Gunnar Nelson will make his 12th appearance under the Ultimate Fighting Championship banner when he faces Leon Edwards in the UFC Fight Night 147 co-main event on Saturday in London. With Nelson as one of the welterweight division’s premier submission artists and Edwards as one of its finest strikers, this has the makings of an intriguing grappler-versus-striker matchup.
This installment of The Film Room focuses on Nelson and his efforts inside the cage.
The main problem for most submissions specialist in MMA revolves around getting the fight to the ground. Fighters like Demian Maia could beat anybody in the world on the ground, but he historically struggles to get opponents there with below-average wrestling and takedowns. Nelson on the other hand lands 57 percent of his takedowns on 1.79 attempts per fight. This is not a lot of attempts per fight for a grappling-based fighter; once he gets you down, you are probably not getting back up until the end of the round. Most of his takedowns are double-legs against the cage, but he is also adept at blitzing forward with a quick right hand and then ducking under for the takedown.
Once the fight hits the ground, Nelson leans on the perfect mix of knowing when to posture up and strike and knowing when to pass guard and look for submissions. If Nelson can land a takedown early, he will slowly pick apart opponents with elbows until they leave themselves open for a submission or allow him to advance to the back.
Nelson’s mode of operation on the ground is fairly simple: Land the takedown, move to mount and wait for the opponent to try to get up, at which point he can float his hips over and take their back. Rinse and repeat. He is fine with sitting in mount and landing ground-and-pound, but he is always looking to take the back and lock up a rear-naked choke -- a maneuver with which he has secured eight victories.
Nelson’s pass into mount is reminiscent of Maia, a man with whom he trained after a head-to-head loss in 2015. He will use chest-on-chest pressure and knee slide into mount or post up on one arm while keeping his head in the opponent’s chest and swinging into mount, also known as tripoding. Early in his career, Nelson preferred the knee slide, but after the loss to Maia, he has routinely gone to the tripod after Maia easily mounted him with it.
Most of Nelson’s submission victories have come by rear-naked choke or neck crank, but as a second-degree black belt under Renzo Gracie, he has many more tricks up his sleeve. Nelson won two gold medals in the 2009 gi and no-gi Pan American Championships and that same year won silver at the Mundials, making him one of the most accomplished grapplers in the UFC today. Thus far, only Maia has managed to match his grappling skills.
On the feet, Nelson is nothing to write home about and routinely relies on the same techniques. His karate stance is great for closing the distance, but it also leaves him wide open to be hit. He usually comes forward with a simple blitzing right straight before inciting the grappling exchanges. This simplicity in his striking is easy to see coming, and if he cannot get the fight to the ground against an elite striker like Edwards, he will almost certainly find himself in trouble.
Nelson’s striking defense has always been his biggest kryptonite, and as he fights better and better competition, his standup woes become more evident. This hands-low karate style is fine if you know how to use it, but when you blitz forward with your head high and hands low, you are begging to be hit. Santiago Ponzinibbio is the only fighter to knock out Nelson, but Rick Story also had success on the feet. Expect Edwards to pick apart the Icelandic grappler if the fight does not hit the ground.