Garry Tonon is one of the best grapplers walking the Earth today. The New Yorker earned his black belt in 2013 and captured a host of grappling titles, including five EBI Grappling Titles.
Now, after conquering the world of submission grappling, Tonon has transitioned his skills to the mixed martial arts arena, where he competes for ONE Championship.
Tonon’s successful transition to mixed martial arts is down in large part to his coach, world-renowned submission specialist John Danaher.
Before his switch to mixed martial arts, Tonon competed in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, living in New Jersey and training under his longtime coach Tom DeBlasss – a Renzo Gracie black belt.
But after heading away to college, Tonon found it harder to get back to his usual gym to train.
“It was really hard to travel back to Tom’s every day to train,” he explains.
“I basically went there one day a week, and I was searching for whatever training I could find that met my schedule when it came to jiu-jitsu.”
Tonon headed into New York City, where he started training at the famous Renzo Gracie Academy. It was there that he met Danaher, who was teaching classes at the facility.
A Renzo Gracie black belt, Danaher is considered one of the most brilliant minds in the grappling arts, and his unique aura left Tonon intimidated when they first met.
“John is a hard person to get close to, even if you’re trying to do it,” he says.
“Overall, he has good days and bad days, and some days he’s really focused on one thing, so he’s not willing to open up and have a conversation with you. He might be a little short with you.
“When I first started training there, I just kind of stayed around the fringes. I didn’t really talk to John, I just took his class like anybody else at Renzo’s.
“I’d shake his hand after practice and say thank you, and I would watch him roll after class. That was the extent of my relationship with John for probably a year and a half or two years.”
Over time, Tonon ended up training with Danaher on a daily basis and, eventually, the pair became friends.
And the level of trust and respect Danaher had for Tonon became evident when the coach asked “The Lion Killer” to be a sparring partner for mixed martial arts superstar Georges St-Pierre for one of his training camps.
From that moment, Danaher became Tonon’s primary coach, and the pair has never looked back since.
“What Danaher did was very special because, in a period of around five years, he completely turned my jiu-jitsu around, which is very, very rare and very, very hard to do once you reach black belt,” Tonon explains.
“He made me a submission expert in all aspects. Now, I’m nailing submissions on the legs, on the arms, and I’m getting triangle chokes. [I am learning] all these different aspects, [and building] this submission game that I didn’t have the skills to do.”
Danaher’s technical knowledge is obviously at an incredibly high level, but Tonon says it was his approach that proved crucial in his development as a competitor.
“He just has a very intelligent approach to the sport, a very unique approach to the sport – so many details that I had never even fathomed, and not just details of techniques,” Tonon explains.
“The techniques are one thing – it’s amazing that he has such great mechanics for all these different processes. But even more than that, he has an extremely philosophical approach to the sport that’s very enlightening.”
And when Tonon made the decision to embark on a career in mixed martial arts, he asked Danaher to help prepare him, having seen him achieve results with the likes of St-Pierre in the past.
“He’s always been helping people with their mixed martial arts careers, but he’s known as a jiu-jitsu master,” the 27-year-old says.
“They don’t think about mixed martial arts, but basically, in terms of high-level coaching, he started out teaching mixed martial arts.
“John has been pretty much my main coach for mixed martial arts. I don’t really have a big number of coaches. My main work is done with John every day.
“I haven’t been going to boxing gyms or doing Muay Thai or going to wrestling workouts – I’ve been pretty much doing mixed martial arts every day.”
The progression has been hugely impressive so far. Two bouts and two stoppage wins have given Tonon a flying start in ONE Championship. But he is still only taking the first steps in his mixed martial arts career, and the pair will continue working together as he looks to continue his progression inside the cage.
Tonon faces South Korea’s Sung Jong Lee in his featherweight debut at ONE: HEART OF THE LION in Singapore on Friday, 9 November, where he will hope to showcase his ever-evolving skill set in the latest chapter of his martial arts journey.