There’s a pretty short list of grapplers on this planet who could make a true underdog out of Tommy Langaker. The Norwegian jiu-jitsu star – who’s an ADCC European Trials champ – also owns IBJJF Euros gold, as well as podium finishes at Worlds and Pans at black belt.
Up against ONE Championship’s reigning lightweight king Kade Ruotolo, however, most betting odds favor Kade.
That doesn’t bother Langaker. The Norwegian – who’s treating his title challenge like any other jiu-jitsu match – refuses to let Kade’s resume spook him. “I just do what I do, and try to put my pace on [my opponents], and make them play my game,” Langaker tells me, cool as a cucumber.
While Langaker and Ruotolo shared one of the most competitive brackets at ADCC 2022, theirs was a match we never got to see. At the afterparty, though, the two playfully exchanged some fighting words.
“It was the afterparty,” says Langaker. “We were all kind of hyped up after the fights, and [Kade], being the champion, was of course also very hyped up […] We were supposed to meet each other in ONE Championship once before – or at least, there were talks about it – and then I got injured; I pulled my groin pretty badly.
He grins. “So then I went, ‘Yeah, when are we gonna fight, when are we gonna fight?’” Langaker pulls an exaggerated mean mug, before chuckling. “And of course, that was partly because of me being a little bit drunk and overenthusiastic. But of course, there’s going to be a little bit of tension too. We’re competitors, and we’re very confident in what we do, but I think we respect each other to the fullest. I don’t think there’s anything more to it than that.”
Will ONE’s ruleset – which, unlike ADCC, in a submission-only format with no points – change up Langaker’s approach when facing Kade? Not especially. Langaker, by his own admission, rarely alters the fundamentals of his jiu-jitsu game – and he’s not about to start. Not even for history’s youngest ADCC champion.
“To be honest, I haven’t really focused too much on the ruleset – I’m very confident in my game, and my ability to be in any position,” Langaker explains. “So we’ll see how it works out. I know what [Kade’s] good at, and I have an idea of what to do, and how to adapt, but I like to go with the flow. I like to adapt as I’m there, and not think too much about the details, and just let my jiu-jitsu do the work, and just go from there.”
“I haven’t done anything specific [to prepare for the ONE Championship title match] other than my regular routine,” he adds. “Of course, I’m having harder rounds, and [spending] more rounds being more physically and mentally prepared, because you only have ten minutes to work, and nothing after, so I have to be sharp when it’s on.”
Unlike some of the other big names on the jiu-jitsu scene – the most famous example perhaps being AOJ’s Cole Abate, who’s historically made a point of knowing his division inside and out – the Norwegian doesn’t typically spend much time studying his opponents.
“I’ve never been a big fan of studying any opponent, to be honest,” he admits. “Of course, I have some idea of what they do, and how they do things, but nothing in particular, no specified focus on that person. I like to focus more on myself and my own game, and work around that, rather than spending a lot of energy focusing on the other people.”
That said, he believes there’s a lot in common between Kade Ruotolo and the famously athletic Renato Canuto, whom Langaker defeated in a highly aggressive debut on the ONE Championship stage.
“Everybody knows that Renato is quite similar, in many ways, to Kade: a lot of energy, a lot of movement,” observes Langaker. “Of course, they’re not exactly the same, but the style is [similar]. When I went into that fight, I didn’t really have an exact plan. My initial plan was ‘Okay, I’m going to try to get this to the ground as fast as I can.’
“But as I’m there, I was like, ‘Nah, I’m going to feel him out a little bit, and use my grip strength and see what he has to offer.’ And then we got some exchanges in: I managed to take him down, and jump for a guillotine, ended up on bottom, and from there, it was mostly him being on top, and me trying to find a good position. It was a nice experience, and really lit a fire under me because I got put in [the cage] with one of the best guys in the world, on a big a** stage, so it couldn’t have gone any better.”
He pauses, then relents a little sheepishly: “Well, of course, if I’d managed to submit him, it would be better.” He smiles. “But my performance was very good, I believe.”
The biggest lesson Langaker took from facing Canuto – which he believes will serve him well against Kade – is the concept of energy management. “You can’t let yourself get pulled into their pace,” he tells me. “Because I know a lot of people get stressed because the opponent is going so fast. They can go fast because that’s their usual tempo. But if you get pulled into it, and you start trying to match that tempo, you’re going to start gassing out.”
If Langaker’s able to take out Kade, who’s next for him?
“Taking the W would make a statement and for me, and for the division,” says the Norwegian. “And I’d love to defend the belt against anyone else on the roster. I don’t know if Tainan [Dalpra] or Mica [Galvão] are still signed to ONE, but it would be cool to face one of them. I think Garry Tonon would also be cool to meet at 170. Anybody, to be honest. Or even Kade’s brother. If I beat Kade, and fight Tye after, that would be so cool – they’re both elite athletes at the top of their division.”
At the moment, however, his attention is devoted to taking out the opponent in front of him. “Right now, my main focus is to beat Kade, and take that title back home,” Langaker emphasizes. “And then we’ll take it from there.”
Don’t miss the showdown between Tommy Langaker and Kade Ruotolo at ONE Fight Night 11 this Friday, June 9.