There’s an Icelandic proverb that goes “Kemst þó hægt fari.”  Translated, it means, “You will reach your destination even though you travel slowly.”  In other words, slow and steady wins the race.

It’s all about patience, and if there’s one man who has had to learn that lesson, it’s Icelandic fighter Gunnar Nelson.  After signing with the UFC, Nelson was to meet Pascal Krauss.  Then, after Krauss withdrew with an injury, the identity of his opponent changed briefly to Rich Attonito.  Then, it was DaMarques Johnson. Nelson had yet to make his Octagon debut and he was already on his third potential adversary.

“I don’t get attached to my opponent, they can change at any given time,” Nelson told The MMA Corner in an exclusive interview. “I am working on my own game to become a more complete martial artist. There is no point being [fussy] about opponents. The nature of the fight is that you never know and it’s not in you power to control every aspects but yourself.”

Further complicating matters was Johnson’s failure to make weight for the contracted 175-pound catchweight affair.  Johnson, less than two months removed from a brutal knockout at the hands of Mike Swick, could only manage to cut to 183 pounds. The stoic Nelson did not let any of the changes to his UFC debut get in the way of him reaching his destination.  He outclassed Johnson and needed just over three-and-a-half minutes to secure a rear-naked choke for the finish.

“Well, anytime you win you are climbing up the ladder,” Nelson said. “DaMarques Johnson was a good opponent, and I believe I will need a few more wins like that for a shot at the UFC title.”

Nelson is no stranger to competing at an elite level.  His trophy case is lined with medals—a silver from the 2009 Mundials, gold medals from the 2009 Pan American Championships Gi and No-Gi competitions and a silver in the black belt absolute division at the 2009 Pan American No-Gi Championships.  He has also competed at the ADCC Submission Wrestling World Championships, taking fourth place in the absolute division of the 2009 event where he defeated larger competitors such as Jeff Monson and David Avellan and putting in a good showing in 2011 with wins over Marko Helen and Bruno Frazzato.

The native of Reykjavik holds a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, awarded to him by mentor Renzo Gracie. Although Nelson is best known for his submission grappling, he is far from a one-dimensional fighter.  Before he ever rolled on the mat, he was demonstrating his combat sports skills on his feet as a Gōjū-ryū Karate practitioner, taking home numerous honors from 2003 through 2005 at the Icelandic Juvenile Kumite Championship. He trained in the art from age 13 until age 17, when he switched his focus to the grappling arts. His resume in mixed martial arts competition, where he has earned three victories by some form of knockout to accompany his seven submission finishes, hints at his proficiency in the stand-up game.

As he was quickly growing familiar with the ins and outs of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as a teenager, Nelson made the leap into the MMA pond.  He debuted in May 2007, fighting to a draw with highly-regarded prospect John Olesen in a fight that many felt Nelson had won.  Nelson, 18 years old at the time, did not let the controversial verdict faze him.  Instead, he picked up nine consecutive victories that prompted an offer from the UFC in early 2012.

With his Octagon debut now in the rear-view mirror, Nelson continues to face obstacles that could try his patience.  He was slated to meet Justin Edwards at UFC on Fuel TV 7 this weekend, but Edwards was sidelined with an injury, leading to another shift in opponents for Nelson.  Now, standing opposite of Nelson in the eight-sided cage will be a much more accomplished nemesis in former Sengoku middleweight champion and Strikeforce middleweight grand prix winner Jorge Santiago.

“Jorge Santiago looks like a very complete fighter,” Nelson admitted.  Indeed, Santiago’s resume suggests as much.  The Brazilian is a black belt in BJJ, but he has also shown great hands in picking up 10 wins by some form of knockout. Adding to the challenge for Nelson is the fact that Santiago, through 35 professional fights, has never been submitted.

Despite his time spent training in New York with Renzo Gracie, Nelson has yet to set foot inside a cage or ring on American shores.  And with the scarcity of MMA events in his native Iceland, Nelson has instead ventured to Ireland, Denmark and England (where his UFC debut took place and where his sophomore effort will also be contested) to compete. He is somewhat at home in this region of the world, however, with Ireland serving as another training locale for the fighter, in addition to Iceland.

“I’m training back home with all my guys there and some friends from Dublin, Ireland, with my coach John Kavanagh,” Nelson explained. “I’m consistently working on my overall game.”

For Nelson, the culmination of his journey—or the destination, in terms of the Icelandic proverb—is the UFC welterweight title.  DaMarques Johnson stood in his way, but not for long.  Now, the man in his path is Santiago, but once again Nelson plans to vanquish that threat and continue to climb the ladder. But for those that want to know exactly how Nelson will handle the former Sengoku champ, the decorated grappler has but a simple response:

“For more details on my intention: Watch the fight!”

Photo: Gunnar Nelson (Paul Thatcher/Fight! Magazine)