Since crossing over into the world of mixed martial arts, Garry Tonon has been a force to be reckoned with. Competing under the ONE Championship banner, Tonon has amassed three victories, all three of which have come by way of finish.
At the age of 27, “The Lion Killer” has made his name as one of the most exciting and prolific grapplers in all of competitive jiu-jitsu. The Renzo Gracie representative has seen it all on the mats, competing at ADCC, taking home three Eddie Bravo Invitational (EBI) titles, and winning an IBJJF Pan American No Gi championship, but Tonon admitted that even he still harbored some anxiety ahead of his MMA debut.
“I was super nervous, man,” Tonon told The Body Lock. “I remember getting my hands wrapped and, oh, man, at the moment the hand wraps started to come on… because I had never even had that happen before! Nobody’s ever wrapped my hands with tape and gauze and everything, and I’m like, ‘Oh, guess this is real! There’s no backing out now.'”
In the lead up to Tonon’s debut, there was, of course, some stand-up sparring. But, he notes, that obviously isn’t the same as a full-fledged fight.
“Maybe I did like a little bit of sparring here and there, but, you know, it’s like getting hit with pillows. It’s a little scarier when it’s somebody’s closed fists, and it’s those tiny gloves,” said Tonon.
By facing that fear during his debut, a fight against the Philippines’ Richard Corminal, Tonon was elated.
“I remember after the first fight saying, like, ‘Oh, man, this is exciting! I can’t wait to get in there again.'”
Tonon’s post-fight thoughts following his second fight, a grueling third-round submission win over Rahul Raju, were slightly different:
“I think my exact words were, ‘MMA should be illegal. This is not okay. This is such a weird (expletive) sport,” recalls Tonon with a laugh. “I mean, it’s a little different every single time, but I’m liking it more and more as I do it.”
Trying to be comfortable being uncomfortable
In Garry Tonon’s professional debut, many fans and pundits expected the renowned grappler to, well, grapple. For example, 83 percent of Tapology users picked Tonon to win by submission.
Yet, for Tonon, there was an emphasis on staying on the feet: learning to be comfortable being uncomfortable.
“I wanted to do as much standup as I could, because in my eyes, especially in my earlier fights, I really needed to start building as much experience in the standing position as I can,” said Tonon.
“Despite what you do in sparring every day – and of course you’re working on skills and stuff like that – there’s just no substitute for actually doing something in a real fight.”
Against Corminal, “The Lion Killer” was able to accomplish a goal only he could hope for: getting punched in the face.
“Leading up to that fight, I had talked quite a bit; saying, like, ‘Hey, man, I want to stand with this guy. I want to test myself, I want to see what it’s like getting punched in the face. This, that, and the other thing. The truth of the matter is that old adage: ‘you never really know exactly what you’re gonna do until you get punched in the face.'”
Tonon would go on to win the fight via second-round TKO, earning his first professional win as a martial artist.
The contrast between grappling in jiu-jitsu versus MMA
While Garry Tonon has been adamant about his desire to “get [his] feet wet in the standing position,” it is his jiu-jitsu that has the MMA world buzzing about his flourishing career.
As a jiu-jitsu practitioner, Tonon participated in – and won – some of the most exhilarating matches in recent memory. His finishing rate is one of the most impressive in the sport, sitting at a lofty 72 percent (46 submissions/64 wins), per BJJ Heroes.
Tonon’s ability to finish the fight has translated seamlessly to MMA, where he sports three finishes, two of which came by way of submission.
But although Tonon outclassed each of his opponents on the ground, even submitting two of them, he says he received a great deal of criticism.
“I got heavy criticism – ironically, I was actually really surprised – for not finishing my opponent [Rahul Raju] in two heel hooks I had locked in during that fight. I just thought it was kind of funny, that kind of criticism, because [grappling in MMA] is very different.”
As for how grappling is different in MMA, Tonon lists several examples. For one, the willingness not to tap.
“There’s (sic) times wherein an MMA fight, you can lock up a submission hold, and the guy’s going to tap immediately because he’s just not as experienced in jiu-jitsu, but there’s (sic) some tough guys out there who take breaks and, you know, if it’s not the most devastating submission in the world… You know, there’s a lot of submissions – aside from strangles – that people could just eat and then keep fighting.”
There are also those pesky punches.
“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. It’s just not smart in my opinion.”
The presence of strikes changed many facets of Tonon’s grappling game, from the length of time he spends on certain submission attempts to his willingness to play guard.
“I’m not particularly looking to try to stay on bottom with someone unless I have submission holds ready to go. Hell, man, I want to get back up, or I want to transfer to another submission hold very quickly.”
A new perspective on fighting
But beyond tactical differences, Tonon says fighting in MMA has changed his outlook more than any singular technical facet of his game.
“I think fighting, in general, has really changed my perspective, and I knew that it would. When I watch someone perform jiu-jitsu or grappling techniques in an actual fight – or really, I would say any techniques in an actual fight – since I started fighting, it’s really changed my perspective as to how I really view and criticize that, because there’s (sic) crazy things that happen in a fight, man.”
“You get clipped behind the head or something. You get a little wobbled and, like, you’re not thinking exactly the way that you would normally think if you were in a calm, nice grappling match. It’s not like you just get to do everything step-by-step, and everything’s thought out. It’s a little bit more hectic than that.”
For Tonon, his transition to MMA has shown him just how much people take for granted when comparing grappling in MMA to grappling on the competition circuit.
“People take a lot for granted when it comes to mixed martial arts and criticism of mixed martial arts, but definitely the grappling altogether.”
“I’ve spent my whole life watching MMA fights with grapplers and people being like, ‘Oh, yeah, look at his (expletive) mount escapes or this, that or the other thing. It’s like, ‘Dude, okay, but he’s also getting his face punched, and before that, the reason he’s mounted is that he took a huge shot and almost got knocked unconscious. You can’t exactly put that dude in the same category as a guy who gets mounted in a jiu-jitsu competition. You just can’t.”
Predicting the outcomes of the ONE Lightweight Grand Prix
Despite recently moving down to ONE Championship’s featherweight division (155 pounds), Garry Tonon is very cognizant of the ONE Lightweight Grand Prix, which takes place in his original division (170 pounds).
The Grand Prix features some of ONE’s top lightweight talent, including Japanese icon, Shinya Aoki; the recent, marquee signee, former UFC lightweight king Eddie Alvarez; the Philippines’ Eduard Foloyang; and striking ace, Amir Khan; among others.
Tonon sees Alvarez and Aoki as the frontrunners, but gives the edge to “The Underground King.”
“If I was going to bet on who gonna win, I would give it to Eddie. And here’s why: I think Shinya shows some inconsistency in his performances sometimes.”
Tonon is in a unique position to say so, as he’s been following Aoki’s career closely. In fact, he even competed against him.
In 2017, Tonon grappled Aoki in a jiu-jitsu superfight under the ONE Championship banner before signing with the promotion as an MMA fighter. “The Lion Killer” defeated the longtime competitor with an inside heel hook during the match.
To Tonon, one fight of Aoki’s stands out as a marker of questionable decision making, the kind that could cause Alvarez to gain the upper hand in a potential Grand Prix finale.
“I look at a fight like the fight that he had with [former ONE welterweight champion, Ben] Askren, and it puts a bunch of question marks over my head. I don’t really understand what happened here.”
“Why would you pull guard when Askren, you know, he’s not particularly known for great standup fighting. So it’s not like you’re afraid of him in a standing position. You know that you’d like to get it to the ground, but why would you… he’s gonna try to take you there anyway!”
“[Askren’s] whole style of fighting is: take the dude down and try to work from there. If you’re gonna play from the ground, just wait ’til he takes you down. Keep it standing. I don’t know. That fight really confused me. I feel as though sometimes there’s just an inconsistency in Shinya’s performances.”
But don’t get Tonon wrong. If Aoki’s on point, he could give Alvarez a world of trouble. Aoki does, after all, hold a submission win over Alvarez.
“I could be wrong. I think that if Shinya executes a great game plan and does the things that I told you before: you know, focuses on setting up his takedown and works on controlling Eddie on the ground and working for a submission, or TKO, or something, I think he gives Eddie a hell of a fight and it could be tough. I think that it’s possible that he could win.”
“It could definitely go the other way, but if I had to put money on it, I’d be betting on Eddie.”
What the future holds in mixed martial arts
Ultimately, though, Garry Tonon sees the Grand Prix as a list of potential future opponents.
Tonon didn’t get a bid for the tournament, but he says it would have been a difficult decision to have made if he had.
“Had they offered it to me, I would have had to weigh the pros and cons of doing so with my team, and I would have tried to make an educated decision there. Do I feel as though I’m capable of beating the guys that are in the tournament? Yeah. Do I necessarily believe that I have the greatest chances of beating them right now in my career because of the experience that I have? No.”
“Let’s put it this way, every fight that I have, every extra month that I get to train and spar, I’m increasing my chances of beating those guys.”
In particular, Tonon envisions fighting Shinya Aoki down the line.
“The Shinya matchup is going to be exciting for sure. That’s one of the harder matchups. Like, when I look ahead and I say like, ‘All right, like who’s going to be really tough that’s in my division, or that I’m essentially gonna fight?’ I look at that matchup.”
Tonon brings up his 2017 match with Aoki as an indicator of the difficulty of a potential fight, even though he was victorious.
“Even though we’ve had a grappling match and I beat him, it took, like, seven minutes and that was a straight grappling match. Now we’re talking about adding punches and kicks and things in and talking about doing a sport that he’s been doing for decades. It definitely slants things, not in my favor, in my opinion.”
“I look at that fight as something that’s gonna be a real big challenge in the future and my career.”
As for his next fight, Tonon was cryptic.
“I already have a fight lined up. There are no signatures on any contracts yet, and there are no promotional materials that have been released about said fight, so I am not at liberty to tell people when and where and all that kind of thing.”
But, Tonon gave The Body Lock a few hints.
“All I can say is that my next opponent is a knockout artist, in one of his most recent fights, he knocked someone out very quickly; very dangerous on the feet, so I can tell you that. I can tell you that I will be fighting in the first quarter of this year, and it will be at a very big show that ONE Championship is putting on. So, that is the most information I think I’m at liberty to give you.”
“I will be fighting soon, quote-unquote, at least within the first quarter of the year, for sure.”
Michael Fiedel is The Body Lock's deputy editor, a staff writer for FloCombat, and a Russell-Rice scholarship recipient at Vanderbilt University.