Expectations are high for Gunnar Nelson
February, 13, 2013
By Franklin McNeil
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesUnbeaten welterweight Gunnar Nelson is looking to join the UFC's short list of must-see fighters.A majority of fans watching live Saturday at London's Wembley Arena, or on television sets around the world, are eager to see Renan Barao, Michael McDonald, Cub Swanson and Dustin Poirier show off their talents inside the Octagon at UFC on Fuel TV 7.
Each of them is known to the most casual mixed martial arts enthusiast. All are established main card-caliber fighters, deserving of such attention.
But you'll probably need just one hand to count the number of people not directly associated with Gunnar Nelson that will be knocking over chairs to watch him face Jorge Santiago.
After the fight, however, Nelson will no longer be an unfamiliar entity to the general public. He will join UFC's list of must-see fighters. That's how high expectations are for the Icelandic welterweight, who sports a career record of 10-0-1.
Nelson will be making his second appearance inside the Octagon. He submitted DaMarques Johnson via rear-naked choke at 3:34 of the first round during his UFC debut on Sept. 29.
It was an impressive showing, but it came in the second bout on the UFC on FUEL TV 5 card from Nottingham, England, meaning not very many people saw Nelson's special talents that evening.
But UFC officials saw it, and were greatly impressed. Now they want everyone else to get a glimpse of what Nelson can do inside the cage.
Both Nelson and Santiago will test each other's skills Saturday on the main card. Just one UFC fight under his belt and already Nelson is on the promotion's main card; yes, he has high expectations to meet.
No problem. Nelson has been in this situation before -- maybe not to the degree of satisfying officials who run MMA's biggest promotion, but all who know of him continue to expect greatness at every level.
"He absolutely will win the UFC [170-pound] title," Nelson's trainer Renzo Gracie said. "I have no doubt he can beat the very best in the division. How fast he wants to win it is up to him, but I think he will beat everyone in the division within the next two years."
Nelson takes it all in stride. Why not? He's always prepared to be at his best on fight night.
"I don't think about expectations too much," Nelson said. "I need to stay focused on what I'm doing. People expect you to do great, but I can’t think about that. You can get energy from people rooting for you, but it comes down to what you do in the gym every day."
The training regimen Nelson goes through and skills he displays at Gracie's New York City-based gym are legendary among those privileged to witness it. Whether on the ground or standing, Nelson dominates.
And it's no different on fight night.
Aside from a split draw in his MMA debut on May 5, 2007, (most who saw the fight say Nelson was robbed) he hasn't allowed judges to decide his fate. Nelson has finished every fighter put before him either by submission or knockout and not one of his past 10 bouts has gone into the third round.
It's the result of always being prepared for whatever might arise in the cage.
"If I can get my opponent to the ground and move into positions that are solid, I like that plan," Nelson said. "But I also like to strike; I like to stand. You have to be great at everything. You have to expect and react to all situations. Sometimes you have to strike and sometimes you have to grapple.”
Ed Mulholland for ESPN.comJorge Santiago, left, stands in the way of Gunnar Nelson's potential coming out party in London.
Wherever the fight goes, Nelson believes he will have an advantage -- he’s always confident of leaving the cage victorious.
On Saturday, Nelson will take that attitude into the cage against Santiago, a veteran with good submission and standup techniques who has finished each of his two most recent opponents in the first round.
Based on his recent success, Santiago (25-10) will walk into the cage on an emotional high. He, too, isn't lacking confidence despite taking this fight with Nelson on short notice.
Two very confident fighters should make for an action-filled encounter and Nelson wouldn't have it any other way. He's prepared for whatever happens and expects to walk away victorious again.
"It doesn't matter [that Santiago is a late replacement]," Nelson said. “There are some things you control and some things you don't. There is nothing I can do about it. Besides, I don't get too attached to my opponents.
"[Opponents] change all the time, so I just focus on what I'm supposed to do: train to be better and a more complete fighter. And that means focusing on the big picture, not one specific opponent."
Right now, that picture shows a fighter expected to make a lot of noise in the UFC welterweight division. Nelson will be heard Saturday.
And many more fans will knock over chairs to get a good look at him the next time he is scheduled to enter the Octagon.