Grappling sensation Garry Tonon made the transition to mixed martial arts in March of last year. Since doing so, “The Lion Killer” has gone 3-0 under the ONE Championship banner and finished every opponent.
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Almost a year to the day of his debut, Tonon will be competing at ONE: A New Era on March 31. The card features an outrageous four title fights and the arrivals of former UFC champions Eddie Alvarez and Demetrious Johnson to the promotion.
Tonon sat down with The Body Lock’s John Hyon Ko to discuss if he’d take another grappling bout, his upcoming opponent, training under John Danaher and more.
Grappling in a cage and in the future
Before entering the MMA, Tonon was terrorizing opponents in the world of submission grappling. The five-time Eddie Bravo Invitational champion was used to rolling around on the mats but that game changes when you’re trapped in a cage. Before his first MMA fight, Tonon made his first appearance in ONE Championship in a submission grappling-only matchup against MMA legend Shinya Aoki. The experience was an eye-opening one.
“The cage control that Shinya [Aoki] was able to use and display during that match was very exceptional. It’s definitely something that we played around with leading up to the match and everything, but I wouldn’t say I placed a huge emphasis on the fence wrestling portion. Just the fence wrestling poses a lot of problems for me. I was eventually able to submit him, but, I think it was greatly beneficial to me because it just went to show me that even in the grappling aspects of mixed martial arts that I have a long way to go.”
Now with three MMA fights under his belt, Tonon is focused on that going forward. Yet, should the right opportunity present itself to him, there’s a chance we could see him in a straight grappling match again. He’s open to the idea, as is ONE Championship, but it would have to be an exceptional opponent that would grow his legacy. Another legendary mixed martial artist could do the trick. Maybe even a rematch against someone who he has taken on in the past…
“I mean, Kron [Gracie] has been a big name for a long time, but I don’t really think it’s going to happen considering that he’s fighting in UFC now. I suppose a match could happen in an outside organization that wasn’t affiliated with UFC or ONE maybe. I doubt it because he’s been avoiding that rematch for years. To his credit, he beat me, so he doesn’t have any obligation to have to fight me again. We’ll see each other one day if he continues in MMA I’m sure.”
Tonon and his old foe Gracie aren’t the only grapplers to move into MMA recently. Dillon Danis made his Bellator debut last year and submitted Kyle Walker in the first round. Tonon believes both Gracie and Danis have the potential to go far in the sport due to their ability to lock on a submission almost on command. But grappling is only one part of a very complex sport.
“There will be roadblocks though, and it depends on how much those guys work on those integral skills. [There’s] things like fence wrestling, clinch wrestling, boxing, shoot boxing and timing those takedowns. How much they work on those skills is going to determine their success in those situations, but I do believe they can go very far with just the skills that they have.”
A New Era
“The Lion Killer” purposefully took a longer break than he has between his previous MMA fights to assure that he’d be healthy for March 31. He knew this would be a strong card since it was ONE Championships first foray into The Land of the Rising Sun. He’s always dreamt of fighting in Japan and the fact that this event will be stacked with some of the most well-known faces in the MMA world was definitely a bonus. Tonon will battle Anthony Engelen on that night. He believes the more experienced Engelen poses some interesting problems to him. The major one being his knockout power.
“That’s a very real danger that I don’t know if I’ve faced yet. I think that will change my approach even just mentally leading up to this. I watch the tape and I see him knock somebody out and I can just tell internally I’m treating this differently than I treated past fights. I may go in there with a little bit of a different mentality and a different game plan. I’m trying to put him away.”
Tonon still wants to strike and doesn’t plan to go in and immediately shoot for a takedown, but as Mike Tyson once infamously stated, “everyone has a game plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
“I do think I’m going to be a little bit more aggressive. It’s hard to say because fighting is so crazy and you have a game plan and then you go get in there and it’s the saying is really true. Like if you get punched in the face and then you’re like, ah, maybe not, let’s approach this from a different angle. Maybe I don’t want to set that up because that hurt. So, we’ll see kind of what happens during the fight; because I’m not 100% sure yet. Things change.”
Whether he chooses to strike or attempt the takedown, Tonon knows that he’s being guided by one of the best minds in not only grappling but in all of combat sports in John Danaher. Danaher studies Tonon’s sparring and fights closely and then tries to structure a plan that he feels will work best for him. He’ll often pick through different striking arts and pull out the parts that he thinks Tonon can utilize the most.
“I’m just taking little bits and pieces from all these different people. It’s not like I have a boxing coach where maybe my boxing would look very similar to what that boxing coach’s idea of boxing would be. Instead, I have John [Danaher] who appoints me a bunch of different directions. [He’ll say] ‘Oh, you’re going to study Lomachenko for this. You’re going to study Andre Ward for this and Tyson for this.’”
Danaher is mainly known for producing absolute killers on the mat but the “Death Squad” commander has long been a student of a myriad of martial arts and has worked with some of the biggest stars in MMA history.
“The funny thing is people have just forgotten the fact that John’s coached a bunch of really successful mixed martial artists before he got involved in grappling at a high level at all. Like he was coaching Georges St-Pierre, Chris Weidman, Rory MacDonald. He was a big part of their mixed martial arts camps. Like, was he leaning towards the grappling side of things? Yes, but it’s kind of hard to get involved with coaching someone in mixed martial arts without getting a good understanding of mixed martial arts.
So if John is going to coach Georges St-Pierre to victory, he’s not just going to throw a few techniques out. He’s going to dissect his opponent and he’s going to watch Georges’ previous fights and some of his opponent’s. There’s a lot that goes into that. So he’s got a wealth of knowledge in mixed martial arts as well as jiu-jitsu.”
Ready for a title shot
Even though he’s undefeated, Tonon is still only beginning his journey in MMA. He’s not sure exactly where a win over Engelen will put him in the rankings but he knows eventually he’ll be fighting for the title. He also knows an impressive performance could possibly help him leapfrog to the front of the line. Regardless of what ONE Championship decides is next for him, it’s safe to say that Tonon is prepared.
“I think I’m ready [for a title shot]. If they present it to me and that’s what they want to do, I’m ready to go. If, if it’s not what they’re interested in, they want to give me more time, I’m okay with that too. I’m all about getting my experience in honestly. But I’m game. I’m going to do whatever they tell me to do. “
‘I’m just going to be me’
Tonon mainly tries to gain fans through is performances but he understands that’s just a part of the game these days. In order to really reach new heights in the sport, a strong social media presence is paramount. Though he tries to have fun on while on the internet, Tonon feels it ultimately doesn’t matter how he presents himself. When he saw the way people went at nice guys like Daniel Cormier and Georges St-Pierre, he knew the provocateurs were going to have at him regardless. Yet, he’s still surprised at the things followers say to professional fighters.
“Daniel Cormier could kill you. George Saint Pierre could kill you. Would they? No. But you understand what I’m saying? They have the potential to, it’s not like some dude you’re getting angry at in a traffic situation when you have some road rage. That guy doesn’t know anything. These are guys who have proven that they are killers. Not only killers but that they’re also nice people and you got people commenting all kinds of terrible things on their social media. So the moment I saw that and I saw the things that people would say about George and Daniel, you know what, I’m going to get hate no matter what I do. Whether I’m a nice guy, whether I’m a bad guy, I’m just going to be me.”
Garry Tonon will compete against Anthony Engelen at ONE: A New Era on March 31 in Tokyo, Japan.
You can watch Garry Tonon’s full interview with John Hyon Ko on Kumite TV below.
Brandon is a long-time fan of combat sports who has covered them for various outlets since 2017.