The Viking Gene: Exclusive interview with Gunnar Nelson

This weekend, at UFC 286, Icelandic Gunnar Nelson steps back into the octagon as he faces Bryan Barbarena. We spoke to “Gunni” in an exclusive interview ahead of his welterweight bout. 

It all started in the karate dojo following an early introduction to Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan films which he watched weekly. Gunnar “Gunni” Nelson, who competes at UFC 286 in London this Saturday, was introduced to the world of martial arts by his father who shares a passion and dedication to martial arts. Late nights watching the UFC would be off limits for the young Gunni, but as he aged he progressively came to watch more and more events. Stepping into the dojo at about 13-14 years old, he realised that he found kata slightly boring and that he preferred sport kumite – more or less an equivalent to free sparring. Eventually, he came to join the national team and after a few years of excelling in the art, he was a part of founding Mjölnir, an MMA gym that provides aspiring athletes and general keep-fitters with everything they might need to learn and perfect their martial arts. 

Gunni explains how his love for the sport has grown a lot over the past few years. Speaking of his preparation for his coming fight against Bryan Barbarena he says that although he has always had a love for BJJ, it has developed and grown into different aspects of the fight game. His love for the sport has expanded, and so, too, has his stylistic repertoire. Starting with karate as a boy, moving on to BJJ under the guidance of John Kavanaugh, he has now focused on striking as well as tweaking his already mastered grappling techniques. “I feel like I’m in better shape than ever.” At the end of the day, it’s a fight camp, and he has prepared like he always does. 


One of the most difficult aspects of MMA for practitioners is having to cut weight. Gunni has thought a lot about this and offers his solution. “I think we should be weighed in twice a day during fight week, and even during our camp, to make sure we are not over the weight limit. We should have same-day weigh-ins, so you step into the octagon weighing roughly the same. There would be no real weight cut and guys would be within – I don’t know – 4 lbs/2kg from each other? I think it would be a lot healthier.” 

To enforce this one would need to impose fines, but with 2 weigh-ins per day, you have plenty of time to adjust and ensure you are staying within certain limits. “In a few years, this will become the norm and it will be so much healthier for everybody as you are not going in there dehydrated. Nor are you losing fights because guys aren’t making weight – you get people in the same weight. It makes it fairer.”

Speaking of a new norm, Gunni seems to suggest there is already support for a change of approach. He adds, “when you talk to people, nobody will say ‘that’s a stupid idea!’ Everybody thinks it’s a good idea. Some fighters might cut copious amounts of weight just to be heavier than their opponent. I think they just have to suck it up and realise they are fighting someone their size. Most fighters think this idea is awesome. If they are 90kg, cutting down to 77kg, and showing up just under 90kg they’re not gaining anything but are draining themselves for a few weeks to make weight. It’s nonsense.” 


Having discovered his love for martial arts at a young age, growing in it over the years, and being able to share it with others through his own MMA gym, we ask what he considers to be the best thing about martial arts. “Whether it’s younger people or people in their 40-60s, you see in a few weeks or months how much they needed it. How much it helps them grow. That’s the best thing. Whether it fits your character or your lifestyle, helps you with your insecurities, or just gives you confidence, peace, serenity, and security. It improves you as a person.”

 Turning from the best thing, we ask what Gunnar – as an athlete at the top of his sport – considers to be the hardest thing about being a professional athlete. Gunnar replies with one, cheeky, sentence: cutting weight. We laugh, but there is a serious undertone given the discussion we had earlier. Yet, Gunni expands on his answer after a short, pensive, pause: “It’s difficult to fight someone at your level. It’s difficult to keep up with the responsibilities that you have as a role model to a lot of people. It’s difficult to keep your physical shape and to improve yourself constantly, especially as you get older.”  

 Does the motivation change from being a young athlete starting a career to when you become a more established athlete? Does one train smarter, not harder as the years pass? Gunnar thinks so. “When you are young you can just show up in the gym and rack up rounds for hours, wake up fresh as a daisy the next day, and do the same thing. But when you are older you can’t. You have to pace yourself better. You have to have a smarter approach to how you develop your skills and if you compete you have to think about how to peak your performance.”

We turn to the Nordic countries and why Nordic fighters seem to be excelling in martial arts in the various promotions, given the relatively small populations. At first, Gunnar seems unsure whether Nordic fighters are doing better than other countries, but while Nordics might not have taken all the belts there is a presence in all top leagues despite the smaller populations. “Well, I think we have strong men and women. But if I take Iceland, we are tiny, yet we have all these ‘world’s strongest men’ and cross-fitters. Looking at other Nordic countries I think we have a warrior gene, for sure. We have a hard-working mentality. I’m not sure.” With a hearty laugh, Gunnar adds: “Maybe it’s the old Viking genes – we like to go abroad and pillage!”

UFC 286

Gunnar Nelson faces Bryan Barbarena at the O2 in London on Saturday 18 March. Barbarena has a background in American Football and has a record of 18-9 in MMA. Barbarena is a gritty fighter who has won 11 of his 18 fights by KO, while Nelson is a submission specialist who is quick to disarm opponents with nifty techniques. Nelson is the betting favourite and we believe his superior grappling, striking practice and Viking genes will deliver him a win this weekend, but we expect it to be an exciting all-action match-up. 

Read here for more information about the event. 

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