Ice cold: Iceland native Gunnar Nelson has the tools to be one of the UFC's brightest stars

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

Gunnar Nelson was placid in the days leading up to his UFC debut, even when he would have had great reason to be flipping out.

Fighting for the first time in the UFC is always a significant moment for a mixed martial artist. That alone can make the nerves raw.

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Gunnar Nelson could be on the fast track to UFC glory. (Getty Images)

Things, though, wouldn't be simple for Nelson. He'd have to go through a string of opponents and then watch the weight limit increase for his debut as he was making final preparations for the Sept. 29 bout on a card in Nottingham, England.

Nelson originally signed to face Pascal Krauss, but Krauss was injured and had to pull out. The UFC then tabbed Rich Attonito to replace him, but Attonito pulled out because he didn't think he'd be able to make weight on such short notice.

That led to the selection of DaMarques Johnson. The UFC agreed to switch the weight limit for the fight from the welterweight limit of 170 to 175 pounds to accommodate the fact that Johnson took the bout on short notice.

When Johnson was having difficulty shedding the weight and weighed in at 183 pounds, Nelson was then facing a guy just two pounds from the middleweight limit.

No one would have blamed Nelson for declining, particularly in such an important match. A loss in his UFC debut could have been critical.

But at every step, Nelson was fine with the changes. This is a guy who once bested heavyweight grappling expert Jeff Monson in the Abu Dhabi Combat Club submission wrestling tournament, despite giving up more than 50 pounds.

Fighting Johnson in his UFC debut a few pounds higher than he originally expected hardly fazed him.

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"Weight's not that big of a deal," Nelson said.

He then went out and proved it, submitting Johnson at 3:34 of the first.

He fulfilled the promise of one of his jiu-jitsu instructors, the renowned Renzo Gracie, by winning in such impressive manner.

The first time Gracie laid eyes on Nelson was in 2008 in Nelson's homeland of Iceland. Gracie had flown to Iceland to teach jiu-jitsu to the country's vice president.

Gracie, though, couldn't keep his eyes off Nelson, who seemed a natural. He was so impressed by what he saw of Nelson, Gracie invited him to train at his academy in New York.

"He was just an unbelievable guy," Gracie said. "It wasn't too long after he came to my place that I said, 'This guy is so good, so talented, that he can be the [UFC welterweight] champion. Definitely. He has all the tools. He has the natural ability to beat all of those guys in that division. All of them."

That's saying a tremendous amount, since the welterweight division not only includes champion Georges St-Pierre, the third-rated fighter in the world in the Yahoo! Sports pound-for-pound rankings, but Carlos Condit, Rory MacDonald and Johny Hendricks among many others.

It's as deep of a division as there is in the UFC. Nelson, who will fight veteran Jorge Santiago in London at UFC on Fuel 7 on Feb. 16, fits easily in that upper tier of fighters, Gracie insisted.

"There are so many great guys in that division and there can only be one champion," Gracie said. "But for sure, this kid has all the tools to be the champion. He's the whole package. His wrestling is very good. His striking is very good. He's a smaller Lyoto Machida.

"His takedowns are amazing, too. It's basically the whole package. And he doesn't get tired. He's the real thing."

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Nelson is a low-key guy not prone to hyperbole. Gracie said Nelson "is completely without ego" and said that attitude helps him to develop his game.

To advance in his career, he had to be willing to leave Iceland, where there simply weren't training partners who could push him.

The chance 2008 meeting with Gracie brought him to New York, where he has worked on and off ever since. It was something of a culture shock, going from a country of 320,000 to a city of more than eight million.

"There are so many skyscrapers, to see the sky, you have to look straight up," Nelson said of New York. "There are no mountains. The people walk faster there than the cars drive in Iceland. It was very different for me."

Different, too, is the attention he's receiving for being in the UFC. He lived a relatively anonymous life before, but is about to vault head-first into the spotlight if Gracie's prediction comes true.

He believes in is ability, but isn't one to boast.

"Cocky is one thing; confidence is another," Nelson said. "Cocky is stuff you say to make yourself seem better than you are. Confidence is thinking things that help you perform."

If Nelson performs the way Gracie predicts, he's going to hop on the UFC fast track in one of the sport's finest divisions.

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