Gunnar Nelson’s preferred jiu-jitsu sequences have been incredibly effective in his mixed martial arts career. It’s no wonder that Nelson continually goes back to these effective techniques once the fight hits the ground.
Dan Hardy broke down Nelson’s game best in an “Inside the Octagon” pre-fight analysis before Nelson faced Alan Jouban. Strangely, the analysis has been removed and isn’t anywhere to be found. Admittedly, it was like giving out cheat codes to an opponent. Gunnar Nelson and coach John Kavanagh are probably grateful that it’s disappeared from the internet.
Nelson’s approach to grappling reminds of the innovative grappling that Ben Askren currently employs in ONE: Championship. The techniques themselves aren’t similar, but these two fighters have found unbelievable grappling success in mixed martial arts outside of the more traditional approaches.
Much like Demian Maia, Gunnar Nelson’s takedowns are reactive, and not proactive. Maia will continually feint to bait an opponent to punch before shooting in underneath for either the single leg or double leg takedown. Nelson’s takedowns are usually a result of chain wrestling or simply because he has dropped his opponent to the floor with his signature straight right hand.
The takedown is the easy part. Nelson’s expertise is ensuring that his hips are always facing the mat and that is actively searching for ways to pass an opponent’s guard before the takedown is even complete.
If you think that Gunnar Nelson seems to achieve side control whenever he wants side control, you’re right. He applies heavy pressure to the hips of an opponent that forces their legs to straighten before knee-sliding through to side control.
Unlike Ben Askren, Gunnar Nelson doesn’t rest in side control. Nelson applies pressure to the torso and shoulders of his opponent before placing his hand next to the far hip of his opponent. Keeping his hand there, he has now successfully pathed a way to slide his knee and leg across the body and into full mount.
Nelson’s full mount is unique. He applies heavy pressure to the top quarter of his opponent, squashing their shoulders and back to the mat. Nelson doesn’t often strike from full mount, instead, he chooses to keep the pressure down on his opponent before setting up his trademark transition to the back.
What’s interesting here is that as Nelson releases the pressure on the hips, he plants one of his feet for balance, rather than squeezing the hips to maintain full mount. Nelson doesn’t want the full mount, though.
His opponent, now with an unexpected level of freedom from the waist down, often will choose to swivel their hips away from Gunnar Nelson and basically give up their back to Nelson who is already in a position to slide his hooks in.
To secure control from the back of his opponent, Nelson acquires the ‘seatbelt’ position (one over hook and one under hook that is often connected with a gable grip). Now, with control of his opponent’s upper body, he switches his focus to the lower half and applies a body triangle to apply tight pressure across the hips of his opponent. Simultaneously, he has also trapped one of his opponent’s hands.
It’s one vs. one (hands). But, it’s not your ordinary one on one because Nelson has a body triangle locked and will rain down heavy shots with the inside of his knuckles to the head and body of his opponent. From this position, an opponent has two choices.
Unfortunately, grappling with Gunnar Nelson is like playing chess with somebody who knows your next move.
1. Treat the symptom, not the cause.
An opponent may choose to block Nelson’s strikes with their free hand in an attempt to outlast the position. By tracking Nelson’s free hand with their own, they can also protect their neck (Nelson’s free hand is his choking arm) while protecting themselves against too much damage. The downside is that they won’t be escaping the grips of Nelson’s tiring body triangle.
A fighter will temporarily avoid the submission by fighting the hands of Gunnar Nelson but at the cost of high damage, fatigue and a guaranteed round in favour of Nelson.
2. Treat the cause, not the symptom.
Want to escape the position? You have to break the body triangle. There are limited ways to do this in a submission grappling competition, in mixed martial arts it’s even more difficult. Usually, a defender can foot lock the ankles forming the body triangle, especially if the ankles are rolled towards the mat. To apply the foot lock, the defender leaves their neck at risk. Tumenov had an opportunity to apply this foot lock but was distracted by hand-fighting with Gunnar Nelson.
Additionally, an opponent has the temptation to reach with their free hand and attempt to break the grip of the body triangle. In doing so, the fighter exposes their neck, and Gunnar Nelson immediately punches through for the rear-naked choke. Game over.
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