Style is everything in the arts. It’s the unique brush stroke of a painter or a guitarist’s signature tone, the distinct body movement of a dancer or a chef’s hallmark ingredient.
Style is what differentiates one artist from the next, and welterweight Gunnar Lúðvík Nelson, who fights in the UFC Fight Night 46 co-main event on July 19, has developed a method and madness all his own, making him one of mixed martial arts’ most promising young stars.
A renowned Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt under the legendary Renzo Gracie, and a gold medalist at the 2009 IBJJF Pan American Championship, Nelson, 25, is all the rage at the moment, stringing together twelve consecutive victories in MMA competition, including three straight inside the Octagon. He confuses opponents with his unorthodox Karate-based striking and stifles foes with a dominant top game and seamless guard passing abilities, rising to prominence on account of his unique style.
Pundits are quick to draw comparisons to Lyoto Machida, contrasting Nelson’s agile stand up technique and angles with the former UFC light heavyweight champion’s. Many also point to his 2009 ADCC Submission Wrestling World Championship victory over former UFC heavyweight challenger Jeff Monson, a man nearly 70 pounds heavier, to document Nelson’s calm and collected approach. But Gunnar Nelson’s style extends beyond the Octagon and past the mat; he is a product of his surroundings, cultivating a distinct brand of MMA that represent the remote artistry of the north Atlantic island nation of Iceland.
Hailing from Reykjavik, a city of 121,000 that wouldn’t even rank in the top 200 in the US by population, Nelson, who is also a black belt in Goju-ryu Karate, brings an avant garde aesthetic to MMA, never before seen. Nelson is part arctic fox and part boa constrictor, prancing around the cage with the fleetest of feet and one of the sport’s most suffocating ground games, employing a style that is on the verge of innovation, much like Icelandic artistic contemporaries Björk and Sigur Rós.
Far removed from the cultural influences and pressures of the European continent, Icelandic artists, and mixed martial artists, like Nelson, Björk, and Sigur Rós frontman Jónsi Birgisson, have been afforded the room to grow and develop organically, creating styles, sounds, and movements unlike any others.
Björk, for example, pioneered a sound that combines electronic dance music, jazz, and trip hop, creating a cacophonous blend that is distinct, unmistakably her own, and impossible to duplicate. Post rock outfit Sigur Rós, on the other hand, took an already recognized genre and added an ethereal twist on the classical and operatic movement-based style, not only singing in the Icelandic language, but throwing in the looming and haunting sonics of the cold Arctic breeze.
Sure, it’s a stretch to say the Gunnar Nelson is the Björk or Sigur Rós of MMA, but after examining his body of work, it’s impossible to deny that he takes the established forms of jiu jitsu, Karate, and mixed martial arts, and concocts his own style.
In his most recent outing in the Octagon, Nelson, who was returning to competition after 13 months on the shelf, made quick work of Omari Akhmedov, submitting the Dagestani with a picturesque first round guillotine choke. Submissions are a hallmark of Nelson’s game, with eight of his professional victories coming by way of submission, but it was how he broke Akhmedov down that showcased Nelson’s unique approach.
Spending the first 90 seconds of the contest chasing Akhmedov around the Octagon, bouncing on the balls of his feet, while switching stances, Nelson landed a swift straight left hand before rushing in for the quick takedown. Using strikes to set up a trip is nothing new in MMA; however, Nelson recorded the move so methodically, tactically, and gracefully that it was pure art, not to mention one of the more efficient uses of punches seen of late.
Then, within five seconds Nelson passed his opponent’s guard and went right into the mounted position. Transitions this smooth are rarely seen, if ever, and while Nelson may have learned such techniques under the tutelage of Gracie and John Danaher in New York, there’s also the likelihood that Nelson was influenced by another island-born BJJ world champion, B.J. Penn, with whom he previously trained.
Once on top, it was a barrage of heavy and elbows, raining down on Akhmedov, before Nelson elected to give up the mount and sink in a deep guillotine before forcing the tapout. The entire four-and-a-half-minute contest was picturesque, and a prime example of Nelson’s ability to meld the various disciplines of MMA into his own brand.
And no matter your preference for grapplers or strikers, American, Brazilian, Canadian, or European fighters, Gunnar Nelson elicits praise and awe from the entire MMA community, not only combining and mixing various forms of martial arts, but also adding his own unique spin on the facets of the game. He has unmistakable style, emphasizing the art in MMA.
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