Unorthodoxy defined

The interview in its entirety is streamed at the end of this article.
Follow this link for Norwegian version.

The battle for the margins

The Ultimate Fighting Championship is the ultimate goal for every aspiring mixed martial artist in the world, and the journey from obscurity to success can both be long and arduous and filled with insecurities. Many go far on pure talent, but the key, everyone professes, is hard work and iron discipline. It is a world in which every margin counts. Everyone who has seen an MMA fight knows this.

There are a great many concepts in the sport’s current era that are common for all fighters. They all fight in a weight class, and almost all strive to compete in the weight that offers most advantage and least disadvantage. At almost every level of training, training is treated scientifically (given access to resources). At some point before the day of the fight, you’re supposed to have reached your full cardio-vascular potential, perfecting the body’s ability to absorb oxygen and maintain a high pace. You’ve carefully crafted a game-plan together with your coaches. How do you nullify your opponents aggressive game, while highlighting your own advantages?

These concepts are followed because every detail could potentially count. Every margin. You hear fighters like Ronda Rousey say that being the champion means being the best in the world on your worst day, The work is done at the gym, on fight day you show up.

In short: margins matter, and you don’t mess with them. Are you at the right weight? Did you have a perfect training camp? Is your game plan sound? Is some detail left to chance? Then you’re not a professional.

Gunnar Nelson is undefeated at welterweight, and he doesn’t care about your margins.

Training Camp

Nelson faces Omari Akhmedov on March 8th at UFC Fight Night London. Gunnar Nelson makes adjustments some time before the fight. He finds some sparring partners, travels around to Manchester, Dublin, New York and stays at Mjolnir in Iceland, but is it a training camp, the way we as both fans and competitors know it?

– I don’t have a typical training camp, admits Nelson.

– I train all year round and I’m in the gym several hours a day, but I don’t have this period where I push myself to extremes every day and then slow down after the fight. I keep a rhythm, and try to stay in that rhythm all year round. I slow down when my body tells me to slow down.

There is some stigma attached to slowing down when your body is in pain in MMA. The training camp is designed to push cardio to its peak, but it also functions as a stress conditioner, making you capable to push through pain and refusing to lose, conditioning you to never give up and look for ways to win. An attitude often voiced in MMA is that if you give up during a training session, what is to stop someone from breaking your will in the cage? Train hard, fight easy, is the maxim. Gunnar doesn’t share that maxim.

– I don’t know exactly what other people are doing, but I listen to my body. If I need a break I might grow more by doing that than by breaking myself. Gunnar thinks a little bit, then adds:

I know… I know I can be tough when I need to be.

According to the young icelander, it’s also a question about the long term conditions in fighting.

– You should know when to pressure yourself and when to take a break, if you want to stay in this life long, and I really intend to do so. I want to be doing MMA and martial arts in general all my life. I want to stay in the gym until I’m 80 years old, laughs Gunnar.

Light welterweight

ESPNs Brett Okamoto recently called Nelson one of the likely “breakout fighters of the year in 2014”, and predicting his career will take off this year, but added: “I wish Nelson would move to lightweight, but he’ll win plenty as a welterweight this year.”

– Many people drop a weight class nowadays, but really belong in a weight class over. People cut so much weight…

The 25 year old Icelander hesitates a little, and continues,

– I prefer to fight at my weight. I also have to cut a few kilos to make -77 (170 pounds). I prefer to fight at the weight I walk around at and trains at. I’d rather be a little bit smaller than cut a lot of weight to be stronger than someone. I’d rather be faster.

The welterweight should feel the weight pressure. His two previous opponents are former middleweights, and when DeMarques Johnson faced Nelson, he missed weight (he accepted the fight at short notice). When Jorge Santiago faced Nelson, he was considerably heavier.

– They have more weight to work with and they are tougher to move in the fight, but they are also easier to move around. They also tire more quickly and have less capacity to do explosive movement over time. There are advantages and disadvantages to being heavier. I’m used to fighting heavier guys.

Nelson adds that unwillingness to compete with someone because of their size does not conform well to the original idea of martial arts.

– I don’t like it. I like the idea that you find a way to win. Don’t get discouraged by his size or other things. Just find a way.

In the current welterweight-division of the UFC, the likelihood of fighting heavy welterweights is great. One of the men competing for the welterweight title march 16th is Johny Hendricks who told that he walks around at 100 kilos (220 pounds).  

Some fighters are pressured down a weight category both by losses and by the UFC. Lyoto Machida was one of the last bastions of non-weight-cutting, but now he is a contender in middleweight.

– I haven’t felt any pressure from the UFC, but then again, I’m fairly new here.

– I’ll stay at welterweight. I’m 25 years old now, and people tend to get heavier towards their thirties. I’ll just grow into the weight. I don’t mind the big boys, Nelson grins.

Strategy sacrificed for reaction and movement

So what happens on March 8th, when Gunnar fights one of these big boys? What strategy will he employ? Has he studied his opponent carefully? Yes, he’s seen some tape, but he’s not very concerned with what he will bring.

– I don’t have a game plan or train specifically for some opponent. I’m more concerned with my own game, and to make my game more solid overall. Like we’ve discussed, he’s strong and bigger, but I’ll figure it out when I’m in the cage with him.

– I always work on new techniques, but they aren’t specifically for Omari.

Nelson knows about Akhmedov’s style, but does indeed not seem to have overthinked it.

– He’s a sambo guy, yes? He will probably move a little bit different on the ground than standard BJJ-guys, but it’s all grappling. I accept it all.

13 months outside the cage

The Icelander has not competed in 13 months due to a leg injury. The knee surgery can sometimes be fighter kryptonite, but the knee is fine, according to Nelson.

– It actually feels exactly the same way as before, which I hear is pretty unique. The knee surgery and long layoff doesn’t seem to concern him in the least.

– I’m sharp, my mind is awake. That’s all I need. I don’t hesitate moving like I want to move.

Unorthodoxy defined

Lyoto Machida, BJ Penn, Frankie Edgar and Anderson Silva, it seems every onorthodox fighter at some point need to adjust. Sometimes, wanting to fight the big boys, like in BJ Penn’s case, can only be rewarding for so long, others like Machida or Edgar, seem to gravitate towards new possibilities. Even Anderson Silva, the most elusive and unorthodox striker in the game, after creating a legendary career filled with highlights, had to pay for not keeping his hands high against Chris Weidman. You can’t expect to get away with breaking the “rules” forever, especially not in the UFC. If he suffers defeats, Nelson might be persuaded to conform more to norms, but should he ever do that, Nelson is still left with some key unorthodoxy, that few fighters share.

He is happy with where he is at.

Most fighters work with an end result in sight. The title. They want to be the best in the world. Chael Sonnen famously said that if there was no road to the title, he was unsure if he would keep fighting. In this regard, Nelson again stands out.

– I’m happy with my life. My motivation in life is not reaching a certain point where I will be happy.

– My motivation is training. I love training. I feel alive. I love speed and fast movement and techniques. I love the sport. If you go to fast in life chasing results you might miss the things you were looking for in the first place.

Gunnar Nelson cares more for the journey than the destination, separating him from many others in a sport where results are everything, and the margins matter.

Gunnar Nelson faces Omari Akhmedov at UFC Fight Night London: Gustafsson vs Manuwa at March 8th.

Listen to the original interview below: