Timeline of Gunnar Nelson's Decline from Next Big Thing to UFC Afterthought

Nathan McCarter@McCarterNFeatured ColumnistDecember 6, 2018

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - JULY 15:  Gunnar Nelson of Iceland poses on the scale during the UFC Fight Night weigh-in at the SSE Hydro Arena Glasgow on July 15, 2017 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Gunnar Nelson returns after more than a year away from the Octagon. The last time UFC fans saw him, he was knocked out. It's not the lasting image he had hoped to leave them with, and the ramifications have been that they have forgotten about his place in the division.

Returning from that knockout and subsequent knee injury is a tall order for the Icelandic fighter.

Nelson's fight with Alex Oliveira on Saturday at UFC 231 may set the stage for his reintroduction to the audience at large, but due to how his career has played out, it may need to be a lengthy worldwide tour.

This is how Nelson rose and fell from the minds of fight fans.

           

The Rise (2007-2014)

NOTTINGHAM, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 29:  (R-L) Gunnar Nelson punches DaMarques Johnson during their catchweight fight at the UFC on Fuel TV event at Capital FM Arena on September 29, 2012 in Nottingham, England.  (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

After a 9-0-1 start to his MMA career, Nelson signed a UFC contract. His nine-straight finish streak was eye-catching, and it made him one of the hottest prospects to watch inside the Octagon.

His debut, against DaMarques Johnson, lived up to the hype. It was a 3:34 long fight with the touted grappler finishing via rear-naked choke.

Nelson had two more finishes in his next three outings, but it was the decision victory over Jorge Santiago that really turned heads. Defeating a veteran such as the Brazilian put him firmly on the map and gave him a notable name for his resume.

Everything was looking up, and it was time for contender-level fights to move up the welterweight ladder.

             

The Slip (2014-2015)


Nelson headlined his first UFC event against Rick Story at UFC Fight Night 53. A true test, but everything was in his favor: momentum, a Scandinavian crowd and a stylistic matchup that should have favored his strengths.

However, Story upset Nelson with a narrow split decision. It was a minor slip that could have been seen as a learning experience. The bloom was still on the rose.

Nelson finished Brandon Thatch to get back into the win column, but it would be his next test that raised the most concern.

Demian Maia dominated Nelson at UFC 94.

The Brazilian was the better-known grappler, but the way in which he overpowered Nelson caused concern for just how high his ceiling truly was. It was a setback, but given Maia's stature in the division, it could only be classified as a slip-up for the Reykjavik fighter.

             

False Hope (2016-2017)

The UFC put Nelson the redemption trail to build him back up, and it seemingly worked. He got quality opponents who were not in the upper echelon and he thrived in submission wins over Albert Tumenov and Alan Jouban.

The rehabilitation was successful. The fans were buying back in, and Nelson was back on track.

However, it was all leading to the true fall.

          

The Fall (2017)

Nelson met Santiago Ponzinibbio in the main event of UFC Fight Night 113.

The Argentine had worked his way up, but he was still not a household name or thought to be a true contender. Following the pattern of building Nelson back up, this was supposed to be his main event win and coming-out party.

After just 82 seconds, though, it was over. Ponzinibbio corked Nelson and scored a career-defining knockout. It was the death knell for the 30-year-old's attempt to live up to his early billing as a title contender.

Fans can forgive one slip. They will buy back in after a fighter shows his skills even if it's against outgunned competition. This is exactly what happened with Nelson. A loss that could be forgiven (Maia) followed by two finishes.

But fans will not buy back in after the hard fall. It clarifies their expectations for how far a fighter can go, and the KO loss defined Nelson as a gatekeeper.

Can he rebound and get all of that back? Yes, but it will be a long road. We have seen career resurgences such as that of Robbie Lawler, but those are the exceptions, not the rule. The rule shows that the Icelander will be the litmus test for the latest wave of welterweight contenders.

Fans will largely forget what happens on Saturday for Nelson. It will take a lengthy win streak until they can make him appointment viewing.

The long road to career redemption starts at UFC 231, but don't expect fans to buy Nelson's stock with a win.

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