When Garry Tonon (5-0) transitioned from jiu jitsu to mixed martial arts, fans took notice.
The 27-year-old grappler has an extensive resume in the world of submission grappling, including a win at the 2015 IBJJF Pan American No-Gi championships and three – three! – Eddie Bravo Invitational (EBI) titles in three different weight classes.
Tonon signed with ONE Championship in 2017 and made his MMA debut months later in early 2018. In his debut, Tonon scored a second-round TKO over Richard Corminal (then 4-3), showing off a well-roundedness many doubted a grappling crossover like himself would be able to possess so early on.
The American’s well-roundedness would only continue to improve, as, throughout his next four fights, Tonon’s striking would become more fluid, crisper, and more seamlessly tied to his world-class grappling. Tonon choked an impressively gritty Rahul Raju (then 5-2) in the third round of his second fight, South Korea’s Sung Jong Lee (then 4-2) in the second round of his third bout, and knocked out ONE staple Anthony Engelen (then 8-5) in his fourth professional fight.
But it was his most recent fight, a minute-long affair with Yoshiki Nakahara (then 13-4) that ended in classic Garry Tonon heel hook fashion, that Tonon says was his most comfortable performance, but it’s not for the reason one might think.
“The fight was fairly straightforward, I would say,” Tonon told The Body Lock. “I’m starting to get a little bit more comfortable and a little bit more precise with the way that I think about things as I start to enter into these fights, and trying to approach [them] a little bit more scientifically.”
Given his grappling background, it’s taken some time for “The Lion Killer” to adjust to, well, getting hit in the face.
“As I get out there, I kinda like want to give myself little mental reminders ’cause one of the tough things is, is that, you know, once those punches start flying, it’s kinda hard to process what’s going on; you know, things happen really fast in there. So if I don’t go in there with a general idea of what I want to do, sometimes they can kind of get lost in translation and you’ll freeze, and you’ll do things that you wouldn’t normally do in sparring and things like that,” said Tonon.
Against Nakahara, Tonon’s most experienced and accomplished opponent to date, there were several things on which the Renzo Gracie Academy standout wanted to ensure he focused.
“So, when I stepped out there this time, I said, ‘Okay, I want to first establish distance,’ and when I say that, let’s be precise: trying to establish a distance where I can see what my opponent’s going to do, you know, before he does it, and I have time to move out of the way, right? There’s certain distances in this sport. Obviously, it’s a little different than boxing; it’s different than wrestling; it’s different than grappling. Every single sport has differences where people reside. In this one, the starting distance, we usually refer to as step distance, all right, where you’re kind of one step away from actually making contact with the other person.
“So, kind of just staying and figuring out what that range is was, like, my number one goal. And then as I came in and started to do that, I could see, you know, my opponent trying to find his range, as well. I could tell that he was trying to tie me for takedowns and things because he was peppering in some uppercuts, which is not really something that you generally see early on.”
Those peppered-in uppercuts led Tonon to his second mental reminder of the fight.
“[The] second mental reminder after I establish distance, and this is kind of like – some of these things are going to go in tandem as well – is the second thing I was thinking of is: I want to move my head. I want to be a moving target, not just somebody who’s just standing in front of my opponent,” Tonon said.
“So, that was the second thing. And you can do that through multiple methods. I can do that through physically moving my head, or I can do that through moving my body in space, and I do a little bit of both. I think it makes it a little bit harder to read, you know, per se, if you approach things that way.”
Third, Tonon aimed to generate his offense.
“How am I gonna get in an athletic position – when I say athletic position usually it’s some sort of a crouch – so that I can counter my opponent either with the takedown or with strikes. So, that’s kinda the third mental reminder. It’s like, ‘Okay, you’ve established distance. Okay, you’re moving your head, you’re a moving target, now you’re harder to hit. Now let’s figure out how we’re going to get our offense going here,’ and one of the best times to establish offense is off of something your opponent throws,” Tonon explained.
“So that’s kind of what I was waiting for is like, ‘Okay, I see him kind of loading up and throwing these shots. Let me see if I can get a near miss and then a counter to either take [him] down or [throw] a strike, ’cause if I get him moving towards me, it’s always a little bit easier for me to act.”
The time for Tonon to act came earlier in the fight than he expected, and it didn’t happen the way he expected.
“As I did that, I kind of noticed him freeze for a moment, so I kind of stepped forward and I, you know, went into that dangerous distance; a little bit closer than step-distance. I was expecting a counter strike to come towards me, then I would have backed away and countered, but nothing happened.
“So, as that happened, I ducked in and just grabbed the single because even a non-reaction is a good one. You know, if he came forward, it would help me, but him freezing helped me, as well. I just saw that there was no threat for just a split second, and then that’s how I got ahold of the leg,” Tonon recalled.
Of course, chances are, Garry Tonon getting a hold of your leg seals your fate. That was certainly the case against Nakahara.
“As far as my decision to sit back and go for an outside heel hook, it’s something that we practiced. A lot of people were asking me like, ‘Hey, was that the game plan going in? Like, is this what you wanted to do?’ and, it is and it isn’t. It’s something that’s in the playbook, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not like, ‘All right, this is the plan, like we’re going to go out, grab his leg, sit down and outside, heel hook him.’
“It’s just something I’ve practiced a million times, and in the moment when I grabbed his leg, it felt like the right thing to do as opposed to finish[ing] the takedown. Just the way that I was that was holding onto the single, the way that he tried to defend… everything felt right for sitting ashi garami [for] me at that moment,” said Tonon.
While most grappling fans might consider a Tonon heel hook par for the course, Tonon himself has spoken about the vast differences between leglocking in BJJ and MMA. In a January interview with The Body Lock, Tonon explained how leg locks – specifically the ashi garami, are much more difficult in MMA.
“You get into a position in jiu jitsu, and the only danger you have in those positions – especially something like a cross ashi garami heel hook – your only real worry is your opponent escaping. My opponent literally can’t attack me from that position in jiu-jitsu. The only thing I have to worry about is, ‘All right, hold onto this dude’s two legs and eventually find a way to get to his heel.’ In MMA, it’s completely different.”
“I can get in that position and the moment I lose the heel, it’s like, I’m getting punched in the face, you know? So when I go to fully extend for a submission hold and the guy hasn’t tapped, even if I did damage, man, I gotta be ready to react and prepare for that. I’m not going to stay in that position for 30 seconds to a minute cranking on somebody’s leg and getting punched in the face,” Tonon said in that interview.
Now, Tonon echoes those sentiments, while also clarifying that “different” doesn’t mean “wrong”.
“I don’t want that to be misinterpreted as: ‘I don’t think that leg locks work in MMA or they work less in MMA,’ or something like that. I just think they work differently,” said Tonon.
“I think there’s things that you have to take into account, like that, when you’re applying [leglocks] that you would never have to apply and never have to think about in grappling situations. Things have to be… there’s a little bit of a different protocol running through your head when you’re doing a heel hook in MMA as opposed to doing a heel hook in jiu jitsu. That’s all.”
As for his heel hook win over Nakahara, Tonon believes it was one of the safest and smartest entries to the position in an MMA context.
“I think the way that I went after it was a very, you know, good way to do it. I sat back for a leg; got ahold of my opponent, as opposed to just diving out of the middle of nowhere, which we’ve seen be unsuccessful,” said Tonon. “I think it’s a little bit safer, you know, to do things that way. I mean, I definitely take that into account. That’s why I try to make my entries very tight.”
Thanks to that tight entry, Tonon earned another win and yet another finish. With the win, Tonon has propelled himself to the top of the ONE featherweight division, and “The Lion Killer” believes a title eliminator is the next logical step.
“I’m guessing based off of what [ONE has] told me thus far that the next fight will not be a title, it’ll be the, you know, it’ll be like one more before a title shot,” said Tonon.
According to the jiu jitsu standout, ONE has yet to offer Tonon any names, but he says he’s aiming to compete on the upcoming ONE: Century event slated for October 13 in Tokyo, Japan.
“I’m trying to get on that Japan card if I can, but I’ve got no confirmation of that. I haven’t signed anything, and they didn’t give me any names. I guess, to them, it depends greatly upon how people do in their upcoming fights, ’cause, I guess, like, at any given moment, depending upon who fights who, somebody could come and go into that number one contender position, right?
“So, it’s hard to say. It’s hard to say exactly. I don’t know. I guess they could’ve given me a list, but they were like, ‘Yeah, it’s going to depend upon how fights go.’ So, they didn’t give me anything.”
While Tonon is confident that he’ll be one of the first in line for a title shot, he concedes that in MMA, anything can happen.
“But again, you know, things change and you never know. You see all kinds of crazy stuff happening in the UFC where, you know, two people pick a fight with each other and now all of a sudden somebody that was an interim titleholder doesn’t even get a shot at a title,” Tonon said. “That’s crazy, so you never know what happens, [but] I think there’s a little less of that going on at ONE. I think usually if the guy that deserves the shot gets the shot, but you never know. Who knows what kind of stuff’s going to go on? They surprise you sometimes.”
Should Tonon receive a title eliminator, the shortlist at featherweight for potential opponents likely features China’s Li Kai Wen (9-4), who is riding a three-fight winning streak, and Russia’s Marat Gafurov (17-2), a former ONE champion and submission ace. The Body Lock has been told by a source close to the situation that Gafurov is a frontrunner for the fight, but nothing is concrete at this time, something further evidenced by Tonon’s lack of explicit fight offers.
Considering Gafurov, though, Tonon agreed the fight made a lot of sense.
“It’s definitely a possibility. I mean, he definitely sounds like somebody that’s, he’s in, he’s fighting 55 [pounds] for them. If he’s fighting 55 with them, then I would say that that’s highly likely as a possibility because, I mean, that’s a pretty good record.
“I wouldn’t see why he wouldn’t be very close to getting the title himself, so that sounds about right for what I’d be facing next. I mean, they’ve been progressively putting guys with better and better records in front of me, so I would expect something similar to that, you know, to be the next fight before a title.”
Michael Fiedel is The Body Lock's deputy editor, a staff writer for FloCombat, and a Russell-Rice scholarship recipient at Vanderbilt University.