Gunnar Nelson's status as an adopted son of Ireland has never been in doubt. The Icelandic fighter, who splits his training between Dublin and Mjolnir in Reykjavik, was speaking today at SBG Concorde ahead of his UFC Belfast main event bout with Dong Hyun Kim in November.
His bout with the South Korean will be Nelson's second UFC fight on Irish soil but, as he says, this is about as close as it gets to fighting in his hometown. Despite being a household name in his native land, mixed martial arts is still outlawed in Iceland ("it's not legal at the moment but everyone knows about it and watches it") and until the day that legislation might pass in order to rectify this, fighting in Ireland is the next best thing.
This is where I went when I was young to train and this is pretty much where I started – in Rathcoole, actually. John [Kavanagh] lived in Rathcoole 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.
[The support from the Irish fans] 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.
While the sport of MMA has risen to huge heights since Nelson's teammate Conor McGregor came to prominence in 2013, Nelson had been fighting in Ireland for shows like Cage Contender and Cage Rage since 2007 - well before the UFC came knocking.
It was even in these times, in the midst of his own development as a fighter under John Kavanagh, where Gunnar Nelson first began to notice the kinship he was developing with Irish fight fans.
It was before I was in the UFC that I was starting to feel that I had a big following in Ireland. People were starting to know me. A lot of people thought I was Irish because I was always here competing and training. A lot of times people say I have an Irish accent but I learned how to speak in Ireland. I didn’t really speak English that well until I was 17. I get that sometimes when I’m in America or some places; they ask me if I’m Irish. The language is the only difference I think [between the Irish and the Icelanders].
Being in the company of Nelson, you are struck by how calm and composed he is. Very much the Yin to Conor McGregor's Yang, watching Nelson first warm up, then shadow box and then do some light grappling work, it is obvious to all watching that he has found a way to extend his own personal philosophies into his fighting style. Every movement is measured, considered - much like how every word he utters is thought out and precise. There is no wasted energy when it comes to Gunnar Nelson.
Nelson's main event in Belfast won't be the first time that he has headlined a show for the UFC. Back in November 2014, he dropped a five-round split decision to American fighter Rick Story in Stockholm and with another starring slot coming his way up north, he is determined to make ammends. Ultimately though, he will step into the octagon with a clear idea of what is required of him.
It’s awesome to have a main event here in Ireland. Last time it didn’t go my way. It’s always a fight though and I’m just going in there and I’m fighting whoever is in front of me. Where on the card it is is not of major importance. The mindset is the same.
Despite losing at the hands of Demian Maia last December, the two fights which bookended the loss to the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu master (Brandon Thatch and Albert Tumenov) showcased Nelson's skills impeccably. The latter fight against Tumenov last May in Rotterdam, in particular, was arguably the best showing of Nelson's 18-fight career to date.
A solid showing against Dong Hyun Kim, who is ranked in the welterweight divisions top 10, would propel Nelson towards fights with higher stakes in the upper reaches of the division. The pressure is on to perform, though. Champion Tyron Woodley astonished with his knockout of Robbie Lawler and he'll stare down the incredibly impressive Stephen 'Wonderboy' Thompson next.
Aside from those two, there stands a wrecking crew of MMA talent in his way: Maia, Condit, Cerrone and perhaps even the returning Georges St-Pierre. With so many big names staking their own claims in the stacked welterweight frame, Nelson knows that you have to seize these opportunities when they present themselves. For a ground expert like 'Gunni', sometimes this presents its own challenges.
People want to see big bombs and people get knocked out. It seems to be what most people want to see. There is less people that appreciate great ground work. I think it’s harder to understand. It’s easier to understand when you’re swinging a fist at somebody’s face. The ground work, it can be hard to see what’s going on. If you don’t [understand], they’re just kind of both there hugging. But for those who know and can appreciate good ground work, it’s pure art.
And for those who appreciate the artistry of what he does, what a canvas Gunnar Nelson paints.
Tickets to UFC FIGHT NIGHT®: KIM vs. NELSON will be available to the general public on Friday, September 23 from 10:00 a.m. BST via the SSE Arena box office and Ticketmaster.