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Garry Tonon opens up about transition to MMA, signing with ONE Championship, rivalry with Dillon Danis

One Championship: Dynasty of Heroes
Garry Tonon expects to make his MMA debut in 2018.
Photo by Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images

One of the most talented grapplers today is about to begin his career as a mixed martial artist.

Recently, it was announced that Garry Tonon, a four-time EBI champion and a multiple-time IBJJF medalist, had signed with Asian-based MMA promotion ONE Championship.

At just 26 years of age, Tonon is out to take full advantage of his athletic prime, and that’s why he knew he would some day end up fighting another man inside a cage, even when he was just on the rise in the grappling world.

“My whole thing is that competition, whether it’s in jiu-jitsu or mixed martial arts, it’s very short lived and I’m only going to have a certain career length,” Tonon told MMA Fighting. “I don’t know how long it will be. Maybe it’s going to be until 40, like a guy like Demian Maia, or maybe it’s going to be until my early thirties. I can’t say for sure, you never know with injuries, but eventually there’s going to be a day where I’m not going to be able to compete at the highest level.

“And for me, the long game is being able to teach and being able to pass on the skills that I learned to my future students. And a big part of why I want to do martial arts is because I know that one day I’m going to have students interested in mixed martial arts as well as students that are interested in self-defense in general, and for me to say, ‘Well this works in a fight, that works in a fight,’ and never having stepped in the ring when I was capable of it, I think it’s a disservice to them. So a big part of why I want to do MMA is to build my abilities as a teacher.”

Although Tonon looks forward to learning more about grappling tailored for fighting and being able to bring that knowledge back to his students, he is still approaching his MMA career with the same mentality he approached grappling. The New York City-based fighter is out to reach the very top of the food chain.

“I never half-ass anything I do,” Tonon explained. “I wouldn’t step into fighting just because. I don’t think it’s that kind of job. I don’t thing that’s the kind of stuff you want to play around with. I think it’s a very serious sport and you can get seriously hurt.

“This is only worth the risk if I’m going to try to go all the way. So I absolutely have aspirations of reaching the pinnacle of the sport. As we know, only a certain percentage of people are able to do that. There was no telling whether I was going to be able to do that in jiu-jitsu, but of course, I always believed in my art and in my mind that I was going to be able to do it. I’m realistic as well and I know only a certain amount of people can reach that top-tier level, and my plan is to reach that level as high as I possibly can.”

For several years, Tonon has been open about one day transitioning to MMA. A pupil of John Danaher, Tonon believes that now is the right time to make that switch, as he’s already achieved plenty in the grappling world.

“The reason why I’m switching over now it’s because I’ve done quite a bit in my jiu-jitsu career,” Tonon said. “I could’ve transitioned to MMA potentially earlier, but the right offer wasn’t necessarily on the table. I was very much still focused on grappling, and there were still a few things that I wanted to do. I wanted to get that last ADCC out of the way, and it’s hard to split my focus between grappling and mixed martial arts. I always told people when I was coming up in jiu-jitsu that I was interested in fighting, but that I wanted to get good at jiu-jitsu first before starting mixed martial arts, and I think that I’m kind of good at jiu-jitsu now [laughs].”

The Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt hasn’t discussed with ONE Championship when he’ll be making his MMA debut, but he’s eyeing a fight sometime in March in order to fully feel ready to compete inside the cage. Tonon plans on doing the majority of his training at Renzo Gracie Academy in New York City, while doing some work at Tristar and other MMA gyms available to him. Danaher, who has helped coach the likes of Georges St-Pierre, Chris Weidman, Rory MacDonald and more, will be Tonon’s head coach.

Tonon is used to competing in many different weight classes in grappling, but is not exactly sure what division he’ll be fighting in. He believes he’ll likely end up at lightweight, but he may start off at welterweight.

And despite now switching his focus to MMA, Tonon is not going to fully abandon his distinguished grappling career.

“I will be able to do grappling matches,” Tonon said. “Obviously, they’re going to be dependent of my fight schedule. I’m not going to take a grappling match a week before my fight or something, and I would never do that to myself, first of all. They (ONE Championship) wouldn’t want that either, there is too much risk of getting hurt. But who knows, maybe they put on another grappling show in their organization and they seem very open to that idea.

“It definitely means things are going to slow down in terms of the number of times I compete in a year,” Tonon added. “Usually, I compete pretty heavily throughout the year. I think this last year I slowed things down towards the end because of ADCC, as I wanted to focus on that. But usually, I would say the year before that, I was competing once or twice a month, which that’s a lot of matches. I certainly won’t be able to do that while I’m fighting.”

Tonon’s world-class grappling skills will not the be the only thing transitioning with him to MMA, as his heated rival in the grappling world, Dillon Danis, is also on the verge of making his MMA debut. Tonon thinks it’s possible he can one day fight Danis in MMA, but doesn’t see it happening in the near future since Danis is signed to Bellator.

“I have expressed that I wanted to fight him (Danis) and other people like A.J. Agazarm and I put a bunch of attention out there, but it really didn’t get any attention from any American promotions that were really interested in it,” Tonon said. “I kind of put it out there openly and I contacted a couple of people that knew some people and it didn’t really end up working out. But maybe, I don’t know, one day down the line.

“I really want things to work out with ONE, to be honest, and I don’t see why they wouldn’t. I’m very happy with them as of now and I plan on fighting for them for a while. So unless somehow one picks up either of those guys, I don’t see the fight happening. But will there be talk back-and-forth during each of our MMA careers? Probably, I’m sure.”

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