Transition man: Garry Tonon adapts to life in the cage

Tonon is reinventing himself as a martial artist. Photo: Dux Carvajal/ONE Championship.

Garry “The Lion Killer” Tonon is a man who likes to lead by example.

To that end, the American can lean on the experience gained across a stellar career crowned by the laurels that come with five titles at the Eddie Bravo Invitational. Over a decade on the mats have left the 26-year-old New Jersey native with few peers when it comes to the mystic arts of Brazilian jiu jitsu but Tonon has never been one to rest on such laurels.

And that’s what has led the man to MMA and to the ONE Championship.

“I’ve wanted to do this for a long time,” says Tonon. “I went into BJJ not knowing anything about MMA. I was relatively sheltered. But the inclination soon came and I realise that moving forward in my role as a teacher, people would end up coming to me for fight advice, not just jiu jitsu advice.

“I didn’t want to not have the perspective to share. Of course I am competitive and I want to be the best in MMA. But I also had to get in the cage and fight so I could use that later in helping students.”

The decision has led Tonon from New Jersey’s Brunswick BJJ gym to Manila and deep within the bowels of the sprawling City of Dreams casino complex. He arrives sporting a tash that would do D’Artagnan proud and when asked about the look Tonon talks about his need for constant change, and for reinventing himself as a martial artist.

And a few days later the crowd at the Philippine capital’s Mall of Asia Arena are given a taste of how Tonon’s MMA career is evolving. First time out – on ONE Championship’s Iron Will card in Bangkok back in March – matters were settled with a flurry of punches and elbows in the second that had the Philippines’ Richard “Lion Heart” Corminal (4-4) seeing stars.

In Manila, Tonon faced Rahul K. “The Kerala Krusher” Raju (4-3) and was put through a more decent workout when on his feet, trading shots, wearing shots, and quite obviously still working on that side of his fight game.

The end – when it came as the clocked ticked down in the last round – saw the American revert to type with a rear naked choke that had Raju flailing helplessly. It moved Tonon’s fledgling record to 2-0 – and showcased the obvious talent that led the ONE honchos to come calling.

Tonon’s win over Rahul Raju in Manila pushed his fledgling record to 2-0.

As Tonon pointed out beforehand, what we are witnessing at the moment is a fighter in transition.

“There’s a few times where people get very, very good at one thing and then decide to take that and enter a new realm,” says Tonon.

“It’s like starting from scratch. I have high expectations. I expect to be good right away but I have taken so many steps back from where I was. It’s taken a long time to be able to go out there and not get killed. But it’s cool. Every day I turn up and I’m learning something new.”

As well as the foundations Tonon has forged in BJJ, what the man brings to the party is a history of winning, and on some of the biggest stages there are in combat sports. Look to how easily fellow American and former Olympic wrestler Ben “Funky” Askren (18-0) handled the big occasion – and how middleweight title challengers Agilan “Alligator” Thani (9-2) and Zebaztian “The Bandit” Kadestam (10-4) failed to – for proof of the edge that sort of winning mindset can bring.

The big difference, says Tonon, comes when the cage door closes.

“The first time I couldn’t think about anything else than fighting for my life,” says Tonon. “You’re locked in there with someone who really wants to hurt you. You get tunnel vision in there because if you focus on anything else – anything at all – you’re going to get punched in the face.”

The treat ahead for Asia is a front row seat as the evolution of Garry Tonon plays out. And for his students now – and those to come in the future – there is the realisation that you’ll also gain from any pain Tonon might endure in the process.

“I’m always looking to the future,” says Tonon. “I want to be one of those people that people go to and then say ‘Yeah, that’s the reason I am where I am today’. Martial arts changed me and my life mindset and I would like to use that to influence people in the same way.”


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