UFC 231 preview: SBG's Gunnar Nelson bids to break into the top 10 in the welterweight division in Toronto

A quick glance at the fight card for UFC 231 in Toronto tonight indicates that no Irish competitors are in action. However, that’s not strictly true. Gunnar Nelson is proud to have been born and bred in Iceland, but he also willingly accepts his status as an honorary Irishman.

The main event at the Scotiabank Arena features a featherweight title fight between champion Max Holloway and Brian Ortega.  Holloway goes into the contest on the back of a 12-fight winning streak. The last time he tasted defeat was against an Irishman by the name of Conor McGregor more than five years ago.

Nelson – a close friend and sparring partner of McGregor’s – will walk to the octagon in the third-last fight of the night in a bid to get his career back on track. He hasn’t fought since suffering a first-round knockout defeat at the hands of Santiago Ponzinibbio 17 months ago. It was the first time he had suffered an inside-the-distance loss since turning professional a decade earlier.

Nelson hails from the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik, but it’s in the Irish capital that he has received much of his MMA education. Trained by John Kavanagh at Straight Blast Gym in Dublin, Nelson lived with the renowned coach for a time in the early stage of his career.

While living with Kavanagh, he ate, drank and slept mixed martial arts. He quickly accumulated 13 wins from his first 14 fights (the other one was a draw) and expectation grew. McGregor was making an equally big name for himself, but if either man was to become a UFC champion, informed opinion suggested it would be Nelson. Informed opinion turned out to be wrong.

In his 15th outing, against Rick Story, Nelson lost to a split decision. It was a setback that he perhaps hasn’t recovered from. In the intervening years, he’s fought five more times, winning three and losing two. Title talk has evaporated and been replaced with tales of ‘what might have been’.

Against that backdrop, Nelson goes into his latest battle knowing that there is much more than a victory up for grabs. If ever there was a time to pull out all the stops and muster up a career-defining performance, the time is now.

Currently ranked 14th in the welterweight division, victory against Alex Oliveira is likely to catapult him back into the top-ten rankings, where talk of title opportunities is never far away. However, defeat would see the 30-year-old lose his ranking and move further away from the main event in future fights.

Brazilian opponent Oliveira, ranked 13th, faces a similar scenario. It’s must-not-lose for both fighters and that should lead to a fascinating contest.

Oliveira goes into the fight on the back of an impressive first-round TKO victory against Carlo Perdersoli Jr. There’s serious power in the Brazilian’s fists; 12 of his 19 career victories have come via KO or TKO. In stark contrast, Nelson last recorded a KO victory way back in 2008.

Ever the optimist, Nelson is viewing his jaunt to Canada as the perfect opportunity to get back on track after that devastating loss against Ponzinibbio. On his day, he remains one of the great ground-game specialists, and that’s exactly where he reckons tonight’s fight will end up.

“There is a good chance this fight will end on the ground, where I’m strongest,” says Nelson. “It’s happened in the past and I hope it goes that way again. I’m glad I’m fighting Alex so I can regain my status when I win.”

He returned home in preparation for the fight and feels ready to deliver the win that will relaunch his career. He added: “It’s been a great training camp. I was based in Iceland, working with some great guys. We had a new conditioning coach and his sessions really paid off. My recovery during this whole training period has been a great success. It’s been a while since I was in the octagon. I’m feeling good.”

Watch UFC 231: Holloway vs Ortega, live on BT Sport 3 from 1am, with the prelims exclusively live on UFC FIGHT PASS from 11.15pm.

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