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The Icelandic teenager who became one of Ireland's favourite fighting sons

“It feels like home to me here.”

Image: John Locher

WHEN JOHN KAVANAGH travelled to Iceland to host a mixed martial arts seminar in 2005, a 16-year-old kid at the Mjolnir gym in Reykjavik stood out. His name was Gunnar Nelson.

“I had been told about Gunni before I left Dublin,” Kavanagh writes in his autobiography, Win or Learn. “He had very high-level karate and, while grappling was still new to him, he was taking to it like a duck to water. When I arrived, Gunni asked me for a private lesson, and his potential was very evident when we rolled.”

Just over a year later, Nelson came to Dublin to spend some time learning from Kavanagh at Straight Blast Gym, which was based in an industrial estate in Rathcoole at the time. It would turn out to be the first of many visits.

“While Gunni was in Dublin he stayed in my apartment,” Kavanagh continues. “He was obsessive about improving. Sometimes there would be a knock on the door of my bedroom at 1am. It would be Gunni with a question about technique that had been keeping him awake. Gunni’s rate of progress was almost unprecedented.”

It’s nearly 10 years since his first visit and Gunnar Nelson now refers to Ireland as his second home. Competing in the upper echelons of the UFC’s welterweight division, he represents both Mjolnir and SBG in the octagon and he’s almost as recognisable on the streets of Dublin as he is in Reykjavik.

Nelson has been humbled by the manner in which he has been embraced by Irish fans, who now see him as one of their own. He wasn’t the main attraction when he fought on the same card as his team-mate Conor McGregor in Dublin in 2014 or in Las Vegas twice last year, but the decibels generated in recognition of Nelson on each occasion suggest that he’s flying the flags of two nations when he fights on the biggest stage in MMA.

Great to have my brother @gunninelson over with me again. Ready to take down the double gold! #TheDeuce #SBG #Mjolnir

A photo posted by Conor McGregor Official (@thenotoriousmma) on

That has earned him top billing for the UFC’s return to Irish shores. Nelson will headline UFC Fight Night 99 in Belfast on 19 November against Dong Hyun Kim. It will be his sixth fight in Ireland, a journey which has taken him from the modest surroundings of The Ringside Club in Dublin in 2007 to The SSE Arena in 2016 — not to mention stops at the MGM Grand in Vegas and London’s O2 Arena along the way.

“This is where I came to train when I was young. This is pretty much where I started — here in Rathcoole actually,” Nelson said yesterday at Straight Blast Gym on Dublin’s Naas Road. “John lived in Rathcoole and we trained in the industrial estate there. That was the first time I came over, in 2007. It feels like home to me here. It’s like a second home, Ireland.”

The people of Iceland and Ireland have plenty in common, Nelson explains. According to him, the only difference between the country where he was born and the one that has adopted him is the language. Nevertheless, his acceptance and popularity among Irish people is something he would never have envisaged when he first made the journey.

“You couldn’t really have seen it,” he said. “There’s no way. And you couldn’t have seen that the sport was going to be this big here either. It feels phenomenal. I’ve been here so long and to get that same kind of feeling from the people that I feel towards them and towards Ireland, it makes it feel real to me.

“Before I was in the UFC I was starting to feel it. I had a big following in Ireland and people were starting to know me. A lot of people thought I was Irish because I was always here, competing and training, and John is my coach, so a lot of people thought I was Irish.

“A lot of the time people even say I have an Irish accent. I learned how to speak in Ireland. I didn’t really speak English that well until I was 17 or something. I get that sometimes when I’m in America or other places; they ask me if I’m Irish.”

Nelson’s clash with Dong Hyun Kim in November will be his second UFC main event, but he’ll be hoping for a much different outcome this time. In October 2014 at UFC Fight Night 53, Nelson delivered an uncharacteristically flat performance as he lost his undefeated record against Rick Story in Stockholm.

Nelson: “It’s awesome to have a main event here in Ireland. The last time it didn’t go my way. It’s awesome to be a main event, especially here for me. But it’s always a fight and I’m just going in there, fighting whoever is in front of me and where it is on the card isn’t majorly important. The mindset is the same.”

John Kavanagh is adamant that Nelson can emulate Conor McGregor by getting his hands on a UFC belt – “There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that Gunni can be a champion,” Kavanagh told The42 earlier this year – and a victory against his Korean opponent in Belfast would set him up nicely for a push at a title shot in 2017.

Nelson (15-2-1), an elite grappler with a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, is currently ranked 12th in the UFC’s welterweight division, and despite suffering the second loss of his career at the hands of Demian Maia last December, he rebounded emphatically in May by stopping hotly-fancied Russian striker Albert Tumenov.

“It depends on how you win, of course, If you have a couple of great wins you can go for a title shot, definitely,” Nelson insisted. If that time comes, rest assured that Irish fans will be laying claim to the country’s second UFC champion.

Tickets to UFC Fight Night®: Kim vs. Nelson will be available to the general public on Friday, 23 September from 10am via the SSE Arena box office and Ticketmaster.

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Paul Dollery

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