The King: Gordon Ryan
Lessons from an Undisputed World #1
In the sport of no-gi grappling [as of October 2022] there is one name that firmly stands at the pinnacle: “The King” Gordon Ryan. If you don’t follow Jiu Jitsu, MMA (mixed martial arts) or the broad umbrella of “combat sports” then you may not have heard of this athlete. This article intends to explore the competitor, some highlights of his career and the insights we might pull from his achievements.
Note to reader: I will use ‘submission fighting’, ‘grappling’ and ‘Jiu Jitsu’ fairly synonymously throughout the article. For the ease of reading, think of them broadly categorized under the same sport in which Gordon Ryan competes. Ryan competes in no-gi grappling, which means he and his opponents do not wear a traditional gi/kimono when they compete (like you see in Judo/Taekwondo). Ryan has a brash public persona - I will be focusing on the execution of his craft ‘in the Arena’ - and not choosing to explore the drama around how he promotes himself against his competition. Go to Instagram for that.
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There are few who ever rise to the position of being known as a world #1 in any endeavor. The GOAT debate (greatest of all time) is a notoriously shaky science. This article does not intend to explore that argument or make any justifications for Gordon Ryan being the GOAT. What I will say is: as of Gordon’s last performance in the revered ADCC (Abu Dhabi Combat Club) Submission Fighting World Championships in Las Vegas, there are few who would dare dispute that he is currently the very best pound-for-pound Jiu Jitsu competitor on the planet. For context, ADCC is the Super Bowl of grappling.
To understand the nature of Gordon’s reign as King within the martial arts universe of grappling, we need to take a look at something called lineage.
Iron Sharpens Iron
All of the greats in sport, art and academia are the product of those who came before them. In Martial Arts it is common to recognize the lineage of a competitor as it reveals much about their tutelage, style, teammates, geographic origin and more. Below is Gordon Ryan’s Jiu Jitsu lineage, courtesy of the website BJJ Heroes:
Carlos Gracie > Helio Gracie > Carlos Gracie Jr > Renzo Gracie > John Danaher > Gordon Ryan
In the the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu world, every serious grappler recognize their lineage traces back to brothers Helio and Carlos Gracie who evolved the art from Mitsuyo Maeda, the Japanese judōka (Judo practitioner) and Jiu Jitsu practitioner.
Gordon Ryan has been the ever-faithful student of a man named John Danaher, who owes his direct lineage to the Gracie family. As much a character, enigma and fascinating case study himself, John Danaher is revered in the Martial Arts community for being the very best teacher in the sport. A philosopher-king in his own right, Danaher is known for his obsessive approach to grappling, pioneering techniques and combat sports in general. He has produced world champions across both Jiu Jitsu and Mixed Martial Arts. He is an encyclopedia of knowledge. Danaher could explain the evolution of grappling from some of the earliest known competitive bouts in Ancient Greece to the modern day gladiatorial arena of the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship). If Gordon Ryan is King, John Danaher is undeniably the High Priest.
From the age of 15, Ryan has trained with Danaher and many of Danaher’s longtime students like Gary Tonon - another phenomenal grappler. In interviews, Ryan states that if Danaher retires, then he will too. If Danaher leaves Jiu Jitsu, then Ryan will exit the grappling art. There is a special bond forged between these two. The Danaher/Ryan duo is a living, breathing example of the universal archetype of the Master & Apprentice.
You will see some differing numbers on Ryan’s combined professional/amateur record across wikipedia and other grappling outlets. For the sake of consistency, I will use FloGrappling’s reported stats. Flo is the primary media entity that broadcasts/covers the sport. The following is a look at some of Ryan’s staggering numbers:
Record: 96 wins, 5 losses and 3 draws
Submissions: 74 (77% submission rate)
Primary submission: Rear Naked Choke (24)
Not only has Ryan competed consistently for many years at the highest level - he has beaten many of the sport’s biggest names. He recently avenged 2 of his losses to Felipe Pena (2x ADCC Champion). He defeated Andre Galvao (6x ADCC Champion) and consistently accepts challenges from all of the top competitors in the sport.
This record - combined with the names he has crossed off his list - firmly places him in the category of the best grappler on earth.
Style & Athleticism
Ryan, at one time, could have been called a specialist. Today, he is a master across all facets of grappling. His game, through all the lenses of professional and amateur critique - is complete.
At one time, Ryan and much of his cohort under Danaher had great infinity for heel-hooks. Much of the grappling community (including far too many high level Brazilian competitors) ignored this aspect of grappling. They did not believe it was necessary to train ankle/leg locks. Danaher, ever the strategist, empowered his students with the knowledge and skillset to run through entire divisions of world-class grapplers by getting their legs caught in compromising holds. Below is a great picture example from the UFC:
While he is still extremely dangerous if he gets a strong hold of your leg, he is equally dangerous in all other positions in submission grappling. He is known to have crushing top pressure. He can stay on his feet and wrestle. He can play from the bottom and ensnare his opponents into his guard. And of course, as you can see from his record - if Gordon Ryan gets his opponent’s back, there is a very high likelihood he will choke them. His defense is as good as his offense. Therefore, he does not have to choose a single approach against an opponent.
In tandem with having arguably the most complete game in submission grappling history, Ryan enjoys the position of being one of the most athletically gifted competitors in the sport. At an imposing 6’2” and 220lbs, Ryan moves as quickly as a lightweight while maintaining the strength and crushing power of a heavyweight.
The world of grappling enjoys a wide array of physiques, training regiments and styles. There is a universal constant: fatigue destroys even the best. Gordon Ryan does not appear to fatigue in his matches or be at risk of losing due to exhaustion. He trains 7 days a week in grappling & maintains an optimal strength, conditioning and nutrition program. No single opponent has shown any meaningful edge in athleticism or technique. It’s this author’s humble opinion that the only way Ryan will be defeated is if another freakier version of him comes along: one with superior size, strength, technique and intelligence. It’s worth noting as well that Ryan has competed through a severe condition called Helicobacter pylori where he experiences massive buildups of bile in his stomach, causing consistent nausea and extreme discomfort. He is under ongoing treatment for this.
Competitive Drive & Mindset
What I believe truly separates Ryan from all his competition is his mindset. What you are struck by when listening to Ryan in an interview is his confidence, obsession and competitive drive. He does not claim to have any secrets. He does not try to build a mystique of god-given talent for the sport. What Ryan most exemplifies is someone utterly dedicated to his craft with a level of self-control and discipline unmatched amongst his peers.
It is no coincidence that his master, John Danaher is a staunch proponent of the Japanese philosophy of Kaizen (改善), which means gradual, small improvements executed consistently over time to achieve optimal results. A look at Ryan’s career and you do not see stagnation or plateau. He has consistently improved every single aspect of his game, learning in both defeat and victory.
It is the abruptness of Ryan’s temperament when he describes his training, his goals and his competition that reinforces what we can see in his athletic triumphs. He does not suffer fools or mince words. He is direct and sometimes brutal with his candor. He reflects the Stoic philosophy of growth through adversity and the Eastern tradition of gradual self improvement. The Stoics might have a thing or two to say about his use of expletives against opponents ;)
These are qualities I would argue many of the great competitors across disciplines maintain.
So what separates The King from his peers?
Gordon Ryan possesses all the hallmarks of a champion and universal traits we see across many remarkable athletes and leaders:
Relentless focus on his craft
Deference towards his teacher(s)/those who came before him
Consistent desire to improve all facets of his game/understanding of his weaknesses (Kaizen)
Resilience in the face of defeat/adversity
There is never one silver bullet that separates an athlete like Ryan from his competitors. I believe it’s the cross section of traits that define his success. The self-mastery that we witness in someone like Ryan is not a mystery or secret. It’s not a set of principles only revealed by the Master in a dojo. Everything I listed above about Gordon Ryan is on display each time he competes, does an interview, releases a training video, posts on social media, and so on.
The lesson learned from this case study is we can all work towards exceptional results should we simply focus on the task at hand and take seriously the process to achieve our desired outcome. It is the small, incremental improvements we can make each day, coupled with consistent behaviors aligned to our values that produce change. Control the controllable.
Seneca urges us to “choose a Cato” - meaning, anchor yourself to an exceptional person that you can look towards to find inspiration, meaning and a framework to help align ourselves to a better life. Gordon Ryan represents the very best in the world of grappling, and we can learn much from the bundled set of traits that have defined his success in the Arena.
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Until next time, friend.