There are numerous principles that drive Garry Tonon, but loyalty may have been the most important in making him a world-class martial artist.
From the first day the American stepped onto a mat to try his hand at Brazilian jiu-jitsu under head coach Tom DeBlass, he has been surrounded by people who would sacrifice anything to help him succeed.
In turn, “The Lion Killer” has done everything in his power to reciprocate their dedication – and pay it forward to his own students, teammates, and fellow coaches.
The way Tonon sees it, loyalty is a two-way street, and he would never take that for granted.
Since the beginning of complex human interaction it is likely the argument nature vs. nurture has existed. These are my thoughts on the argument. There will always be certain basic pre existing biological conditions necessary for success in certain areas. If those minimum physical conditions have been met however, the rest of your development and success is all about the people who surround you. Some people who surround you are sought out on purpose, others come into your life by happenstance. Of those people, the ones who you choose to spend the most time around will shape your world. Man was I lucky to run into @tomdeblass. But it was through no stroke of luck that I stayed around him. I saw that he was a great leader and a powerful influencer. But I also quickly realized that being close to him didn't come without a price. The price was the pursuit of excellence (not just in bjj, in any area of life). It started to become obvious that those around tom not willing to pursue excellence wouldn't stay around him. This is because Tom demanded it. He wanted no one around him who wasn't making a great effort to achieve their potential in some area. This I now understand was no accident, for I believe this is one of the keys to success. You must surround yourself with other determined, hungry, like-minded people. Anything less would just drag you down. That pursuit of excellence is what I believe keeps us close to this very day. Proud to call him a friend and mentor.
“I am surrounded by so many amazing people, so they have made it easy to be loyal to them,” the 26-year-old from New York, USA says.
“They have made me desire to be loyal to them. I think that is a little bit of the piece other people miss when looking at loyalty. I think what they lack in terms of realizing is that there are two sides to that – if you expect loyalty out of somebody, you have to have done something to earn that.
“You find some way to go out of your way for whoever it is you expect to be loyal to you. It is usually not because you are looking at them to be loyal, but that is just the way you feel in your heart. It goes both ways.
“I do not think it is something money can buy. No amount of talking is going to get you there. It comes down to ‘is this person willing to sacrifice some part of their life to help me?’ If they are, then I sense loyalty there.”
Tonon has been lucky when it comes to loyalty, because his team was founded on that very principle.
His instructor, DeBlass, earned a black belt under Ricardo Almeida, who was the first black belt under Renzo Gracie.
Gracie’s reputation is not only sterling in the martial arts community, but the people who have trained under him, or alongside him, consider themselves as part of a big, extended family.
Those family ties have been crucial to Tonon’s development.
@matt_broad00 and @donodgers will be getting their black belts Today Tuesday April 17th 730pm at @brunswickbjj. All other classes cancelled. Don't miss it! Professor @tomdeblass will be there to make it official, since I don't have my second degree yet. So proud of these guys, they have been black belts in my eyes for a long time, now it's just time to tie it around their waist haha. Many other promotions will be given out as well, and I'm sure we'll get in some great training after. All affiliates welcome.
“That has been so important. That is how I form real connections with people, and it is the only way I can learn and grow,” he explains.
“It is tough to be in an environment where you do not feel like you have loyal people around you, because it is tough to share information, it is tough to share strategy, and it is tough to build anything. You are always worried someone you are talking to might pull the rug out from under you.
“I never feel that way with the people I have surrounding me. I make it a big point in my life to get rid of anyone who would do something like that to me.”
In recent years, Tonon has trained full-time at the Renzo Gracie Academy in Manhattan, where he has worked under another one of the Brazilian’s most famous students – John Danaher.
The leglock master is a BJJ savant, and his instruction to a select group of students led to the formation of the Danaher Death Squad, a competitive grappling team that includes Tonon and several other high-level submission specialists.
While “The Lion Killer” had to step onto the mat by himself in dozens of grappling competitions, the atmosphere Danaher built for his students meant he always felt like he had his team surrounding him.
The squad’s close-knit dynamic is an intense combination of big personalities – brought together by reliability, trust, and skill. Emotions run high, and though that means they do not always see eye-to-eye, almost every interaction plays a part in making them stronger
“It has definitely shaped some of my loyalties and relationships. It has brought some people together, and it has shifted some people apart,” Tonon says about the Danaher Death Squad.
“Anything you do when it comes to forming a team, there are always going to be times where people get along and times they do not. There is conflict, resolution, and all types of things in that situation.”
The end result was a tight-knit crew that helped mold Tonon into one of the best grapplers on the planet.
In turn, he has used that philosophy to help him with his transition into mixed martial arts.
The New Yorker made a successful debut at ONE: IRON WILL by defeating Richard Corminal via TKO, and he expects to build upon his momentum on Friday, 27 July when he faces Rahul Raju at ONE: REIGN OF KINGS in Manila, the Philippines.
Coincidentally, Gracie will meet Yuki Kondo on the same card in a legend versus legend bout, to be contested in the welterweight division.
Tonon knows many factors have shaped him into the martial artist he is today, and he hopes to apply those same tenets of loyalty used to forge the Danaher Death Squad to create a team of mixed martial artists in the very near future.
“I think that is kind of the next project – not just myself, but taking some other people in to help them with their mixed martial arts careers,” Tonon reveals.
“John has had a great deal of success coaching many martial artists in the past. I think it will be really good to see the different kind of innovations he can make in an entirely different martial art as well.”