Gunnar Nelson, at one point in time, stood tall as one of the brightest prospects in the UFC’s 170-pound division.
Making his debut with the promotion in September 2012, Nelson submitted former “The Ultimate Fighter: United States vs. United Kingdom” runner-up DeMarques Johnson just over three minutes into the fight. It was the first of four straight victories Nelson would net to start his career inside the Octagon, and the first of three submissions to earn him the win during that stretch. He stood at 13-0 as a professional fighter.
A mild-mannered fighter in comparison to his Hollywood-ready teammate in Conor McGregor, Nelson allowed his actions inside the cage to do all the talking for him. The conventional strategy eventually earned him a spot in the main event at UFC Fight Night 53 in October 2014, taking on an opponent plenty thought was beneath his talents: Rick Story.
Nelson’s first bump in the road, however, took place that night in Stockholm, Sweden. After five rounds, only one judge scored the contest in favor of Nelson (48-47). What’s worse, one of the two judges who scored it in favor of Story had a fairly accurate 50-44 scorecard. After four consecutive impressive wins, Nelson finally met his match inside the cage. Despite his impressive balance of elite jiu-jitsu and crafty karate, Nelson could not outwork a durable Story.
The Icelandic fighter bounced back in his next fight, taking out Brandon Thatch without so much as breaking a sweat on the massive card that was UFC 189.
Nelson’s next bump in the road wouldn’t be too far off, though. He was scheduled to meet perennial welterweight title contender Demian Maia in what was expected to be a showdown between two of the most elite grapplers in the division. And while the argument could be made that Nelson is, in fact, the second-best grappler at 170 pounds, his UFC 194 matchup proved he was a distant second to Maia’s otherworldly skillset.
Maia, much like he’s done to many of the men he’s faced throughout his storied career, largely embarrassed Nelson on what was easily the biggest stage of his career. With millions of people around the globe tuning into the same card that featured Jose Aldo vs. McGregor and Chris Weidman vs. Luke Rockhold, Nelson fell flat. Touted as a terrific grappler who made a name for himself on the mat overseas, Nelson had the worst fight of his life. He landed just seven of 10 total strikes, while Maia dominated the matchup with 193 of 229 of his own. No matter where the fight went, Maia had Nelson’s number, justifiably earning one-sided scorecards that read 30-25, 30-25 and 30-26 in the process.
Nelson’s aura had officially disappeared. Despite his most impressive victories prior to that point, a terribly devastating loss of that nature has the potential to cast a dark shadow over even the greatest of accolades.
Undeterred, “Gunni” bounced back several months later, earning a dominant submission victory over highly touted Albert Tumenov at UFC Fight Night 89 in May of last year. Nearly a year later, Nelson took home his second straight victory in a one-sided beating of Alan Jouban at UFC Fight Night 107.
He now takes on a surging contender in Santiago Ponzinibbio in what will be his second opportunity to main event a UFC card. Nearly three years removed from the first chance he got under the UFC spotlight, Nelson is a vastly improved fighter than he was in 2014. That said, he’s also facing a far more dangerous foe than he did the first time around.
If he does manage to win, however, Nelson will have defeated just the second ranked UFC opponent of his career. Eventually, he hopes enough wins will propel him back into the same cage with Maia, who is scheduled to challenge for the UFC welterweight championship opposite Tyron Woodley later this month.
“Anyone in the top 10 or preferably, anyone in the top five,” Nelson told MMA Fighting of what he’d like next after Ponzinibbio. “As I’ve said before, my mind doesn’t really work that way. I don’t really put faces on my opponents anyway. I just want to face the top guys.
“I would also like to get the chance to fight Maia at some point; that’s a little dream of mine. I’d like to be able to challenge him maybe for the title if he gets it, which I hope he does.”
To some, a victory over Maia is the only way Nelson will ever rid himself of the criticism that currently surround his good, but not-yet-great game. For now, he’ll have to settle for changing minds incrementally with a win over the No. 14 fighter in his class.