The Gordon Ryan BJJ Legacy: How One Man Changed Grappling

02.11.2021 by

A few months back, when I was writing an article on Gordon Ryan’s retirement from competitive BJJ, I had a feeling it was not really the end of the “king’s” reign. It turns out I was right, and he is not just back, but also set to grapple it out with Andre Galvao, a match the BJJ community has been drooling over. 

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After about a decade of the King’s non-stop presence in BJJ news headlines, another news piece just didn’t feel right. This time, I’ll explore his entire career and figure out the Gordon Ryan BJJ legacy.  

A King is Made – Gordon Ryan’s Early Life

Gordon Ryan is an American BJJ black belt who was born and raised in Monroe, New Jersey. He was neither born to a martial arts family, nor did he have access to world-class training from the moment he could walk.

As Gordon once said on a podcast, his introduction to fighting came via daycare – where a UFC fan teacher would pair the kids up for “MMA fights” and taught them moves. Ryan wouldn’t discover BJJ until he was 15 years old, first  training with Miguel Benitez, a black belt under Tom DeBlass. It did not take long for Ryan to end up training under Tom directly.  

Gordon’s training was always encouraged, and later, made possible by Garry Tonon, who he met at DeBlass’ academy. The two became friends and Tonon awarded Gordon his black belt in 2016, alongside Tom DeBlass, Ricardo Almeida, and John Danaher. Ryan was 20 at the time and had only been training for 5 years.

As a purple belt, Gordon trained under Tom DeBlass in Ocean County BJJ, under Tonon in Brunswick BJJ, and also visited Danaher in NYC whenever Garry made the trip. This is when Gordon began competing a lot, making strides at the local grappling competition scene. 

Eddie Bravo and The Danaher Death Squad

Eddie Bravo played an important role in introducing the world to Gordon Ryan, Garry Tonon, and Eddie Cummings. The trio would later be known as the Danaher Death Squad’s founding members and basically took over the “Eddie Bravo Invitational” tournament, winning almost every edition in which they competed. 

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The DDS just prior to the team’s breakup in 2021.

Gordon’s first EBI appearance was in 2016, at the sixth edition of the tournament. He competed in the absolute division while at middleweight. Gordon made quick work of veterans including Yuri Simoes and Rustam Chsiev and won his first EBI title. 

Gordon followed his EBI title run with two more impressive run outs at EBI 8 and EBI 11. His performance was dominant and this solidified his and the Danaher Death Squad’s reputation within the big context of submission grappling. 

With the launch of EBI as a platform for submission only grappling competitions, Gordon Ryan’s BJJ reign began, and it is still in effect today.

Gordon Ryan’s Rise to the Top

This is the part of Gordon’s story that everyone more or less knows. After shining at the EBIs, Gordon went on to prove he is not just a champion in one particular ruleset. He won the IBJJF No-Gi Worlds and the Pans in both his division and absolute, dispelling the myth that he was a one-trick pony who only knew heel hooks.*

*For reference, the IBJJF did not allow heel hooks at the time. This rule was changed in 2021.

Gordon competed in the ADCC as well, getting gold in his division and silver in the absolute in 2017, before his greatest achievement to date – double gold at the 2019 ADCC.

In the period between 2017 and 2020 Ryan managed to defeat most people that stood against him under any ruleset in no-gi Jiu Jitsu. He easily conquered tournaments like Quintet, Kinetic, and Grappling Industries. 

On top of that, he went on to accept and win superfights with some of the biggest names in grappling, including Keenan Cornelius, Joe Baize, Lucas Barbosa, Leandro Lo, Ralek Gracie, Vinny Magalhaes, and many others. The last time he won a superfight without submitting his opponent was against Rousimar Palhares in 2017 (World Jiu-Jitsu Festival). 

While there was talk that the Gordon Ryan BJJ saga would continue with him conquering everyone of note in the gi, he instead focussed on transitioning to MMA instead. 

Injury Record

Ryan’s competitive BJJ journey has been more or less free of serious injuries. He sustained one to his knee, tearing his LCL (lateral collateral ligament) in a match against Joao Gabriel Rocha at KASAI. The injury required surgery which Ryan had just prior to his unforgettable 2019 ADCC performance. Oh, and he still won that match against Rocha, albeit on points (1-0)! 

Another medical condition that doesn’t fall under the category of BJJ injuries has been a chronic and debilitating stomach condition. In fact, this stomach problem led to his decision to retire briefly from active competition.

Initially, the diagnosis was Gastroparesis (a condition that affects the muscles of the stomach, interfering with its ability to empty the contents) as a result of prolonged use of antibiotics. It took Ryan years to finally tap out from this condition and retire from competing in hope of finding a solution. 

A couple of months ago, he announced via his Instagram profile that he received a new diagnosis of yeast and bacterial overgrowth and was looking at options to solve this particular conundrum once and for all. This, in turn, prompted an announcement of his return to competition. 

Gordon’s (Slightly Exaggerated) Retirement

The announcement of retirement meant that the Gordon Ryan BJJ story took a different direction, one of teaching and shooting DVDs rather than competing. His decision sent ripples throughout the BJJ community, stirring up all kinds of rumors and predictions over who would be the next “King”. 

In 2020, Gordon moved to Puerto Rico, along with a good chunk of the Danaher Death Squad including the Mad Professor himself – John Danaher. The move was less a product of his retirement, and more driven by the COVID-19 restrictions that made New York City inhospitable to BJJ training.

They set up a base in Puerto Rico along fellow DDS members Craig Jones, Nicky Ryan, Nick Rodriguez, and others, stating that it was easier to train regularly there compared to a Covid-stricken New York which was under strict lockdown rules. 

Their goal was to build a competition team full of grappling superstars based out of a tropical paradise. Just like Gordon’s retirement, this too was short-lived. 

Comeback

A few months after officially retiring from competition, a teaser post emerged on the Gordon Ryan Instagram profile, announcing a much-anticipated superfight. Shortly after, the ADCC officially confirmed that Gordon will be meeting Andre Galvao in what is the most anticipated ADCC superfight of all times. The match is scheduled for September 17-18, 2022, at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas. 

Gordon Ryan vs. Andre Galvao – A Clash Of Grappling Styles

The announcement that Ryan and Galvao will finally meet at the ADCC has everyone on edge. Their battle pits two fantastic grapplers against each other, each with their own legacy – Gordon’s amazing meteoric rise vs. Galvao’s decades long competition history, in which he has not lost an ADCC superfight since 2013.

But, beyond the grappling matchup, the personal feud between Ryan and Galvao is another huge draw for this matchup. The feud began when Ryan won double gold in the 2019 ADCC, entitling him to grapple with Galvao (the current superfight champion) at the next edition of the Olympics of grappling.

What started off as a trash-talking exchange on social media quickly gained momentum, turning into a bitter rivalry between the Atos and Danaher Death Squad teams, going beyond each team’s superstar representative in Galvao and Ryan and including other team members as well.

The grudge went to new heights during a now-infamous incident that took place backstage at a Who’s Number One event in March 2021. In short, Galvao flipped off Ryan, and Gordon responded by slapping Galvao twice. Everything was caught on camera, and the incident went viral, further raising the animosity between the two teams. 

What to expect from the Gordon Ryan / Andre Galvao Match

This match is certainly a clash of styles. First of all, Galvao is 39 and has been a black belt for 16 years. Throughout those 16 years he has conquered almost every title there is in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. He has a very aggressive style and is an expert in both gi and no-gi. Andre favors passing and a strong pressure game from the top based on the traditional Jiu Jitsu principles he has built his entire career upon. 

That, however, does not mean he is not aware of the modern Jiu Jitsu that Ryan brings to the table. Moreover, Galvao has a decade-long experience in ADCC matches and certainly knows how to play the point system to his advantage. 

Ryan (26), on the other hand, is a representative of the new breed of grapplers. He has a diverse top and bottom game, is very submission-oriented, and is dangerous with pretty much every type of submission, from heel hooks to power half Nelsons. 

On top of it all, he is a keen strategist who has tons of patience and does not rush or panic. Furthermore, he is backed by having the ultimate megamind of BJJ in his corner –  John Danaher. 

Both are extremely athletic grapplers, very explosive, and capable of going hard for the duration of the 20 minute round (or potentially 40, if both overtimes are used) which is a norm for ADCC superfight. 

I would give the advantage to Galvao in standing exchanges, simply because his stand up game has given every famous grappler a difficult time, and Ryan prefers to pull guard rather than wrestle on the feet. 

While both have very in-depth bottom and top games, I see Galvao going for positional control more than the submission hunting-based control that marks Gordon’s game. Both are extremely hard to submit, though, prompting me to doubt that a submission finish is a likely outcome of this match. 

When it comes to scrambles and transitions, as well as creating openings “out of nothing”, the advantage goes to Ryan. While Gordon also has the age and size advantage (Ryan is a super-heavyweight, while Galvao usually fights as a medium-heavyweight), Galvao is famous for his incredible physical conditioning and has the upper hand in terms of experience. 

If I had to choose, I’d say Ryan’s ability to adapt to different kinds of opponents and impose his versatile game is the one thing that edges this match in his favor, but I still think it will be one of Gordon’s tougher tests to date. 

MMA 

Gordon Ryan signed with ONE Championship in March 2021 but has not yet had any MMA fights.

While Gordon’s retirement included his MMA career as well, he is still under contract with ONE Championship. His comeback to active competition surely means that he will also finally try his hand at MMA as well. 

The Gordon Ryan BJJ Legacy 

So, what does Gordon Ryan’s BJJ legacy look like so far? Well, for starters, he has achieved more in 7 years than most others have in a lifetime of Jiu Jitsu. In terms of his achievements on the mats, nobody can dispute that he has every right to call himself the “King”. 

Ryan’s record at black belt so far is 89-3-5 (W-D-L) which is incredibly impressive given that most of his opponents were the biggest names in Jiu Jitsu. That said, his two matches with Felipe Pena in 2016 and 2017 remain the biggest “stain” on his career, with Pena emerging victorious on both occasions. 

The Gordon Ryan BJJ legacy extends past his competition record though. Unlike some of the greatest names in the sport like Roger Gracie and Marcelo Garcia, Ryan will be remembered as a polarizing figure. 

Ryan has never been shy to start a public beef with just about anyone, from Atos team members ranging from Kaynan Duarte to Andre Galvo, to Dillon Dannis, to random folks on Instagram. All those exchanges and everything that has been said over social media has portrayed Ryan as a man who is quick to engage in quarrels and not very selective with his words (or deeds).  

On the other hand, he has also contributed to the development of the sport by recording and releasing several DVD instructionals that teach his style of Jiu Jitsu. 

His analysis of matches, whether his own or others, and his breakdowns of rolls are extremely informative and well put together and have shown us that there are other ways of learning apart from just following technique-based instructionals. In an era where so much footage is available, analyzing matches and rolls might just turn out to be the next big learning tool. 

The impact Ryan has had on Jiu Jitsu is huge. What I consider most important is that he showed everyone you could be a full-time professional Jiu Jitsu athlete and he did so in an extremely realistic manner, constantly reminding people of all the sacrifices it takes to be able to perform at his level.

A black belt at 20, a list of accomplishments at 26 that most others can only dream of, a solid net worth a result of his online persona and his undisputed grappling skills, and a bright future to look to, Gordon Ryan has done more for grappling in the past 7 years than most of the other competitors in a lifetime. 

Gordon Ryan FAQs

How old is Gordon Ryan?

Gordon Ryan was born July 8, 1995. As of 2021 he is 26 years old.

When did Gordon Ryan start training BJJ?

Gordon Ryan began training BJJ when he was 15 years old.

Who can beat Gordon Ryan?

Felipe Pena has beaten Gordon Ryan twice, once in 2016 and 2017.

Who gave Gordon Ryan his BJJ black belt?

Garry Tonon promoted Gordon Ryan to black belt in 2016.

How long did Gordon Ryan train to get his BJJ black belt?

Gordon Ryan trained BJJ for ~5 years before receiving his black belt.

What’s Next for Gordon Ryan? 

Honestly this is a hard question to answer as he has set the bar so high. After his upcoming Galvao match, there’s not much more left for him in BJJ apart from trying to grapple in the gi. In MMA, he has everything to prove and all the time in the world to do so. 

Whatever the future brings for the “King”, the world of grappling will need time to process all the lessons that we can learn from the Gordon Ryan BJJ legacy.