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The preliminary card of UFC 231 will be headlined by a pair of top 15 contenders in the deep welterweight division. Alex “Cowboy” Oliveira will take on Gunnar Nelson in a bout that could allow one of these fighters to break into the top 10. Coming into this fight, No. 13 Oliveira has won two in a row and six of his last seven to break into the top 15 and prove that the choice to return to welterweight was the right one. Gunnar Nelson has been out of the octagon for nearly a year and a half now after suffering a controversial knockout loss to Santiago Ponzinibbio. He has since been setback by injury but should be at full form to go to war with Cowboy in Canada.
Cowboy Oliveira looks for another finish
Alex Oliveira (19-5-1, 2 NC) is hitting a stride in his career that has shot him into the elusive UFC Welterweight rankings. He has won six of his last seven fights and finished his last five consecutive. That stretch includes notable wins over Tim Means, Ryan LaFlare, and Carlos Condit as well as all three possible methods of victory. In recent memory, Oliveira has transitioned from a dangerous striker to an experienced all-around martial artist. In his career, he holds 12 knockouts and four submissions in 19 wins. Three of those four submission wins have come since his UFC debut in 2015, indicating his rapid progression in his grappling.
Last time we saw Alex Oliveira in the octagon, he picked apart late replacement, Carlo Pedersoli Jr. in just 39 seconds for a TKO finish. Before that, in a more serious test, Oliveira defeated UFC legend, Carlos Condit by submission in the second round. After taking punishment off his back early on, Oliviera was able to reverse position and eventually take the neck of Condit against the fence for a guillotine finish. While he showed excellent grappling in that fight, a similar outcome is virtually impossible against Nelson. If Cowboy finds himself on his back, that is exactly where he is staying. Nelson can whip his leg over into mount as quickly and effortlessly in the UFC. Once he is on top, it is only a matter of time before he finds a finish.
Because of the dangers on Nelson on the ground, we will likely see Oliveira try to keep this fight standing. About a year ago, he found himself in the ESPN Fight of the Year against Yancy Medeiros. This back and forth war saw both fighters get dropped multiple times in a bloody and gutsy brawl. Oliveira ultimately came in second place in that one, likely in part due to his mangled nose, but it is exactly the type of fight that he could win against Gunnar Nelson. Pressuring Nelson against the fence and forcing him to brawl or shoot for a poorly-timed takedown will bring out the best in Oliveria’s striking while simultaneously neutralizing the technical and distance-based karate style of Nelson.
The long awaited return of Gunnar Nelson
Iceland’s own Gunnar Nelson (16-3-1) began to gain recognition as one of the most dangerous fighters in the UFC Welterweight Division until dropping his last fight to Santiago Ponzinibbio. He was knocked out in the first half of the first round after an uncalled eye-poke impeded Nelson’s vision. Still, the loss stands and Nelson fell to No. 14 in the welterweight rankings. A jiu-jitsu World Championship medalist, Nelson has locked up 12 of his 16 career wins by submission. Six of those finishes came as a member of the UFC. Most notably, he submitted Zak Cummings, Albert Tumenov, and Alan Jouban.
When the fight goes to the ground with Nelson, no one is safe. Not only does Nelson secure submissions, he finds creative ways to get them. Much of the setup comes from the takedown. The typical wrestler will take another fighter down and land in his guard. Time and time again, Nelson has been able to transition during the takedown and land in side control. Usually from that position, he quickly snaps his leg over into mount before his opponent even knows what happened. While Oliveira has improved on the mat, the purple belt is not on the level of Nelson when it comes to the grappling factor.
It is easy to fall into a habit of associating ace grapplers with lackluster striking. That is certainly not the case when it comes to Gunnar Nelson. He is a complete fighter who uses his striking to set up his dangerous submission game. A black belt in karate, Nelson’s stand-up movement resembles that of Stephen Thompson. He keeps his hands down near his waist and never stops bouncing or moving. Nelson jumps in for a quick combination then bounces back out of striking range of his opponent. We saw his complete game on display against Alan Jouban. To end that fight, Nelson dropped his opponent with a punch then took his neck when Jouban was dazed to finish him. While counting on his standup is not ideal against someone like Oliveira, it is certainly not a deficiency in his game.
While Gunnar Nelson has a solid striking game, the advantage goes to Cowboy on the feet. He has been dynamic lately as a welterweight and if he catches Nelson with his hands low, the fight could end quite quickly. To get the win, Oliveira could turn this fight into an extended technical brawl. Unfortunately, Gunnar Nelson is not likely to let that happen. He is just too good at getting his fights to the ground and picking his opponents apart. While Oliveira is no slouch on the ground, Nelson is a step ahead. Assuming he is healthy, Gunnar Nelson should have the edge in this bout.
Pick: Gunnar Nelson (odds not yet released)
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