When Gordon Ryan steps onto the mat this Thursday to face Vinny Magalhaes in the main event of the UFC FIGHT PASS INVITATIONAL 3, there’s a lot on the line for the New Jersey native, as he will be taking on the last man to beat him back in May of 2018.
Since then, Ryan has gone 52-0-2, defeating the likes of Josh Barnett, Vitor Ribeiro, Garry Tonon, Rousimar Palhares, Bo Nickal, Aleksei Oleinik, Gabriel Gonzaga, Vagner Rocha and, most recently, Andre Galvao.
That September SuperFight with Galvao was one of the most eagerly anticipated matches of all-time, and after he submitted the Brazilian star, doubts about Ryan’s claims to be the greatest grappler of all-time hit an all-time low. It also confirmed that in the grappling world, Ryan can be a polarizing figure. So there has to be bad blood with UFC vet and Ultimate Fighter 8 finalist Magalhaes, right?
“No, we're cool,” said Ryan. “We talk on Instagram and share memes with each other, so I don't have any problem with Vinny.”
That must be nice to enter a match with nothing but competing on your mind.
“It's always refreshing to go against someone who doesn't hate me,” laughs Ryan, whose confidence, willing to say whatever’s on his mind and social media presence has rubbed some members of the jiu-jitsu world the wrong way. Yet, at the same time, to his fans and a new generation of players in “the gentle art,” he’s made grappling cool. Couple that with the technology and services like UFC FIGHT PASS that bring the sport to the masses in ways it never has, and it’s been a perfect storm to not just make the 27-year-old a star, but to allow him to make a living at his art.
“Ten years ago, it was almost impossible to even watch the worlds or ADCC or a replay of it,” said Ryan. “You pretty much had to be there live to even watch it, and then you'd wait for GracieMag.com to come out with the results and that's how you'd find it. It was very amateur for the generations before me, and there was no way to make money through jiu-jitsu. You couldn't compete and make a living. You'd have to win your titles, accomplish what you wanted to, and then you'd have to either open up a school or you'd have to start fighting MMA in order to make money. Whereas now, I think we're kinda bridging the gap where, for the first time ever, you can start making money just as being an athlete. If I didn't want to teach anymore, I wouldn't have to make instructionals, I wouldn't have to teach privates or seminars - I could just make a living through competing. I don't think the other athletes are in that position yet, but in the next five to ten years, we're gonna start seeing athletes that don't have to run schools, that don't have to teach instructionals. They can just compete and make enough money to live like athletes.”
It's a good place for the Austin-based Ryan to be in these days, yet you have to wonder what keeps him motivated after dominating for so long and beating the best in the game on a consistent basis. Well, it’s a mix of short-term and long-term goals, with the first short-term one being his rematch with Magalhaes, who decisioned him 5-0 at ACB JJ 13 in Long Beach, California.
“The last match, I actually thought that I won,” said Ryan. “It was some obscure rule set for ACB, where it was like MMA rounds, and the way that they explained it, I thought that I'd won and then they raised Vinny's hand, and I was like, okay, well I guess I lost. But it's really only my fault because I should have submitted him.”
More than four years later, they meet again, and Ryan has no doubts that he will even the score at the UFC APEX in Las Vegas.
“I trained with him after that, so I'm relatively familiar with his game,” he said. “I've watched him compete for a long time now, I've trained with him, and I've competed against him, so I think I just made a few mistakes. I think that he's very game, he's very talented, very big, very hard to do anything to, but I think in my technical prowess and my tactics and my physicality now will just be a little bit too much, even for him.”
A win over Magalhaes will close a chapter for Ryan, who has had this match on his mind since the moment the Brazilian’s hand was raised.
“My whole thing is to try to get back the matches that I lost at black belt,” said Ryan. “They're kind of important for me because I always wanted to beat everyone who's beaten me at black belt and I wanted to go even further than that and I wanted to go back and submit all the guys who I haven't submitted at black belt, or as many of them as I can. I want to start running back matches against people who I haven't submitted just to prove that I can submit them. But there's only three guys to beat me at black belt - that's Felipe Pena, who I've already beaten; Leandro Lo, who unfortunately isn't alive anymore; and Vinny. So Vinny is the only guy at black belt who's beaten me who I haven't beaten, who I can actually have a chance to compete against. So I'm very excited for this match.”
Then what? It’s the eternal question for any high-level athlete who has reached the pinnacle of his or her sport and has stayed there. Ryan is only 27, so does the “King” keep rolling for another decade until he slows down and someone takes his crown? Does he leave on top with plenty of years and gas left in the tank? There are so many different ways this can go, but one thing Ryan isn’t concerned about is being the man with a target on his back.
“For me, it's pretty simple,” he said. “Most guys are trying to do just enough to be competitive or to beat the best guy in the world. When I wasn't the best guy in the world, my goal was never to beat the best guy in the world. Of course, that was one of my goals, but then I beat the best guy in the world and now what? I'm the best guy in the world. And that kinda gets boring after a while. So, for me, my goal really isn't to compete with the second-best guy in the world. It's just to compete with myself six months ago, myself a year ago. My whole thing is, I don't really worry about other people; I'm just trying to be the best I can before I hit my physical prime or before my stomach just gives out and I can't compete anymore. But it seems to be getting better, so it's good. My whole thing is just to be as good as I can be before it's time to retire and I hit my physical prime somewhere in my late-30s if I can stay healthy. It's not really about having a target on my back and worrying about the other guys; it's more about just competing with myself and being the best I can be because I know that if I'm better now than I was six months ago - and I was already two decades ahead of the rest of the guys six months ago - it's gonna be a long way for them to jump in order to get to my level. So my whole thing is just progression over time, so every six months, every year, I can look back and say, 'Yeah, I would beat myself up six months or a year ago.'”
Ah, the stomach. The ailment nearly ended his career in 2021, and the frightening thing is that he’s been this good for this long while not competing at one hundred percent. It even forced him to briefly retire in 2021, making headlines throughout the grappling world.
“In 2018, I had recurring staph infections and I was taking oral antibiotics and I just wiped my whole stomach out,” Ryan explains. “And for four years, no one could figure out what was wrong with me and it just kept getting worse and worse and worse. And then in 2021, I had to take a leave of absence. I just couldn't function as a human being anymore I was so nauseous all the time. So then I found a guy who figured out what was wrong with me, and I've been on treatment now for a year and a half, and he says it's gonna probably be another year-and-a-half to two years until I'm fully back to normal. But my stomach's about 70 percent better, so it's definitely a huge improvement, and I definitely still have days, but it's largely better, so hopefully the next couple years it will be back to a hundred percent, maybe before the next ADCC.”
2018. From 2018 until his hiatus in 2021, Ryan went 44-1-2, at much less than one hundred percent. Now that G.O.A.T. talk doesn’t seem so farfetched, does it?
“I competed all the way up until I couldn't even hold a conversation, I was so nauseous,” he said. “And then I was like, yeah, I gotta get this fixed or I'm not gonna be able to compete anymore.”
Since returning, Ryan is 8-0 with seven submissions. If anything, he’s more frightening, and when asked if we haven’t seen his best yet, he instantly responds, “Correct. I should hit my peak somewhere roughly between 35 and 40, I think.”
If you’re a grappler looking to hit the top of the sport, that’s a sobering thought, yet for all of Ryan’s accomplishments, technique, strength and talent – and let’s not forget his confidence – he doesn’t assume that he will ride through the next 13 years unscathed.
“I'll try to leave on top,” Ryan said. “I don't want to be like the rest of these guys that are just fighting, fighting, fighting and they kind of ruin their own legacy. When I feel it's time, I'll go. But the thing with grappling is it's different than MMA. In MMA, if you're a champion and you get submitted or knocked out or lose a decision, it's a big deal. In grappling, it's not a big deal to lose. The biggest streak I think any major champion has ever been on is Roger Gracie - he had like an 18-match unbeaten streak. It's very common for even the best guys in the world to win one, to lose one, win three, lose one. The champions don't win all the time. It's only this thing with me because everyone hates me that if I lose, everyone will be like, 'See, this guy sucks.' (Laughs) If I compete until I'm 35 to 40, it's very unlikely statistically that I'm gonna go the next 15 years and not lose a match in some fashion. I'm gonna lose a match eventually. But in grappling, it's more about the overall record, your overall statistics, your submission rate, and the amount of medals that you have rather than just winning every single match until someone beats you. It's pretty normal for people to lose matches in grappling, even though I'm trying not to.”
Easy for the guy who hasn’t lost since 2018 to say, but like many elite grapplers, including several of the ones Ryan has defeated, a long reign of dominance usually leads to questions about a move to MMA. The Gracies have done it, so have Magalhaes and Galvao. Will Ryan be next?
“People are always asking about me moving into fighting,” Ryan said. “Right now, especially after the team (The Danaher Death Squad) split, I need someone on my team that is able to do the things that I do, number one, before I would move into MMA. I need a replacement for myself, someone who could win the ADCC absolute and just starts crushing everyone. Number two, there hasn't been many things that John Danaher, our coach, has been wrong about as far as my training or my career in his life, and I've been with him for about 10 years. And John's advice to me was just to stick with grappling because I'm already the greatest of all-time and I already make a ton of money grappling. He's like, there's no reason for you to move into MMA when you're this successful in grappling. And something tells me I should probably listen to John because he always ends up being right about everything. So for right now at least, I'm gonna have to defend the Superfight for ADCC, and I'm already 27, so I think I'm just gonna stick with grappling because it was John's recommendation and John has always been right about everything.”
Of course, never say never, but you get the impression that even with a legacy already set in stone, Gordon Ryan still feels there’s unfinished business in his current line of work.
“There's a great line that Georges St-Pierre said when we were on the Lex Fridman podcast,” said Ryan. “He said that the minute you're satisfied with what you've done in your career, you should retire. Because the minute you're satisfied, the minute you sit back and say, 'Hey, look what I've done,' and you're not really thinking about what's next, that's the end of your career. So, for me, once you win ADCC, the next day it's like, 'Okay, what's next?' Which is kind of like a gift and a curse because it always keeps you hyper-focused on what's next and what I'm gonna accomplish, but, at the same time, I feel like I'm gonna look back when I retire and be like, 'Wow, I just flew by that entire 15 years and I wasn't present for any of it and I was just looking at what's next.' But it does keep me focused on what match is next, what big tournament is next. Right now, if you look at the no-gi statistics, there's no one close to the same level as me as far as accomplishments and stats go. Theoretically, someone in the next 20 or 30 years can surpass my records and my overall statistics, but I want to create something that's not gonna be touched until well after I'm dead. That's my goal right now - just looking forward and creating a legacy that's never gonna be touched for as long as I'm alive or my kids are alive. If we can do that, then I'll be happy.”
The UFC FIGHT PASS INVITATIONAL 3 airs live on UFC FIGHT PASS on Thursday, December 15 at 8pm