When Garry Tonon decided to pursue a career in mixed martial arts he knew the biggest missing component to his evolution as a fighter was experience.

As one of the top submission specialists in the world, Tonon had already competed in dozens of high level grappling competitions and as part of the Renzo Gracie fight team, he had more than enough coaches and training partners to get him ready for the move to MMA.

What he didn’t have was the actual experience of getting into the ring or cage and putting what he’s learned in training into practical use in a fight.

Garry Tonon submission

Late starter

Now just over a year after he made his professional debut, Tonon is days away from his fifth fight with each opponent progressively getting tougher and tougher and that is exactly what he wanted.

“Even though I feel as though I’m still young, I’m coming onto this a little bit late,” Tonon explained.

“I know other people have come on later than me or have been fighting and they’re much older but I feel like we’re in a new age of fighting where guys are coming in before their 20’s coming into this sport, the kind of longevity I’m going to have will be limited by how old I am.”

Garry Tonon kick

Missing link

I think injuries and durability over time just from competing in jiu-jitsu for so long, I just want to make sure I get a decent length career out of this run. I want to fight as often as possible to get that experience because that’s the biggest missing link between me and my competitors is just that experience. It’s really cool to get this fight experience.”

This weekend at ONE: ‘Enter the Dragon’ from Singapore, Tonon faces Japanese veteran Yoshiki Nakahara on the preliminary card.

Nakahara is a legit threat to end Tonon’s undefeated run as he enters their fight off eight straight wins including a TKO in his ONE Championship debut in February.

“Just looking at his record alone and I’m not just talking about numbers here, I’m talking about the way he’s winning and losing,” Tonon said about Nakahara.

“The dude has never had a submission or KO loss. That tells you right there that you’re in for a long night. It’s pretty hard to get by with 20 fights and not have a single one of them end with a KO or a TKO or a submission.

Tonon thinks his opponent’s record speaks for itself,

“If you go 20 fights and that doesn’t happen to you, that means you’re pretty good all around. I think alone speaks volumes.”

Garry Tonon punch

Big step up

Obviously the perception is that Tonon has taken a step forward in his career with each fight he’s had in ONE Championship but he knows this will by far be the toughest test he’s had to endure because Nakahara has all the tools to make this a bad night for the American.

“I think this is a big step up from any of my previous competition,” Tonon said.

“I think it’s a big challenge because of the type of assets he brings to the table. I think everybody I’ve fought has the ability to do damage with striking and that doesn’t change. He’s got some really serious level judo that he doesn’t always use but he can use it defensively to make it a nightmare for me to try to take him down and do the things that I would like to do.

Although Tonon has showcased his striking in previous skills there is no question that his grappling is his greatest strength, and that opponents will avoid going to the ground with him at all costs,

“That adds another element. I think people are waiting for the day when Garry Tonon gets in the cage and doesn’t have as much of an option to take his opponent down,” he said.

Garry Tonon winner

Inherent danger

While there is an inherent danger going against somebody like Nakahara, Tonon is still confident that he will get the job done when they step into the ring together on Friday.

With a big risk comes a big reward and that’s exactly why Tonon was happy to receive an opponent with these kinds of credentials.

“I think that if I’m able to be victorious in this fight, especially if it’s in a very definitive fashion, I think it would be hard for anybody to say ‘this guy doesn’t have the chops to get to the title’,” Tonon said.

“I agree with you that given the previous encounters, it shows potential. I did a lot of spectacular things but not exactly against competition of this caliber.”

He thinks a win over an opponent with Nakahara’s credentials would take his career trajectory to the next level,

“So if I’m able to do the same thing to someone of this caliber, then I think that kind of crosses me over from ‘this guy might be able to do something in MMA’ to ‘we’re pretty sure this guy is going to do something significant in mixed martial arts’.”

Winning the ONE featherweight title would certainly qualify as a significant achievement. A win on Friday might be enough to secure the American a shot.