Submission grappling looks like a sport on the verge of a revolution. Grappling has for decades occupied a spot on combat sports’ periphery, but in recent years, fight fans around the world have become transfixed by the beauty of The Gentle Art. Its rise in popularity should come as no surprise, as an army of exciting athletes have entered the fray and submission-only tournaments have become more commonplace. As we enter the epoch of grappling, a number of MMA stars have elected to grapple competitively. Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter Tom Breese is one of them.
Some people spend their youth wandering aimlessly in search of their path in life, but for others, the route to the top is readily apparent. Breese knew what he wanted to do from an early age. While his peers in Birmingham, England, were football-mad, Breese had his heart set on martial arts. Unlike most notable names in the Brazilian jiu-jitsu world who started their grappling careers on the mats, Breese took to the streets to sharpen his submission skills before he ever set foot in an academy.
“I loved grappling from before I started taking classes,” he said. “I used to set up grappling tournaments with my friends at a local park and use moves I had watched from the UFC. I would always win [in the park], but then when I started going to actual classes, I would get dominated. I felt I picked it up fast, and it wasn’t long before I was out-grappling the more experienced guys in the gym.”
After spending his formative years developing his skills in a mixed martial arts gym, the natural progression for Breese was to step into the cage. On Sept. 25, 2010, he made his professional debut under the British Association of Mixed Martial Arts flag, and from the opening bell, his aptitude for fighting was readily apparent. Though BAMMA 4 will be best remembered for the epic battle between Tom Watson and Alex Reid, those in attendance bore witness to the start for one of the most Britain’s most promising fighters.
After five dominant performances in the BAMMA cage, Breese fought for the British welterweight title and gave an almost flawless performance in scoring a first-round submission. With domestic success already attained, Breese set his sights further afield. To develop as a fighter, Breese decided to move to Montreal to train under the tutelage of Tristar Gym trainer Firas Zahabi.
Linking arms with a martial arts luminary like Zahabi opens a number of doors for a fighter; while training with Zahabi’s mentor, John Danaher, at the Renzo Gracie Academy in New York, Breese encountered Gordon Ryan for the first time. Relationships are easily forged on the mats, and the two young prodigies became close friends. When Breese made it to the UFC, he invited the then relatively unknown Ryan to be a part of his training camp at Tristar. As Breese began to score wins in the Octagon, Ryan became a grappling superstar, winning two Eddie Bravo Invitational titles and becoming the first man to submit Keenan Cornelius as a black belt. Breese credits his training with Ryan with his improvement as a grappler.
“I’ve always wanted to compete in jiu-jitsu and always did but at a lower level,” he said. “Now [because] I’m a better grappler than I was and I have some popularity fighting in the UFC, I’ve been given opportunities to compete on the biggest grappling events. I first trained with Gordon in NYC and then asked him to come to Tristar to help me prepare for my UFC fights and built a good friendship. Training with him has really improved my grappling and my confidence, that’s for sure.”
Following a 10-fight winning streak, Breese tasted defeat for the first time in his career against Sean Strickland at UFC 199 on June 4. However, instead of taking his split decision loss negatively, Breese decided to use his popularity to leverage himself into an opportunity to compete at Polaris 4 -- the event is available on digital pay-per-view at Polaris-pro.org -- on Saturday in Poole, England, where he will square off with grappling phenom Ben Dyson. Breese will also compete at the next Eddie Bravo Invitational event and welcomes the opportunities to test himself outside the cage.
“I have a huge passion for jiu-jitsu,” said Breese, who plans to return to the UFC in early 2017. “Polaris and EBI are two of the biggest platforms, and it’s very exciting to test my skills on both stages. I’m trying to be the best fighter I can be, and I believe competing regularly in grappling and MMA will improve me both mentally and physically.”
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