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Polaris Pro and Scramble Brand Creative Director, Matt Benyon, looks at how we define the greatest jiu jitsu athletes of a generation  

I suppose the first thing to do would be to define what I mean by “The Greatest”. In terms of pure competition wins and world titles, there are many stronger contenders for that title than Garry. I am more interested in the athlete as a whole; their attitude to life and competing, their personality, and how that matches up with their jiu jitsu skills.

My first introduction to Garry Tonon was probably in the heady early days of alternative jiu jitsu competitions - Jiu Jitsu Battle, Brown Belt Kumite, Five invitational… American (or rather, non-Brazilian) superstars of our little sport were still few and far between, but along came this brash (yet well-spoken), mustachioed purple belt giving some of the more well-established players fits on the competition mat.

Garry soon made a name for himself, picking up notable wins with some draws and some losses, but every match had something in common: excitement. At a time when there was a low murmur of dissatisfaction with the status quo and in particular with traditional competitions and the stalemates that often arose as top competitors stalled to win by advantage, a competitor like Garry was a breath of fresh air. It was the submission he was obsessed with, as we all are, and the difference was, he’d go for it even if it meant losing the match.

When we began working on the first Polaris, we knew we wanted to have Garry on the card. He proved to be very easy to work with, extremely grateful for the opportunity to fight on the show and offering suggestions - but not demands - for opponents. In the end, he was matched up with feared MMA leg locker, Marcin Held, a challenge he relished. Garry heel hooked Held, showing us just how good he was on the mat. After that, he drank as many beers as he could with the Polaris team on the mean streets of Cardiff, Wales. Garry doesn’t take himself too seriously. Foreign fighters were requested to meet with UK immigration services bright and early the next day (a story for another time!) and if I recall, Garry and Eddie Cummings, without a wink of sleep between them, were the first ones there, right on time. 

The ongoing theme for Garry’s Polaris matches was “give me the toughest match possible.” At the time of Polaris 2, Masakazu Imanari was still a legendary figure, a destroyer of limbs, a stone faced Japanese assassin standing at the top of a pile of bodies with unravelled knees and ankles pointing the wrong way. “Yeah, I want that guy. Let me have him.” Garry wanted to test himself and take risks, not only with his career but with his well-being. After heel hooking Imanari, we began planning for Polaris 3. Garry had called out Rousimar Palhares in an interview: a fight that seemed ludicrous if not downright suicidal on paper. Palhares was not only much bigger than Garry, he was also an accomplished grappler and MMA fighter with a controversial history of injuring his opponents. Garry didn’t hesitate, and asked us to set up the match.

By this point, having worked on a couple of pro grappling events, we knew about the different ways in which fighters would think. Some would profess to be ready to take on anyone and yet, mysteriously, become silent when a tough opponent was presented. Most (but not all) of the famous world champion black belt types, you could basically forget about - they all wanted to pick their opponents, pick their rules, demand astronomical show fees. Garry Tonon wanted the biggest, baddest mother****er, he wanted him now, and he was even willing to give up his purse to fight him. Mention here must also go to Eddie Cummings, who was equally as eager to face the strongest opponent possible and was also willing to fight for a minimal fee to facilitate that. 

Not only did Garry readily accept the fight against Palhares, he began taunting him online. Memes about gigantic balls were made and shared. The fight happened and although it was a draw, it was nevertheless spectacular, with many giving Garry the upper hand due to his relentless submission attacks. At that point, Garry Tonon basically become my personal jiu jitsu hero, rushing headlong into danger as fast as possible with nothing but submission and glory on his mind. 

Since that time, the list of accomplishments and general badassery has grown longer. As a late and undersized replacement for the EBI Light Heavyweight tournament, many thought Garry had no more than a narrow chance at victory. He won his third EBI title that night. In another organisation in the USA, Garry had multiple opponent changes and accepted a very late replacement in the much larger UFC fighter and world champion Antonio Carlos Junior, to whom Garry lost via flying triangle. Undaunted and with yet more opponent changes a week later, Garry agreed to fight AJ Agazarm in the gi despite - by all accounts - a total lack of any serious gi training. Just stop to think about that for a moment - coming off a loss, Garry accepted a fight against someone with a very solid record in the gi who had every chance of beating him. How many professional jiu jitsu black belts would take such a fight? Not only take it, but win it? Not many is the answer. Not many at all.

Perhaps as an ersatz event promoter we have a different view of things, but Garry Tonon is truly a rare breed. Most athletes, perhaps rightfully so, will protect their reputation above all. They will take tough but winnable fights. They will avoid danger, avoid “no win situations” such as a fight against an unknown, or someone with fewer achievements than them. They will stall if it means taking home a medal at the world championships. They will cultivate an angelic online presence, shy away from criticism. Not Garry Tonon. Garry takes the hardest fights, and within those fights, takes the hardest route to victory - the submission. Jiu jitsu needs more Garry Tonons.

Matt Benyon
Creative Director
Polaris Pro & Scramble Brand

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June 01, 2017 — Jiu Jitsu Style