On March 15, Polaris 9 took place at the Indigo at the 02 in London, England. The card, headlined by American jiu jitsu star Rafael Lovato Jr. and longtime, popular MMA veteran Jake Shields, was a great one. Yet, despite a star-studded card and a bevy of exciting matches, it was an announcement for Polaris 10 that garnered the biggest reaction from the combat sports community.
In a shocking, seemingly out-of-the-blue matchup, MMA legend and former WEC bantamweight champion Urijah Faber will take on 17-year-old wunderkind Nicky Ryan in a match for Polaris’ featherweight title.
The Body Lock spoke to Garry Tonon, an American jiu jitsu star and undefeated ONE Championship contender, about the matchup and his thoughts on his teammate and friend – Nicky Ryan’s – chances.
“I think he’ll do really well against Urijah,” Tonon told The Body Lock. “I was actually kind of surprised that Urijah took the fight, but I think it’s really cool that he did.”
To Tonon, Faber’s acceptance of the fight is a result of his quest for competition following his relatively recent retirement from mixed martial arts. Yet, Tonon points to the discrepancy in the level of grappling between MMA and jiu jitsu.
“I think Urijah is just looking for some different things to compete in. I think that the level of jiu-jitsu nowadays that these guys are on, it’s just so far exceeded what — because Urijah is a grappler, don’t get me wrong — so far exceeded the limits of what these guys were doing back in the day and currently in mixed martial arts.”
As for the matchup itself, Tonon is fairly unbiased in his assessment. Rather than simply siding with his friend and Renzo Gracie/John Danaher compatriot, Tonon weighs Ryan’s specialization against Faber’s experience.
“Nicky is specializing in this, he’s doing it every day, multiple times per day. Sure, he’s younger, sure he’s not nearly as strong – Urijah is going to be way stronger.
“Regardless, even if they weigh-in the same weight, Urijah is a physical specimen…”
“He’s a man, and Nicky’s a boy. That’s just how it is. That’s the story.”
An old motif that pervades jiu jitsu culture is that the most technical fighter can always defeat the less technical, though larger or stronger, opponent. Tonon cautions against that line of thinking, positing that Faber’s well-documented strength might be a pivotal factor in this match.
“[Faber’s size and strength advantages are] going to play a role. Even though I consider jiu-jitsu to be a highly-technical sport, where a lighter guy can beat a bigger guy, it plays a role man. I’ve had many fights against really big guys, and it’s tough; it’s different. Even though I don’t necessarily say that Urijah is that much bigger than Nicky, he’s going to be a lot stronger, and it’s going to be an interesting challenge for Nicky to deal with.”
Struggling with size and strength are some of the few things Tonon says has kept Ryan away from even greater successes, if not the only ones.
“He has struggled with that in the past,” Tonon recalled. “There have been opponents he has fought, and I’ve said, ‘You know what? If Nicky was a little bit stronger, that match would have went (sic) different.’ But, that’s part of his development. He’s growing up; he’ll get there eventually.”
Still, Tonon is confident in the prodigious Ryan’s capabilities.
“I think from a technical standpoint, it’s going to be hard to touch him. I don’t know what the ruleset is: they change up rule sets so much, if there is potential for a decision, maybe Urijah could squeak out a decision… I certainly don’t see Urijah submitting him, put it that way.
“If there is some way he can maybe be a little more active and kind of stall, and not let Nicky get in on things, maybe he could squeak out a decision… depending on how long the match is and what the rules are. But other than that, I think we’re going to see Nicky on top on that match for sure.”
Regardless of how the match with Urijah Faber goes, Tonon is in awe of Nicky Ryan’s accolades at such a young age, not to mention ecstatic about what the future holds for the super-prospect.
“I’m very excited about it, super awesome of them to accept that, and I’m just excited about all the good things that are in Nicky Ryan’s future. He just came off that ADCC trials win, he’s 17-years-old… That’s crazy. I don’t even think I competed in my first trials until I was 19 – and I lost my first match by decision – and Nicky just went in there and literally submitted everybody.”
“The sky is the limit for that kid. I’m so excited to see what his future holds.”
Nicky Ryan will defend his Polaris featherweight title against Urijah Faber in the main event of Polaris 10, which takes place on May 25, live from The Lighthouse in Poole, Dorset, England, and will stream globally on UFC Fight Pass.
Michael Fiedel is The Body Lock's deputy editor, a staff writer for FloCombat, and a Russell-Rice scholarship recipient at Vanderbilt University.