Gunnar Nelson is always relaxed, but today at SBG Concorde in Dublin he seems even more laid back than usual.
When a UFC fighter walks into a room everyone usually takes notice, but when ‘Gunni’ walks down the stairs from John Kavanagh’s office that overlooks the matted areas, he seems like just another body in the gigantic facility. He is abundantly at ease with the surroundings, laughing and joking before he enters the Octagon at the back of the gym for some light training in front of the gathered media.
Nelson’s affiliation with the gym is nearly ten years strong now. The fact that the Irish fans lapped up UFC’s announcement that the Icelandic fighter will headline the promotion’s return to Belfast says a lot about how they nation feel about their honorary ambassador.
Belfast itself is familiar terrain for the submission specialist having competed in the city once in his storied career. As he can remember it, the set-up will be a little bit different in November when he headlines UFC Belfast against Dong Hyun Kim.
“I fought once in Belfast before,” he reminisces.
“I had only fought the weekend before and then I was offered a fight in Belfast the following week. We drove up there and I was told they had some guy that was around the same weight as me to fight. That’s how we did it back then.
“It’s very different now. To see how much MMA has grown in Ireland and all over Europe is amazing. In my home country too, Iceland, even though it’s not legal over there at the moment and there are no shows, everyone knows the sport and watches it. Seeing that growth and being part of it, it’s amazing.”
The way the Irish fans have embraced Nelson is quite unprecedented. The Icelandic welterweight admits that he never saw the adoration he receives from the Irish coming, despite many people confusing him for an Irishman due to the brogue he developed from training in the country over the years.
“It feels phenomenal,” says Nelson. “I’ve been here a long time and to get the same feeling back from them that I have for the Irish people and for Ireland makes (the Irish treating me as one of their own) feel very real to me.
“I couldn’t have really seen it (happening). We couldn’t even see the sport being this big here either.
“Even before I was in the UFC I could feel the big following that I had in Ireland. Actually, a lot of people thought I was Irish because I was competing here and training under John.
“A lot of times people say I have an Irish accent. I learned how to speak in Ireland. I didn’t really speak English well until I was 17. I get it a lot when I’m in America, people thinking I’m Irish. There are a few things that I say that are very Irish.”
Nelson’s previous UFC headline bout against Rick Story ended in a loss, and even though the Mjolnir man is not bothered by his placement on the card, he is happy with his billing due to his connection with the Emerald Isle.
“It’s awesome to have a main event here in Ireland. The last time (in a main event) it didn’t go my way, but it’s awesome to be a main event over here for me. It’s always a fight though, and I’m just getting ready to fight whoever is in front of me. Where you are on the card isn’t really important to me, it’s just about getting into that mindset.”
People tuning in to the event from around the world may hear the famous Irish chorus cheering on Nelson, but he is pretty sure that Iceland will be well represented in the SSE Arena in November too.
“I think there’s going to be a lot coming over,” he tells the scrum in front of him.
“It’s only a short flight and (the sport) is getting bigger and bigger. It’s not a huge arena so hopefully (they will come). I’ve been getting as many tickets as I can for my friends at the gym.
“We’ll have to see how many get tickets, but I think it’s going to be a big crowd. I think they’ll get along very well with the Irish.”
As far as his Korean opponent is concerned, Nelson maintained that he has done his homework on ‘Stun Gun’ and is looking forward to sharing the octagon with the exciting judo black belt.
“I checked him out and I know him as a fighter, how he fights and his style. We’ve definitely looked at some certain situations to train. Like always, we focus on ourselves more than the opponent. That fits better with out program.”
“He’s a great fighter and I look forward to facing him.”
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