Hail, Gordon Ryan: King of Grappling

On the same weekend that Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor were meeting for the biggest fight in UFC history, the Japanese grappling promotion, Quintet quietly put on the most entertaining night of submission wrestling of the year. The flow of the tournament was seamless and the names on display were top notch. Yet in the course of the card one man stood out: Gordon Ryan grappled six men, three back-to-back each time, and submitted four of them. More than that, MMA fans sat up and paid attention when they saw him sweep and submit the gigantic and tremendously skilled Josh Barnett before performing the rest of those feats.

This was all a little odd when former UFC bantamweight title challenger, Miesha Tate, who was on commentary for the event, didn’t even seem to know who Ryan was. In the very niche world of grappling Ryan is the man to beat and yet even in combat sports at large he is relatively unknown. With his mentor, Garry Tonon making a highly anticipated and entertaining debut in MMA earlier this year, and Ryan teasing that he would like to do the same in future, there is no better time for the fight fan to learn just how good Gordon Ryan is.

Embodying the System

The John Danaher system of leg attacks is what got Ryan noticed. Heel hooks from all angles carried Ryan, Tonon, and Eddie Cummings through the early Eddie Bravo Invitational events, and the system remains an important part of Ryan’s game to this day. Even in his recent IBJJF Pan No Gi run, Ryan used what Danaher calls “cross ashi garami” with a far leg control or “double trouble” to sweep and tie up his opponents.

  John Danaher caught midway through explaining that for his kohai, escaping this position is “shockingly difficult”.

John Danaher caught midway through explaining that for his kohai, escaping this position is “shockingly difficult”.

In the past this position has been ruled an illegal “knee reap” in many competitions, with attitudes eventually changing and rules being revised to permit the position so long as the trapped leg is not being attacked. Yet there is still some risk of being disqualified when not all refs are on the same page. While the far leg can be attacked with various achilles locks, and you will see the odd “Texas Cloverleaf” finish, the crux of the position is that that the potentially career ruining inside heel hook is just inches away.

If the rules prohibit attacking the inside heel hook, the position loses a little bit of its bite, but that didn’t prevent Ryan from using it against each of his opponents at the IBJJF No Gi Pans.

One of the great secrets of Ryan’s effectiveness off the bottom seems to be the constant threat of the stand up. Like Garry Tonon, Ryan will base on a hand and perform a technical stand up—forcing the opponent to work to keep him down. Tonon will often stand into a long, side on stance in order perform a Viktor roll on the opponent’s leg if they attempt to move around to his back. Ryan, however, more often than not only bases to his knee. While there is the threat of him snapping his opponent down into a front headlock if they stay in place, most will either stand or push into him. The constant effort to keep Ryan down often gives him the momentum to elevate the opponent into single leg x-guard (or ‘ashi garami’ as the Danaher boys call it).

If the opponent stands up instead, Ryan will reverse the motion of the technical stand up and shoot into what is often called a “dummy sweep”, catching his opponent behind the calves with his feet and pushing their weight back. Not only can this work as a sweep in its own right, it places Ryan back in “inside position” with his feet so that he can shoot through onto a leg entanglement if the opponent tries to maintain their balance.

Most famously Ryan off-balanced Cyborg Abreu, caught a leg, and then switched onto the saddle / cross ashi garami on the other leg when Abreu back stepped.

This was in the first round of the ADCC 2017 Absolute division, and Cyborg had won the division in 2013, taking the customary super fight in 2015. For Ryan to so easily confound and submit one of the greatest no gi grapplers in the world, with a weight disadvantage, proved conclusively that leg attacks were more than a gimmick and traditional jiu jitsu competitors had been missing something.

No Gi’s Most Interesting Guard Passer

While Gordon’s success at the Eddie Bravo Invitationals had been well noted in the grappling world and even among MMA fans, his terrific guard passing was for some time a secret in plain sight. Everyone was focused on the legs—when would he get the legs and how could the opponent stop him?—and yet more and more Ryan began to focus on smashing his way to dominant top positions.

Ryan’s top game has a lot of features and is—like any top player—largely affected by what the opponent offers him. His throw-by passes came effortlessly against Ralek Gracie, and against Romulo Barral he secured a bodylock and smashed through butterfly guard in the incredibly old school Wallid Ismael style. Yet what Ryan does most frequently and noticeably is split the guard (by standing with one leg in and the other one out), and then try to peak his lead knee through while stripping or weakening the opponent’s grip on his ankle. From here Ryan’s foot pummelling and hip switches are beautiful to behold.

In his floating style of guard passing Ryan does a number of very interesting things. Firstly, there will always be the odd grappler who tries to use the one point of control they have and will attempt to kick into some kind of single hook butterfly sweep, exposing themselves the standard hip switch smash pass made famous by BJ Penn and Demian Maia.

But Ryan’s passing game is made interesting by the use of his legs to force positions. His 2017 match against Devhonte Johnson showed Ryan’s hip switches and direction changes in their full glory. But notice that against Johnson, Ryan brings his outside leg high to hit almost knee-to-knee on Johnson’s leg, smashing across and under him to attempt the smash pass.

When floating over the straddled leg, Ryan will more often use a foot pummel. There was a time when attacking leg locks from the top was seen as gimmicky bullshit, and the accepted rule was that focusing too much on leg attacks would stunt your game. But in attacking or preventing leg attacks, it is always best to have your feet inside of your opponents and pummeling the feet in is the primary way of changing who has inside control. Clearly Ryan’s understanding of foot pummeling has bled through and improve his passing game. If he can get his weight on his hands and over opponent’s trapped knee, Ryan can often loop one of his feet over and create an attacking position that is still uncommon in high level jiu jitsu.

Typically Ryan will use this almost like a shin-to-shin position from the top. Watch someone like Michelle Nicolini attack a shin-to-shin from guard and you will see her turn her knee in, forcing the opponent’s knee in, and lightening the foot so that she can kick it straight.

The wonderful Andris Brunovskis demonstrates a shin-to-shin entry to an omoplata.

In doing the same sort of thing from the top, Ryan can often glide straight over the opponent’s knee and into a mount or almost-mount.

Against the nearly unpassable Xande Ribeiro, Ryan showed two different variations. The first was foot pummelling with the outside leg and then attempting to pass to side control.

The second was pummeling his inside leg into what is often called the shin trap. Rafa Mendes used to step into this position from outside his opponent’s guard and use it to momentarily pin his opponent’s foot before running or x-passing around to their side.

You can watch Rafa and his brother, Gui tastelessly smashing Japanese hobbyists with this technique at the Rickson Gracie cup.

Perhaps wrapping it all up nicely, and demonstrating the link between leg attacks and passing, is Ryan’s back take against Yuri Simoes at Kasai. Ryan began knee cutting—a very standard pass—and Simoes grabbed a single leg control and threatened to come out the back door if Ryan insisted on the pass. Ryan performed a very small backstep over Simoes’ top leg to threaten a leg entanglement (without throwing himself off balance or relieving pressure) and as Simoes came up onto his elbow Ryan shot a hand through and grabbed wrist control. From that Khabib Nurmagomedov style wrist ride, Ryan resumed the pass and eventually took the back.

Whether or not Gordon Ryan ever makes it to MMA is a coin flip. He hasn’t even begun competing in the gi again yet, which he has been promising to do since he won ADCC. But Garry Tonon was making a good living as the most exciting man in submission grappling and his talk of an MMA career turned out to be anything but bluster.

Here Tonon demonstrates a rolling entry into his leg attacks, from his opponent building up along the fence using an underhook.

Keep your eye on Gordon Ryan. On the one hand because he is the most exciting thing happening in the very niche sport of no gi grappling, but on the other hand because he is likely to set some trends in the grappling game for a while to come—and those in turn trickle into MMA.