Garry Tonon didn’t mind taking a few extra months off to secure his spot for ONE Championship’s debut event in Japan, which takes place this Sunday at the historic Ryogoku Kokugikan.
An eternal heartland for international martial artists, Japan is a mandatory pilgrimage for many proponents. Despite the countless accolades Tonon has won throughout his jiu-jitsu career, fighting in the “Land of the Rising Sun” is unquestionably special.
“Everything started here,” Tonon says from his Tokyo hotel. “I’ve been watching great martial artists come out of Japan for forever and it’s a cool thing to be able to finally compete here.”
Unlike many of his fledgling counterparts, Tonon’s first three MMA outings have been put under a hypercritical microscope due to his celebrated grappling ability. The black belt has long made peace with his pedestal in the new sport and admitted that being a beginner has revitalized him.
“There’s so much to learn early on,” Tonon explains. “Everything I learn is pretty much brand new so that means I should be getting better all the time. If I was getting stagnant, now that could spell some pretty bad things for the future. I often find that it can become difficult for guys who have been doing [MMA] for several years to get better. I guess that’s part of the learning curve too. After a certain period of time you start getting used to things and you have a particular way of doing things that you’re comfortable with, so it becomes harder and harder to learn new skills because you fall back on what you’re used to.
“It’s a great time in my career to just keep switching things up and I think almost every fight is going to look a little different.”
Having scaled to the top of the food chain in jiu-jitsu, Tonon’s experience often reminds him how much he will have to dedicate to mixed martial arts to be considered among the best in the world.
“I’m thinking about what I do right and what I do wrong all the time,” he reveals. “I’ve already achieved near excellence in another sport, so I know what that tastes like. I know what getting close to perfect looks like, so when I go to do another sport and I’m nowhere near close to perfect it’s frustrating. In jiu-jitsu, I can make little adjustments and things; I know what I’m doing. In MMA, I can see what I want to be, but it just seems so out of reach because I just don’t have the prerequisite skills to be there yet. It will come with time and it’s frustrating, but I feel like I’ve got a little better sense of direction. I’m not satisfied with just mediocre or okay; I want all of my skills to be near perfect.”
Despite making his MMA debut just one year ago, the majority of fans immediately expect a Tonon submission win regardless of who’s pitted against him. His Tokyo counterpart, Anthony Engelen, has over four times more experience in MMA than Tonon does, but the same forecast is being floated for their clash, which the MMA newcomer struggles to understand.
“If you don’t fight at all, if you don’t grapple or do any type of combat sport, you don’t realize how difficult it is to do this. Even guys that come from a grappling background that are fans of fighting, they just don’t really grasp how fighting really works. Look at what happened with ‘Wonderboy’ (Stephen Thompson) and Anthony Pettis last weekend. Thompson, when it comes to athleticism, skill, and size, he really had all the advantages in his favor in the fight and then one punch turned it all around. It’s not as simple as, ‘Oh yeah, he’s just going to go in there and take him down…’
“What if I go to take him down and I get a flying knee to the face?” he says, flirting with the concept of defeat. “So many things can happen. I can’t go in there with that mentality, like, ‘I’m going to die,’ but being aware of that possibility enhances my preparation. It makes me take these fights far more seriously, especially when you consider that I’m fighting a guy that has knockout power for the first time.”
While some of Tonon’s peers who have transitioned to MMA from pure grappling often talk about the disparity in their strength areas compared to established mixed martial artists, it’s clear that Tonon sees his jiu-jitsu ability in a different regard when applied to the hybrid sport.
When it comes to grappling matches, he knows he should be heavily favored. Yet, in an MMA bout, given the number of moving pieces, Tonon doesn’t rule out being submitted.
“If this was a grappling match, I’d agree. In that case everyone should be like, ‘Garry’s going to win.’ But this is not a grappling match, it’s MMA, and we’re wearing four-ounce gloves. Any punch or kick that lands could be a game changer. There’s a lot of fights with grapplers where they’ll get stunned after being hit by something hard and then they’ll get submitted. They’re clearly a better grappler on paper, but they get submitted by somebody that barely grapples because they got stunned first — their opponent half knew how to apply guillotine and then he finished it.
“That could easily happen to me too,” admits Tonon. “Everyone would be like, ‘Oh yeah, Garry’s jiu-jitsu sucks,’ because I got wobbled and my opponent jumped on my back and choked me before I could do anything about it. Those are the kinds of things that people don’t realize. When you get kicked or punched in the head you don’t have your wits about you for a little bit. It’s not normal, it’s not like a grappling match where you’re safe the whole time. Really, any hit is disorienting, much less something that’s close to knockout blow.
“Anything can happen. People saying, ‘He’s just going in there and submitting him’ — I could literally get submitted. Again, do I think it’s likely? No. But it’s definitely a possibility. It’s a crazy sport. The probability factor in MMA plays a much bigger role that it does in jiu-jitsu.”
As he continues to outline himself as a fighter on the rise, Tonon isn’t too proud to admit that the prospect of fighting a bonafide knockout artist for the first time can be intimidating.
“Absolutely, it changes things,” he replies when asked about Engelen’s stopping power.
“Just the fear and anxiety completely changes in my opinion. My other opponents really only TKO’d their opponents if they didn’t go to a decision or submit them or whatever. An opponent like Anthony can change a fight with one kick or punch. The margins for error are much slimmer than in my previous fights. In my previous fights it might have been a okay to play around a little bit in the standing position. I think it’s going to be less okay this time; I’ve got to be a little more cognizant of what’s going on when we’re standing this time. I’ve got to be really sharp and try to make as few mistakes as possible.”