Garry “The Lion Killer” Tonon is one of the most accomplished grapplers on the planet, but when it comes to his mixed martial arts career, he still considers himself to be a novice.
While he has rattled off three straight wins in ONE Championship – all by knockout or submission – he is staying humble and taking his career one step at a time.
His goal is to become the ONE Featherweight World Champion and be seen as one of the greatest mixed martial artists of all time, but he knows accolades like that will only come after years of work to round out his skill set.
That means he is not jumping into the cage for full-contact sparring with any multiple-time mixed martial arts World Champions.
Though his history as a multiple-time Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu World Champion shows he can roll with anyone on the planet, he knows his limitations when striking is added into the mix.
That is why he works with people who make him better, but are not so advanced that he does not learn anything.
“I’m in a state of progression,” Tonon explains.
“It’s like taking a white belt that knows nothing and just throwing him to the wolves against a pack of tough and gritty black belts.
“He’ll get better, but I don’t know if he’ll get better as fast as he would working with guys closer to his level where he can actually pull moves off.
“That white belt isn’t going to pull a single move off on a bunch of black belts.”
Tonon primarily trains out of the Renzo Gracie Academy in New York City where there are a host of elite athletes and talented prospects.
His smaller group of sparring partners are not household names, but their abilities are more than a match for “The Lion Killer,” and they can challenge him enough to make sure he is evolving every day – rather than just acting as a punching bag.
“Let’s say I spar somebody who’s really good, I start hitting them, and then they turn it up, and I get my butt beat. It’s not a situation where they can just go light and take it easy on me,” Tonon says.
“So most of the sparring partners working with me are super controlled, they are not going to hurt me before my fights. We’re going to be competitive.
“I really like the crop of people I get to spar with every day. They help me improve, and I think that’s hard to argue considering my last three fights.”
Tonon benefits from a world-class team of coaches that includes his head trainer John Danaher, but he does not feel like it is the right time to spend several rounds sparring with the absolute best mixed martial artists in the world.
Right now, he is aware of his limitations. He is learning how to swim, and jumping into the deep end with an army of sharks might do more harm than good.
His approach keeps him motivated and on the right path to make the strides that have seen him finish each of his opponents in The Home Of Martial Arts so far.
“Where confidence plays a role, maybe I want to go practice a movement. [If] I’m working with Frankie Edgar, I might try that move 10 times and not get it once.
“Then, I go spar somebody my level, and I might hit that move five out of 10 times, so [I know] I’m making progress with that movement,” he says.
“I wouldn’t have as much confidence in the progression of my skills [if I kept failing against the best]. That plays a role.”
Eventually, Tonon knows he will get to that level, and thankfully there are many high-level training partners around such as ONE Lightweight World Grand Prix participants Eddie Alvarez and Ariel Sexton to help him.
“I may not use it right now, but I know I have access to those guys,” Tonon says.
“It’s a unique situation. It’s all in the spirit of everybody working together as a team and helping each other get better as a team.”
Although he believes his opponent on 31 July in Tokyo, Japan, will be his most dangerous yet, thanks to the support he receives, the American is confident he can take another step forward toward greatness on the global stage for martial arts.