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Garry Tonon, jiu-jitsu's consummate risk taker, prepares for Zak Maxwell

Jeff Chu

Metamoris' existence is predicated on a number of things, not least of which is that submission-only competition can offer a truer (or at least alternative) glimpse into the talents of practitioners, something the points system obscures. That's not necessarily true in all cases for all competitors, but it's true enough that having a superfight series in a submission-only format fills the gap left by the points-based tournaments.

Whether true or not, that argument has little bearing on how Tom DeBlass black belt Garry Tonon competes. In a sport allegedly filled with those who embrace risk aversion as a means to winning, Tonon has patented a style that eschews that approach completely. As a result, he's developed a fan following, too.

To a large extent, it's worked for him, competitively speaking. Among a variety of other accomplishments, he easily submitted Kit Dale at Metamoris 4 earlier this tear, which earned him an invite back to the show.

On Saturday, he'll take on Zak Maxwell in his second Metamoris in as many events. In this interview with MMA Fighting, Tonon opens up about his risk-taking style, the state of sport jiu-jitsu, how relevant jiu-jitsu is in modern MMA, who the best MMA fighters are in jiu-jitsu, what he expects from Kazushi Sakuraba and much more.

Star-divide

Did Metamoris offer you Zak Maxwell or any other name?

The way it all happened was kind of quick. Basically, Ralek [Gracie] sent me a message, asked me if I wanted to do Metamoris. I said, yes. That was months earlier, basically right after the last Metamoris. We didn't have an opponent lined up or anything like that.

He was about to put the flyer out. He was like, 'Hey, you want to fight Zak? We're going to put the flyer out tomorrow.' I was like, 'Sure, why not? I guess'. It doesn't really make a difference to me. I don't have anything against him or I didn't really research him beforehand. I had no particular intentions of fighting him other than the fact that Ralek suggested it.

Have you competed against him before?

Not that I know of, but Metamoris posted something once suggesting that perhaps we had competed against each other before. I want to say no. I posted it on Facebook and no one said anything to me. I really don't think we did.

Let's go back to what happened with Kit Dale at Metamoris 4. Were you surprised at how easy that victory came?

I wasn't necessarily surprised by that. I was a little surprised by his strategy. It just appeared like he wasn't really looking to attack during the period of time that we were grappling. He said so afterwards. He planned to use the first five minutes to keep me at bay. I was a little surprised at that. I was continuing to attack. I was expecting more of a strategy where he engaged me as much as I was engaging him.

He just announced he was moving to the United States. If you don't come to the States or Brazil, is there a limit to your growth?

No, I don't think there's ever a limit. I believe that anything's possible for the most part. It's obviously much more challenging to succeed at something when the other people that are more successful at it live in another place, another country. It's more challenging because you have to figure things out for yourself, but it's not like it hasn't been done before.

A martial art had to be created and techniques had to be created from somewhere. It's a lot easier when you have a group of people that are a higher level than you, but I think it can be done. It's going to be of great benefit for him to move out here. If that's his true intention - to get a lot better at jiu-jitsu - I think he made the right choice. It'll be a more rapid rate of improvement.

You've been very successful in competition, but do you feel like your record would be better if you competed in a less risky way?

I think it's a plus and minus thing. It's a high risk-reward scenario. I think it's true to an extent. Who knows? Maybe my competition record would be better if I took less risks, but at the same time, who knows if it really would be? I would have a completely different style of jiu-jitsu to play and a completely different skill set. I don't think not taking risks plays into my skill set. Just the idea of slowly grinding somebody out and going position to position, I don't think it plays as well into what I'm good at.

I don't necessarily think it's true. It could be true, though. I'm sure my instructor Tom [DeBlass] believes it's true.

What is your view on points vs. submission only competition? Does each one have a place and serve as a compliment to the other? Or is one inherently superior to the other?

I think there's a place for both in modern day competition. The main reason you hear this argument is a couple of different reasons. One, it was started as a rivalry between different schools and different methods of teaching as a way to entice people to one academy over another.

Second, that discussion arose because of different events competing with one another, trying to gain popularity. It helps if you say, 'Hey, this is the REAL jiu-jitsu' as opposed to being just another tournament.

It's more of a publicity thing to say 'This is the real jiu-jtisu' or 'That's the real jiu-jitsu'.

I definitely think they both need to exist and if they don't, you would see a lot of talent go to waste. Different tournaments suit different styles of jiu-jitsu. Different aspects of different people's games are going to be good and better suited for either one.

If you have only points-style tournaments and you don't have submission only, there are so many different athletes that would've successful and are really talented just in different ways than the traditional athlete just competing in the points system. And vice versa. If the points system didn't exist, there'd be many talented athletes that are better at controlling positions and doing certain things that would never be highlighted because you have submission only.

When you draw things back to the root of the martial arts with self defense and what you would really be trying to do in a fight, again, you need that mixture of both. The urgency of having to score points and the ability to actually finish the fight. I would never take a stand that one is necessarily better than the other. For sure, submission only supports my style better, but I don't think in my head submission only is the only jiu-jitsu and that's the 'real' tournament.

Who is someone with a great style for points-based competition?

A.J. Agazarm, in particular. I've beaten him a couple of times, submitted him a few times, but he's also beaten me before in competition. He actually won Worlds this year in my weight class. He's very well suited for the points-style jiu-jitsu, whether it's six or ten-minute matches. He does really well in that format.

There's no huge evidence to support that he wouldn't also do OK in submission-only formats. I don't think he's done many of those tournaments, but he's proven himself relatively successful in the points format. For sure, he's an athlete. D.J. Jackson, another person who does pretty well in the points tournament format, not necessarily in the submission only format. That's not to say they couldn't do submission only, but their games support the other style better.

And that's more along the lines of the kind of thing that should be emulating to succeed more often in the points setting: control of position, not making a lot of mistakes, never trying to fight from behind, always making sure you're ahead on points. That's ideal.

Who has a great style for submission only?

Kron [Gracie] has a great style for submission only. Obviously, he's been successful in points style as well.

I don't know if you see as much of it on the scene these days. Somebody like Dean Lister does better with a longer time limit, more ability to submit. In the last Metamoris he didn't do quite as well, but he's a guy much more suited to submission-only format.

Let's see it's a submission-only match with two competitors whose games fit that style. They're in shape with minimal injuries. How would your tactical approach change if it was gi instead of no gi?

Going into a gi match, I'd approach things differently by training more judo instead of wrestling. That'd be the first thing I think of. The second thing, obviously, is to incorporate the gi a lot more in training. There's a lot of intricacies in the grips that are way more important in the gi that need to be mastered in order to succeed at a high level, submission only or points. There's just so much more of an element of control that you need to master.

I'm not speaking from a point of expertise, clearly, because it's not what I'm most successful at, that's what I would work toward more if I was preparing for a gi match. I'm definitely open for it. I've had submission-only gi matches before.

Is that why wrestling is at the forefront in MMA over judo? The gi gripping kills traditional wrestling offense?

I think so. I think a good judo player can make what he does work well without the gi as well, but yeah, that's why you see more wrestling style takedowns. That happens more at a high level. The only exception is when you're fighting against someone who is really, really good with a gi game.

What is the state of jiu-jitsu today? There are full-time blue belts winning their divisions at the Worlds. They have self defense basics plus sport techniques. Others say they're moving away from self defense in a deleterious way. Where do you side on the debate?

It's hard to say. I would have to say that, yeah, I think things are kind of moving in the wrong direction, but at the same time, we're not doing directly as a competition. We're not doing directly as a fight. There's a set of rules. You're going to find a way to make those rules work for you, as you should as a competitor. You need to make sure you're on top of that.

I think the guys that are dedicating themselves to jiu-jitsu and competition, most of them have a relative mastery of the positions and the things they would need to defend themselves. I feel like, if they didn't, that would probably be a big enough hole in their game when they went to compete. People would exploit it, but possibly not. Two people could work the same way, just berimbolo all the time or reverse De La Riva stuff, and neither one of them is ready to exploit those weaknesses. Eventually, they're bound to have to adapt and make sure they have those bases covered.

At a certain point, everyone has to work on the fundamentals, anyway. To say that somebody that's good at sport jiu-jitsu wouldn't be able to defend themselves is unlikely. If you dedicate your life to a grappling martial art, it's more than likely you have a decent chance to defend yourself, especially against an opponent that doesn't really know what they're doing.

For self defense, in general, is there merit to the argument that a couple of good takedowns with some passing and control sufficient for most self-defense situations?

I read an interview with John Danaher, one of my instructors, where he was asked a similar question. He bounced for a long time, too, speaking of from a point of experience. I haven't had many street fights, so I can't really speak from a point of experience.

He basically said that it's a lot easier than one would think to defend themselves against somebody who doesn't really have any grappling or striking training. It's just like you said. A simple double leg, a guard pass and you're putting them in a situation where they haven't been before. It's probably going to be over, whether it's punches or submissions.

Because of that, and training two to three times a day, you have those basic positions more than likely mastered. There's so much of a different array of training partners. It'd be hard to not have those positions and only developed sport techniques.

A lot of guys just discredit the MMA guys for not being able to have good enough jiu-jitsu to compete with people that do jiu-jitsu full time. I think that's the wrong way to look at it.


What about jiu-jitsu in MMA? Submission defense has gotten much better, but people are using it less. You don't see armbars from mount anymore. Or you don't see much offense at all. How would you describe the state of jiu-jitsu in MMA today?

It's getting further and further developed. More people are trained individuals in more styles. Everyone has a better understanding of jiu-jitsu. Before it was shooting fish in a barrel because nobody had any real grappling ability other than maybe some wrestlers early one.

At this point, now that there's a wider array of techniques that everybody's aware of, it's naturally going to be more challenging. It's just a progression. I think you're going to see different fluctuations in mixed martial arts in terms of what's being used and not being used.

The state of jiu-jitsu, I think it's still relatively prevalent. It's just about looking around at the advancements people make and their defense to get around jiu-jitsu. There's pluses and minuses to both jiu-jitsu and striking. The idea of just a pure jiu-jitsu mindset in a MMA setting where you have guys trained in both is kind of a naive notion at this point.

Taking out people who made a name in jiu-jitsu and then moved to MMA, is there someone in MMA whose jiu-jitsu you find impressive?

No name particularly comes to mind. The only reason that's the case is that I don't follow MMA as much as I should. I barely follow grappling as much as I should. I spend most of my time in the gym and I don't watch enough MMA fights.

I know, for sure, just from fights that I've watched, you don't necessarily have to come from a jiu-jitsu background to utilize jiu-jitsu technique in fights. I've found that in my own experience just training with some of the mixed martial artists that I get a chance to train with at Renzo's. When I get a chance to train with these guys, their jiu-jitsu is no joke and they're able to use submissions or defend positions or whatever the case may be. It's not an easy task to fly right through their guard or sweep or take their back. It's definitely still a challenge.

In terms of sport jiu-jitsu, who is the best MMA fighter you've been able to train with?

It's hard for me to say that normally just train MMA thatI trained with at Renzo's. Recently I trained with Rory MacDonald. His jiu-jitsu felt really, really good. Georges St-Pierre's jiu-jitsu felt really, really good from top. There's some other guys there where the mixture of jiu-jitsu and wrestling was a real challenge, training with Charlie Brenneman. I didn't necessarily get submitted, but he does a really good job with controlling well with wrestling and jiu-jitsu.

Chris Weidman, when he was over for a while, had some really good submissions that I would get caught in. Obviously, he's much bigger than me, so it's a little bit of a different story, but nonetheless the technique is there.

A lot of guys just discredit the MMA guys for not being able to have good enough jiu-jitsu to compete with people that do jiu-jitsu full time. I think that's the wrong way to look at it, for sure.

Is there a way to make things perceived strictly or generally perceived as sport techniques work in MMA? Things like reverse De La Riva, berimbolos are lengthy play at deep half?

I definitely think deep half can work because I love deep half. I'd be sorry to see that disappear once I start training MMA. There's always ways to try and make things work. You have to adapt things to punches. I don't know if I ever see berimbolo. I'm sure some form of it in certain situations it may work. Will it be the best decision from that position? Maybe not, but that's the name of the game. Trying to figure out how to make things work. Trying to just discredit for ever being used is the wrong direction.

There's going to be some things, just because of different rules, that are going to make things change. There are techniques that are going to fail more often or be more challenging. I wouldn't rule them all out, but there's some things that aren't going to work that would work well in sport jiu-jitsu.

Getting back to Zak Maxwell, have you watched film on him or do you watch film on opposition in the cases of superfight preparation?

I definitely do. I look at some tape. I have some other people look at some tape for me as well. I'll have my wrestling coach look at it. I'll have some of the guys I train with look at the tape and try to figure out some of the things we need to make sure we cover.

For the most part, what I look for is just what's going to be my primary threats. What situations am I going to be in frequently? Prepare myself for those and then worry about me. Obviously get my bases covered in terms of, don't be stupid. If there's something this kid does every single time from a certain position, know that. Make sure I have bases covered in those terms.

But I don't necessarily study someone to the point where I try to figure out what they're going to do from every single position at all times. Sometimes people spend a little too much time worrying about what their opponent's doing and need to spend more time on how they're going to win the fight because that's just as important.

I know you train out of Renzo's. What do you expect from Sakuraba? What do you think he's capable of doing?

After I found out this fight was going to happen, I watched a little. I had seen the fight between Sakuraba and Renzo before, but hadn't seen a lot of Sakubara's other fights. I watched a couple of them and saw a couple of really good things. When he gets the positions that he's comfortable in, he really makes things happen. He's got a really good set of techniques that he's able to use effectively, clearly as Renzo's fight with him went.

I definitely think it has the potential to be a really good fight. What comes it down to is the same thing I felt with Eddie [Bravo] and Royler [Gracie]. At this point in their careers, they obviously at different times have been taking time off. It comes down to who has been training the most over that period of time and leading up to the fight. I don't know how much Sakuraba's been training or if he's been training at all. I see Renzo in and out of the gym. I know he trains.

Operating under that assumption and not knowing if Sakuraba's still training, I'm definitely going to go with Renzo on this one, but that's what it comes down to, really. That's how I feel about most matches. Who is training the most? Who is preparing the best? That's how I look at it, for sure.