5 Grappling Superstars Who Transitioned To MMA

Mixed martial arts (MMA) is an amalgamation of various martial arts developed all over the world. The concept is to take techniques that work well in multiple disciplines and combine them into one cohesive system of combat. Among the many great martial arts is the art of grappling.

Grappling is a close quarters hand-to-hand combat discipline concentrated on gaining a physical advantage on an opponent, such as moving into dominant positions, or incapacitating an opponent through the use of joint locks and holds.

Some of the world’s most famous martial arts are considered grappling disciplines. This includes Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Judo, wrestling, and Sambo, among others. In MMA, grappling is such an important aspect of competition. All fighters need to have at least a basic understanding of grappling in order to be successful in MMA.

A handful of fighters, however, are exceptional at grappling. Beginning their martial arts careers in their respective grappling sports, these men and women have mastered grappling to perfection, making the transition to the MMA cage seem effortless.

Let’s take a look at the careers of some of the greatest grappling superstars in martial arts and how they were able to utilize their amazing skills inside the cage. Today, Evolve Daily shares five superstar grapplers who made a big transition to mixed martial arts.

1) Garry Tonon

Highlight: Garry Tonon vs Richard Corminal

BJJ World Champion Garry Tonon from the EVOLVE Fight Team put on one of the best debut performances ONE Championship had ever seen, winning by TKO, at ONE: Iron Will!

Posted by Evolve MMA on Sunday, April 8, 2018

Five-time Eddie Bravo Invitational (EBI) champion and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu World Champion Garry “The Lion Killer” Tonon from the Evolve Fight Team is known for his grappling wizardry, which he has showcased for the past few years. The American is a BJJ black belt under Tom DeBlass and Ricardo Almeida and is a no-gi specialist who has clinched multiple world titles at the IBJJF World and Pan American Championships.

At age 14, Tonon fell in love with wrestling and grappling and has developed into a bonafide grappling superstar over the course of his career. He is a prominent fixture in the submission-only format competitions such as Metamoris, Polaris, and EBI.

In 2018, Tonon made his professional MMA debut, finishing opponent Richard Corminal of the Philippines via technical knockout at ONE: Iron Will in Bangkok.

Although Tonon had many opportunities to use his grappling skills to his advantage, the American made it a point to prove to the world that he isn’t a one-dimensional fighter.


2) Mackenzie Dern

Mackenzie Dern is an American Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu specialist who transitioned to MMA in 2016. A former world No. 1 ranked IBJJF competitor, Dern is an ADCC and no-gi BJJ World Champion. She is known as one of the most talented and highly-skilled grapplers in the world.

After making the jump from BJJ to MMA, Dern has strung together a string of impressive victories, winning her first six fights as a professional. She was picked up by the UFC earlier this year and made her Octagon debut at UFC 222 against Ashley Yoder, whom she defeated by split decision.

Dern started her martial arts training at age three and honed her skills early under the guidance of her stepmother, Luciana Tavares, also a BJJ black belt. Not long after, she started competing and was already facing adult opponents at age 14. She has won a world championship at every belt level as she progressed to black belt, which was awarded to her by her father in December 2012.


3) Royce Gracie

The original MMA grappler, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu legend Royce Gracie not only excels in BJJ, his family actually invented it. The son of Helio Gracie, a founding father of BJJ, Royce is also a pioneer of the UFC, competing in the first-ever UFC event in 1993.

At the time, BJJ was a sport not many were familiar with, let alone a martial art that few have ever witnessed. So when Gracie showcased his skills inside the Octagon, fans were perplexed. They couldn’t understand how such a small man could beat many opponents almost twice his size.

Gracie ended up winning the whole tournament, stamping his claim as one of the all-time greats in MMA and one of the most influential figures in the history of combat sports. Because of Gracie’s work in the UFC, he changed the face of MMA forever.

Today, BJJ is a pillar of MMA as a combat discipline. Many fighters place great emphasis on developing their BJJ skills, all because Royce Gracie used it to near-perfection years ago.


4) Ronda Rousey

Judo is a Japanese grappling martial art which consists of various throws and takedowns, as well as different types of pins, joint locks, or chokes. It was created in 1882 by the famous Jigoro Kano, who heavily influenced Jiu-Jitsu in the sport’s early beginnings.

There is no Judoka more famous in the world than “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey, the UFC’s first ever Women’s Bantamweight Champion.

Rousey began her Judo career at age 11, under the guidance of her mother AnnMaria De Mars, also a Judo world champion. At her peak as an amateur, Rousey qualified for the 2004 Summer Olympic games in Athens, the youngest Judoka to ever compete in the Olympics. She also bagged a gold medal at the World Junior Judo Championships in Hungary in the same year. At the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing, she became the first American woman to win a medal (bronze). 

Rousey took the world by storm, beginning her MMA career in 2011. She won 12 straight bouts, including her first 8 wins by armbar, earning her the nickname “The Arm Collector”. After she made her UFC debut in 2013, Rousey rose to international superstardom.

Upon losing two straight, however, beginning with a shocking knockout loss to Holly Holm in 2015 and ending with TKO loss to Amanda Nunes in 2016, Rousey retired from MMA and is now a professional wrestler in the WWE.


5) Ben Askren

ONE Welterweight World Champion Ben “Funky” Askren from the Evolve Fight Team is one of the most dominant world champions in the history of MMA. But before he took to the cage, he was once a prominent amateur wrestler.

Representing the United States at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, Askren is also a former NCAA Division I All-American and a collegiate wrestling legend. Earning the nickname “Funky”, Askren is described as a master of freestyle or folk wrestling, which is more flexible and fluid in terms of style.

With the ability to physically impose his will on opponents, Askren has garnered tremendous achievements as a wrestler during his amateur days. Adding multiple layers of grappling styles, as well as incorporating submissions into his overall skill set, Askren then made a successful transition to MMA in 2009.

He has managed to remain unbeaten since amassing a stellar 18-0 professional record en-route to a world title in two major organizations. Today, Askren is considered one of the top MMA fighters in the world pound-for-pound. His success obviously stems from his incredible grappling and wrestling skills, which he has executed flawlessly throughout his career.

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