A lot of characters exist in professional sports, and there are plenty of them in the combat sports realm. There are the ultra-serious athletes, the ones who are one incident short of a lengthy prison sentence, those who are very family-focused, and the ones that are pure working-class. However, there are a few that really stand out from the pack.
One particular combat sports athlete who is serious and dedicated about his craft, lives a life of constant training, and never stops having fun is Garry Tonon. The decorated jiu-jitsu champion, who grew up in Central New Jersey, is one of the most talented grappling athletes in the world, and is also pretty intelligent and quite entertaining. He also is a professional mixed martial artist under ONE Championship. He could actually be doing quite an array of different professions, but this is the path he chose.
“I believe that I’m capable of a lot,” Tonon told Combat Press. “I don’t think that if I didn’t fight, that I wouldn’t have been able to find a way to be similarly successful in something that probably wouldn’t have required as much physical sacrifice. I think everything requires some level of sacrifice, but I think fighting and jiu-jitsu and these sorts of things – I mean, you’re putting your actual body and mental health, to some degree, on the line. I think that the sacrifice is a bit more than even being elite level in a particular business or something. There’s going to be certain obligations that you’re going to have to keep and certain things that you can’t do to operate at a high level in business, but it’s just a little different with fighting and physical activity and athleticism.
“There are some guys out there that go pursue fighting, and, if they didn’t fight professionally, anything that they would have done outside of fighting, there’s no way they would have been able to be nearly as successful. Now, I don’t know if I would have been as ‘famous,’ in terms of having the number of Instagram followers or whatever the case may be.”
For anyone looking for an interesting Instagram follow, Tonon’s page can be quite entertaining. However, his martial arts career has been nothing short of exciting. It’s clearly a culmination of things that he was drawn to from a young age, as it was a much-needed outlet.
“All these things that require so much sacrifice – so much physical torment and mental torment – I think a bit of it comes from childhood,” Tonon said. “I had a lot of, like, pent-up aggression and energy. I also have ADHD, so I’ve always wanted to be moving. I always wanted to be doing something, but, particularly, like, contact – like, physical contact from a perspective of violence – always appealed to me on some level. The idea of becoming some level of fighter or warrior or something like that, even as a young boy, I always idolized and watched television shows and these things like that involving some level of like physical aggression and violence.
“As I got into school, and encountered bullying and things like that, I really wanted agency over myself. And, what better way to get agency over yourself than to feel as though you’re physically capable of defending yourself. It’s one thing to tell a kid, ‘Be confident. Say no. Don’t succumb to pressures.’ Like, that’s a nice sentiment, but how do you do that if you don’t actually have some sort of experience under pressure and overcoming that pressure? That’s what martial arts does for you.”
Tonon largely grew up with his mom and sister, and didn’t have a brother or anything to wrestle around with. Taking up actual wrestling in fifth grade would eventually lead him to Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which would turn out to be a foundation for his future.
“When I found jiu-jitsu, I also found a really powerful role model, which was Tom DeBlass,” Tonon elaborated. “When I met him, I saw a grown man who seems to be doing very well for himself. He’s involved in this thing. He’s skilled at fighting. He’s somebody that I look up to that I would like aspire to be like. And that’s kind of how the path started. From that, you know, I didn’t like the idea of just copying somebody forever, so once I got some footing there, I go, ‘Okay, now it’s time to figure out what I want.’ I started following in his footsteps at first, and that led me to what I want to achieve. I want to be a world champion. I want to compete in ADCC. I want to eventually fight one day. Suddenly, it became not me just following in the footsteps or idolizing another person. I’m going to become the man that I want, and that was some level of inspiration by Tom. I was fighting to become the person that I wanted to be.”
Tonon was training between DeBlass’s Ocean County BJJ and UFC veteran and BJJ black belt Ricardo Almeida’s gym, until he eventually went to study exercise science at Rutgers University. Being far from home, it was then that he needed to seek out places to keep training at, which would eventually lead him to the Renzo Gracie Academy in New York City. It also happened to be home to legendary no-gi grappling professor John Danaher. The New Zealander, who’s students including Tonon were eventually coined the ‘Danaher Death Squad,’ is a rare kind of coach. He holds a PhD in epistemology from Columbia University, has a background in karate and kickboxing, and is currently a sixth-degree black belt in BJJ under Renzo Gracie.
“My initial impression of John was that he was just a coach,” admitted Tonon. “When I went to Rutgers, I traveled to as many different places I could to find training, because I couldn’t train consistently with Tom anymore. So, I was at Rutgers. I would train with Tom like once a week. I would go to Ricardo’s every once in a while. Then, I would go up to New York. So, my initial impression of John was that he is a pretty intelligent teacher. He was a pretty intelligent teacher who’s a little abrasive and difficult to approach. That was my initial impression.
“You know, in class and stuff, he was very blunt, very direct and very specific about the way that he wanted things done. There’s a level of precision that was never really asked of me in my training career. It was just a little different. It was kind of similar to Tom. You know, Tom could definitely get that way as well, being very like precise and picky and got to do things this way. But, with John, I got a sense that there’s like a certain time that like you would ask questions or give feedback, but you had to play things a little bit carefully. I was just a visitor in his world. I was like, ‘If I’m going to ask a question, it better be a goddamn good one.’”
Tonon, along with Eddie Cummings, was a founding members of the DDS, which would expand to include guys like Gordon and Nicky Ryan, Nicky Rodriguez, and Craig Jones, to name a few. Eventually, due to COVID restrictions interfering with their regular training at RGA, the crew left New York and New Jersey for Puerto Rico in 2020. After a short stint on the island, most of them moved to Austin, but split into two teams. Tonon and Gordon Ryan stayed with Danaher, starting New Wave Jiu-Jitsu, while Jones, Rodriguez, Nicky Ryan and Ethan Crelinsten started the B-Team.
Tonon was the one DDS guy that started a career in MMA back in 2018. He signed with ONE Championship for his pro debut, and is now 6-1 under the ONE banner. He has won three fights by submission, and two by TKO. His sole loss came in a featherweight title fight against Thanh Le in Mar. 2022. Throughout his MMA career, his head coach has been Danaher. Between his backgrounds in both striking and grappling, and his high level of intelligence and ability to break down fights, Danaher has been very effective coaching Tonon in MMA. The Jersey native also finds help from his training partners.
“When I grapple with guys now, I don’t focus on just getting the submission,” Tonon explained. “I focus on dominating position, looking for where I’d be able to strike and do damage. It’s pretty easy for me. I have my training partner throw gloves on, just so it’s like a similar feel. Every other day, while everybody else is doing whatever positions they usually do, I do wall work. So, I’ll just throw somebody on the wall, and we just do jiu-jitsu starting on the wall, so that I’m used to doing this stuff on the fence. I’m still grappling every day, but I just make it a little bit more MMA-oriented than I normally would otherwise.
“There’s not a huge MMA culture in Austin. There are a few different guys kind of playing around with it, but there’s not like big teams and lots of sparring partners. So, I fly some guys in from New York sometimes. There are some guys from Dallas that’ll come down. Some guys, that just met up with us through the team, that’ll come in and train. Yuting Hong is like my main training partner, who lives with me, and he spars with me pretty much every day. So, he’s my main sparring partner, but I also obviously bring in other guys as well.”
Tonon’s last MMA battle was the title fight with Le. About 30 seconds into the first round, Tonon went for a leg-lock submission, but Le – a longtime Taekwondo black belt who trains with third-degree BJJ black belt and UFC vet Ryan “The Wizard” Hall – was able to defend the submission attempt and land a series of right hands from standing. Tonon was knocked out. While it looked like Tonon was close to getting the submission, he feels he should’ve done a few things differently.
“It probably would have made sense to play more of a wrestling, you know, pin-him-down-and-do-damage type of style, instead of falling back on a leg so early,” Tonon reflected. “I just felt like the opportunity was there, and that’s why I chose to do it. But, if I fell back for a leg in another fight, there’s three things that are important that I need to do if I’m going to be attacking somebody’s legs. I need to either drop them to a knee, make sure to drop them to their butt, or make sure they’re not facing me. If I can do one of those three things, I think I can stay relatively safe. What I failed to do, and why I got knocked out, is I failed to do one of those three things. He wasn’t dropped to a knee, he wasn’t dropped to his butt, and he was standing and was able to face me.”
Tonon next appeared in ONE last May when he took on Tye Ruotolo in a submission grappling bout. About 90 seconds into the match, Tonon was appearing to roll through a bottom position on the ground when Ruotolo sunk in a D’Arce choke. Seconds later, Tonon was forced to tap.
“I would have been much more cognizant of D’Arce defense,” Tonon said. “Like, we worked on a lot of D’Arce defense leading up to that. It’s difficult to understand how dangerous he actually is with it until you’re actually in the situation. I think, in another match with him, that I would still be offensive, but I wouldn’t put myself in any situations where the D’Arce was readily available. I think that, during that match – I’m pretty comfortable with my submission defense in almost every situation, but he’s very good at that submission – by turning away the way that I did during the passing, I put myself in more danger than I really needed to.”
2022 was a year of lessons for Tonon. He hadn’t fought MMA in 15 months before facing Le, and, in addition to the Ruotolo bout, he also lost a grappling match at ADCC in September. However, entering 2023, he has a renewed focus. Tomorrow night, live on Amazon Prime Video, he will be back in the ONE Circle, as he takes on Johnny Nunez, who is a former UFC and Bellator fighter, former contestant from The Ultimate Fighter reality show, and partner to former UFC champion Miesha Tate, who he has two young children with. The two will serve as the opening bout on the main card of ONE Fight Night 6. It will be Nunez’s first fight in three years.
“I didn’t realize that he was fighting for them until they sent me the bout offer,” Tonon said. “I hadn’t seen his previous fight in ONE. What I assume happened – because Miesha Tate was working for ONE for a little while – is, when she decided to work for ONE, they must have signed Johnny, and he’s probably still under contract. I think it’s a good fight for me. I think he’s got a heavy wrestling base. He can hit hard, but, for the most part, he’s got like one TKO win, and the rest is mostly decisions. It should give me an opportunity to either submit him or hit him with some decent strikes. It’s a little less dangerous than the Thanh fight, I would say.
“This should be one of the more exciting fights that I have had. I think I’ll get to showcase more skills, because it’s another grappling athlete. So, he’s going to be trying to take me down. I’m going to be trying to take him down. I think that I would argue my striking is a bit better than his. I don’t think it’s out of the question that he can hit me or anything like that. I think you’ll see some things from me that maybe you weren’t able to see in other fights. I haven’t fought in a little while, so it’s just good for the fans to be able to see me fight again and overcome another obstacle.”
Tonon’s career has been fun to watch, and, still only 31-years-old, he has a lot of runway left. He is happy with where his career is so far, and tomorrow night is another chapter in what is hopefully a busy 2024.
“There were long stretches of time where I didn’t have as many fights as I would have liked to have,” Tonon said. “By now, I should have over 10 fights, and I think a lot of that’s due to COVID. So, I can’t really blame the organization or anything. I think everybody struggled to keep putting on shows, and there were some problems when I was going to take my title fight. He got hurt. I got hurt. So, that took like a year to make it happen. But, it’s a title fight, man. You’ve got to make some sacrifices, and it was really important. We did what we needed to do to make that title fight happen.
“I had my opportunity, and I’m hoping to get an opportunity someday in the near future. That’s really my only regret my terms of my trajectory. I just wish that I had a few more fights than I have now. Hopefully, this year I’ll be able to knock out three or four fights in a year, and, you know, I’ll get what I want.”
ONE Fight Night 6: Superbon vs. Allazovairs live on Amazon Prime Video starting at 8 p.m. ET.
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