octagon was nearly two-and-a-half years ago. On top of which, it’s been more than three years since the Icelandic grappling talent got his hand raised in competition. This Saturday, the 33-year-old returns to action on the main card of the UFC London fight card.
Injuries have prevented Nelson from competing since his September 2019 decision setback to Gilbert Burns. That fight might not seem like ancient history, but when it happened, Burns had only recently moved back to welterweight and was unranked at 170 pounds. Since defeating Nelson, ‘Durinho’ has fought for the UFC welterweight crown and is currently the No. 2 ranked fighter in the promotion’s 170-pound rankings. All of which is to say that things move fast in the world of MMA, and Nelson has a lot to prove on Saturday against late replacement opponent, Takashi Sato.
There was a time when Nelson was considered a future UFC title contender on the rise. He began his career with a 9-0-1 record, catapulting him into a deal with the UFC. There he immediately thrived, rattling off four straight victories to open his time in the Octagon—the latter of which netted him back-to-back “Performance of the Night” bonuses via submission.
Heading into the winter of 2014, Nelson was riding high. He was 4-0 with the UFC and ranked No. 12 in the division when the promotion booked him in his first main event, against Rick Story. Nelson dropped a split-decision in that bout, marking the first time he’d tasted defeat in MMA. (Bloody Elbow described the scorecard that awarded the fight to Nelson as “ridiculous”)
And while that loss may not have been a catastrophic setback for the SBG Ireland trained fighter, he hasn’t won two bouts in a row since. Alongside his long injury layoff, he’s currently riding a two-fight losing skid. Fans shouldn’t overlook who those two (semi-recent) losses came to, of course. As noted, his most recent defeat was at the hands of Gilbert Burns. Nelson’s previous setback was a March 2019 split-decision loss to Leon Edwards—currently the No. 3 ranked fighter in the official UFC welterweight rankings and the likely next opponent for champion Kamaru Usman.
Nelson has time to get back in the mix. At 33, he is younger than Burns, Usman, and No. 1 ranked welterweight contender Colby Covington. But if he wants to make a move, he needs to get a big win over Sato on Saturday and parlay that victory into a matchup against a ranked opponent in his next booking. If he can’t make a statement this weekend, it just may be that he finds himself firmly regulated to the territory of ‘what if’ stories in the world of MMA.
UFC London certainly won’t be the biggest fight card of Nelson’s career, but the results could determine the trajectory of what he has left to offer at the highest level of mixed martial arts.
UFC London takes place Saturday, March 19 at 02 Arena in London, England. The entire card streams on ESPN+.