Garry Tonon definitely knows a thing or two about grappling.
As a second degree Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt who carries a long list of accolades, the 32-year-old submission specialist could take on anybody on the mats and give them hell.
Despite his obvious prowess and knowledge on the ground, Tonon still had to learn to adapt his style when he transitioned to MMA, but it’s worked out pretty well thus far. In nine professional fights, he has eight wins, six by submission and two more by TKO on the ground.
As much as he’s worked to add new weapons to his arsenal as an MMA fighter, Tonon never forgets his roots, because that’s what got him to the race in the first place.
“I still make what makes me successful and what makes me, me, a big part of my training,” Tonon told MMA Fighting. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, I’ve trained jiu-jitsu for 15 years, I don’t need to do that anymore and just hope that it all falls together in the fight.’ I still do one MMA practice a day and one jiu-jitsu practice a day. So I do two-a-day system.
“I used to grapple a whole lot more during the day, but that was partially because grappling was my only thing. Now it’s one and one, especially when I’m getting closer and closer to a fight.”
Tonon doesn’t pat himself on the back too much when he’s compared to other high-level grapplers who’ve made waves in MMA. But he’s definitely found a level of consistency that even some of the most decorated jiu-jitsu specialists failed to achieve in the sport.
According to Tonon, it’s not necessarily that he’s just so much better than other grapplers coming into MMA, but rather it’s the arsenal he brings with him.
“There are some things that make me different,” he explained. “Some of that has a little bit to do with the variety of submissions that I am able to pull off comparative to some other athletes. For some other athletes, it’s like the only place they’re going to be able to submit somebody is if they get their back. That was me for many years in my jiu-jitsu. It took a really long time before I started to open up my submission game.
“I have a lot of weapons, so I think that makes it a little bit easier for me than some people. I do a good job, I think of varying the threat. While I’m obviously submissions dominant compared to other athletes because that’s my thing, I do a good job threatening my opponents in other ways. It’s not safe to just stand in front of me. It’s not safe to be on the ground and get hit by me. I’ve had TKO victories in the past, too. Not every grappler is capable of doing that.”
When it comes to the best grapplers in MMA, Tonon understands that’s a different category than just looking at who possesses the most dangerous submission game. Because MMA incorporates so many other weapons, grappling has to adapt and evolve to remain successful.
Taking himself out of the equation, Tonon looks at a couple of specific examples of fighters who blend together a nasty grappling game with striking and wrestling on the ground, which separates them from the rest of the pack.
“Charles Oliveira’s not a terrible answer,” Tonon said. “I’ve watched some of his submission victories in MMA, and he puts together things pretty well. I think that’s a good one. A couple of years ago, I would have said Khabib [Nurmagomedov], even though it’s a different style of grappling than submission grappling. He gets some submissions, too, so I can’t say that completely, but he tends to focus more on punching people in the face when he’s controlling them.
“I think somewhere between Oliveira, you could say [Islam] Makhachev, which is similar to Khabib. I don’t know if I look at him quite the same but those are some good answers. It’s a difference with a focus on submissions and submitting people and hitting people while you’re on the ground when you grapple-box. Because I think both of those display some elements of grappling skill, even though sometimes in the grappling world, at least where I come from, when you think of grapplers you’re thinking of submitting people. Not necessarily people who control you and beat you up but hey, that’s part of this, too.”
As much as he gets asked about grappling, Tonon definitely still dreams of the day when he’ll be able to score a win on the feet, but he’s not going to rush anything.
In his upcoming fight ONE 165, which airs Sunday at 3 a.m. in the U.S., Tonon faces off with former two-division champion Martin Nguyen, who possesses plenty of finishing power when striking.
Even with Nguyen going through some struggles lately — delivering a 1-3 record in his past four appearances — Tonon knows a fighter like that is never more dangerous than when he’s backed into a corner, and he has to fight his way out of it.
“I look at the big picture,” Tonon said. “I don’t just look at a couple of performances that didn’t go his way and say ‘oh, he’s washed up or he sucks.’ I still look at him as a whole as an incredibly versatile mixed martial artist that has dealt with so many different styles of fighters. He’s fought pure grapplers. Martin was able to deal with these guys who specialize in spinning attacks. He lost to Thanh [Le] but he was beating him at points in the fight. Thanh is the interim title holder and Thanh beat me. That’s a karate guy.
“He’s shown what he’s good at, he’s leveraged into beating so many different elite opponents. Regardless of one or two performances, I don’t know how I could ever just count him out in any capacity.”