What Makes BJJ Work for MMA: Garry Tonon Talks Strategy for ONE Fight Night 12

Garry “The Lion Killer” Tonon numbers among some of the most successful high-level jiu-jitsu competitors to transition into MMA – and it’s no accident. “I think that some [grapplers who want to transition to MMA] are not asking themselves and/or their coaches the question of ‘How am I going to parlay these skills that I already have – to the best of my ability – into this new sport?’” Tonon muses.

According to Tonon, effective use of jiu-jitsu for the cage emerges from a strong understanding of where it fits into the broader puzzle of mixed martial arts. He’s been careful over the course of his own MMA career to study those nuances. Factors such as context – using strikes to set up a takedown, for example – and environment, such as wall wrestling, become absolutely key to a jiu-jitsu specialist’s success in the cage.

While Tonon’s best known for highlight reel submission finishes in his ONE Championship cage fights, he’s found an intriguing matchup in ONE Fight Night 12 opponent Shamil Gasanov, a hardened Dagestani featherweight. Like his Dagestani counterparts over in the UFC – such as Khabib Nurmagomedov and Islam Makhachev – Gasanov built his martial foundations in the art of freestyle wrestling. And while jiu-jitsu specialists have typically triumphed over sambo champs or pure wrestlers in submission grappling showdowns, MMA often tells a different tale.

Tonon, however, remains confident that he’s going to emerge from this battle with the W.

“I imagine it would be more difficult to take him down than most of my previous opponents,” acknowledges Tonon. “In MMA, it just tends to be the case that you focus on getting up instead of submitting and sweeping from bottom position, so I imagine all of those things will be more difficult with this guy.”

Nevertheless, Tonon believes he can make Gasanov tap. “I believe I’m going to submit this guy,” he emphasizes. “It’s just a matter of how easy or difficult that’s going to be, and when it’s going to happen, and where it’s going to happen. That’s a little difficult to predict. I want to lean toward the idea that – kind of similarly to the last fight – him pushing the action with wrestling will kind of work him into submission situations.”

Most jiu-jitsu fans who have followed Tonon since his pure submission grappling days still remember his ADCC showdown against Kron Gracie back in 2013, which is often touted as one of the best jiu-jitsu matches of all time. Since then, Garry and Kron have walked remarkably parallel paths, with Kron transitioning into an MMA career with the UFC, while Garry would go on to fight for ONE FC.

Yet between the two, Garry has remained the more active – and by a number of metrics, arguably more successful – in the realm of MMA. What’s more, he’s found a way to continue using the high-level jiu-jitsu that first made him famous, even when dealing with dangerous strikers.

What’s his secret sauce? Garry has a few thoughts on that. According to the Lion Killer, the number one problem he sees in grapplers who make the leap to MMA is an inability to properly create setups for their takedowns. They take the luxury of starting from a clinch for granted. “In most grappling matches, bodies are attached – you’re touching someone’s hands or wrists, at the very least – and then you go for a leg, or the body, or what-have-you,” he explains.

Not so in MMA.

“At the very least, in order to get to that situation where you’re grabbing your opponent already, somebody has to punch somebody – most of the time,” Garry tells me. He chuckles. “You could just dive in on somebody’s legs, but even there, I would make the argument that you’re coming from separation – which is not the case, most of the time, in a grappling match. There are probably some people who shoot better from the outside, but I would say in most grappling matches, you’re already attached.”

Despite all the work he’s put into building an MMA career, the Lion Killer hasn’t left the world of pure submission grappling fully behind either. He’s an ADCC 2022 alumnus who competed in one of the most stacked brackets in history. He’s also scrapped with Tye Ruotolo under submission grappling rules on the ONE Championship stage itself.

For that matter, Tonon wouldn’t mind running it back with one or both of the Ruotolo twins. “I think the interest would go in a hierarchy,” says Tonon. “The first is that it would probably be most appropriate for me to compete agains the other brother, Kade, just because he’s closer to my size […] And then, of course I’d love to run it back with Tye, to try and get that win back.”

His main focus, however, is succeeding in MMA. While many athletes struggle to strike a balance between remaining competitive at the highest levels of pure jiu-jitsu and retaining a successful MMA record, Tonon believes he’s found a formula that works for him.

“Number one, I have a great coach,” he says. “Number two, I have a great group of people training with me on a day-to-day basis. That’s not me saying that other people don’t [have those things] – but I am saying that it’s a critical part of how I do what I do.

“Because I have those things, and I’m able to work with these people on a day-to-day basis, I’m able to keep those skills [on point]. Because I show up to a jiu-jitsu room every day and grapple with guys who are the best in the world – or trying to be the best in the world – I’m going to get the same looks that I used to get when I was the one just trying to be the best in the world at grappling. So, naturally, those skills are going to stay pretty sharp.”

He also changes up his grappling style in a jiu-jitsu room, depending on how close he is to an MMA fight. “Even when I show up to grappling practice, as a fight gets closer, my grappling changes. I don’t grapple people in the room the same way when I have a fight two weeks away, than when I have a fight ten weeks away. Those are two entirely different Garry Tonons.”

How so?

“Number one, the intensity is probably going to be much higher,” Tonon tells me. “Number two, the technique is going to be appropriate to what I’m doing. For example, I can get kneed in the face on the ground, doing what I’m doing. So, I’m cognizant of that, and if I get put into a position where someone can knee me – even if they’re just grappling, and they’re not going to knee me – I’m going to protect myself appropriately, to the best of my ability, and try to get out of that situation.

“I have to keep that in mind. If I just grappled with impunity, like, ‘Oh yeah, he can’t knee me, I’m in grappling practice,’ now I may have a short circuit in a fight situation, and then I’m getting kneed in the face.” Tonon offers up a wry smile. “You remember pretty quickly, when you get kneed in the face – I’ll tell you that.”

As for Tonon’s future plans, he’s got his eye on a potential fight back on home turf in the United States. And with ONE’s recent sold-out American debut, it’s a real possibility. “I would love as much support as possible, if they ever have another event on American soil,” says Tonon. He grins. “I’d love for people to just scream their g*d d*** ears off about getting me on that event.”

Don’t miss Tonon versus Gasanov on ONE Fight Night 12, streaming on Amazon Prime Video this Friday, July 14, at 8 PM EST.


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