Gunnar Nelson speaking to The42 this week in Las Vegas ahead of UFC 194. The42
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Gunnar Nelson: Ireland feels like home and the people are my countrymen

Only Conor McGregor will receive a louder reception than Ireland’s favourite Icelander tonight in Vegas.

– Paul Dollery reports from Las Vegas

HE’S USED TO it by now, yet Gunnar Nelson is still taken aback every time.

Whether it’s for a weigh-in or a fight, he’s greeted by a cacophony of noise from the Irish fans which is usually the preserve of the likes of Conor McGregor.

As the only fighter from Iceland in the UFC and one of his country’s most famous exports, Nelson is proud to represent the Nordic republic. But Ireland is home too and he doesn’t hesitate to admit it.

“Yeah, it does,” Nelson told The42, when asked if he’s still surprised by how well he’s received by the Irish fans. “They’re so animated, intense and loud. It’s powerful and it gets you every time.”

Nelson’s connection to Ireland can be traced back 10 years when he first crossed paths with Straight Blast Gym head coach John Kavanagh, who had travelled to Reykjavik to hold a seminar at the Mjolnir gym. Nelson has been training under Kavanagh ever since.

Now 27, he has spent a lot of time in Ireland over the years, both training and fighting. Preparing for tonight’s UFC 194 bout against Demian Maia, he stayed in Ireland for his training camp and lived with his friend and team-mate, Conor McGregor.

“I think it was the best camp yet,” Nelson said. “I guess we’re always getting better and we know the way to set it up now. I know the way for me to train, [Conor] knows his and everybody on our team. And it was good to be back with all the guys as well in Dublin.

“When you’re at home, you seem to be able to work on a lot of things that you maybe wouldn’t work on if you’re going abroad. Home is home, you know? Well, Dublin is my second home. But it feels like home.”

UFC 189 Mixed Martial Arts Gunnar Nelson submits Brandon Thatch at UFC 189. John Locher John Locher

The fans will save the loudest cheer until last tonight, when McGregor emerges to face Jose Aldo, but Nelson will have their backing as well — just as he did in July at UFC 189, when a predominantly Irish crowd roared him on to victory against Brandon Thatch.

Nelson: “It’s an amazing feeling. I went [to Ireland] first when I was so young and started training, and it is my team. All the people there know me and it just feels like home. It feels like they’re my countrymen.”

Conor McGregor has often spoken of his desire to compete in a UFC title bout at Croke Park in 2016. But that’s an aim for Nelson too. A win tonight against the number-six-ranked fighter in the 170lbs division could make title contention a realistic target next year.

“I would love that, definitely,” said Nelson, who’s 5-1 in the UFC. “If Conor is going to defend his belt in Croke Park I would love to get a title shot too.”

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