2024 ADCC World Championships

Gordon Ryan v Felipe Pena: Breaking Down The Rivalry Ahead Of ADCC 2024

Gordon Ryan v Felipe Pena: Breaking Down The Rivalry Ahead Of ADCC 2024

What should grappling fans expect in a fourth meeting between Gordon Ryan and Felipe Pena? We look at the story of their previous three matches.

Jul 8, 2024 by Joe Gilpin
null

ADCC 2024 is fast approaching, and this year will bring a first-ever super fight schedule: ADCC Super Fight Champion Gordon Ryan will face both Felipe Pena and Yuri Simoes in official gold medal matches. 

ADCC has had a history of having athletes do super fights for official medals, but this is the first time one athlete will attempt two during the same event. In his match with Pena, Gordon faces his top rival and the only man to defeat him twice as a black belt (Pena holds a 2-1 record in their three match series).

The series began with Pena - already an established black belt world champion - defeating Gordon in a California super fight, then in the absolute finals of the 2017 ADCC before they met again in 2022 at WNO. They were scheduled to meet again under WNO rules but Gordon withdrew the week of the event with a stomach ailment which continues to plague him to this day.

null

This is a long series with many twists and turns that has developed into one of the most storied rivalries in grappling history. Their match on Saturday will be as high stakes as a match like this can be, with ego, legacy, and gold on the line.

First Match

null

In their first meeting in 2016, Gordon and Pena faced off in a one hour match. Gordon amid a career break out with wins over ADCC Champions like Yuri Simoes and victories at EBI tournaments, but had trouble getting some of the top names to agree to face him. Pena stepped up and they met in the Studio 540 Superfight series. After more than 40 minutes of action, Pena turned Gordon's cross ashi into a wedging back take and locked in a RNC in a thrilling victory.

Their match largely featured Pena on top with Gordon pulling and playing guard. Pena had passing success to side control and north south. Over time, Pena found ways to manage the butterfly half, semi-inversions, and shoulder crunches - although Pena did have to free himself from many entanglements and spent time on bottom after successful sweeps from Ryan.

So much time has passed since this match that it's tough to infer much about how their style play into the upcoming match. However, the 2016 meeting did set the tone that we continue to operate within.

Second Match

null

Unlock this video, live events, and more with a subscription!

Sign Up

Already a subscriber? Log In

This is the ADCC absolute finals in 2017, and all things considered it is likely the most indicative for how a fourth match might look. Unlike the other two matches, the time is much more constricted and there are points involved - both of which benefit Pena. Coming into the match, Pena had taken silver at -99kg and Gordon was the champion at -88kg so there was some size advantage for Pena (that is not likely to be the case at the T-Mobile Arena).

In the match, surprisingly it was Gordon who took Pena down (although it was still the no points period, so the score stayed tied) with a single leg, and then it was Gordon engaging Pena's guard in a reversal from their first match. Eventually, Pena's guard was the real key to winning the match, especially his use of the 50-50. In a previous article for FloGrappling breaking down Pena's guard I said this;

"Pena's reliance on 50-50 is part of what has made him so effective against Gordon. Beyond his world-class status as an all-around grappler, his specific strategy makes things interesting because of how little relative time Gordon has spent in 50-50 throughout his career, instead preferring to work from asymmetrical breaking positions like the inside sankaku or the outside ashi. By bringing the fight to 50-50 so consistently, Pena's strategy has complicated the usual rhythm of Gordon's offense and has brought him to a 2-1 record against the current ADCC Super Fight Champion."

After a long time trying to pass the guard and implement his pace and game, Gordon made a critical strategic error of dropping back on a leg. He transitioned from outside to cross ashi where Pena used the same wedging back take he had previously used to secure the back, the 3 points, and the win. To date, it's likely the biggest win in his no-gi career.

Third Match

null

Unlock this video, live events, and more with a subscription!

Sign Up

Already a subscriber? Log In

The third match between Gordon and Pena is really difficult to analyze and break down. For starters, Pena was clearly and understandably not in the optimal frame of mind to compete after the death of his close friend Leandro Lo that morning.

That's not to say the match doesn't count; it happened and it does, but taking larger lessons is difficult. 

Second, there's the fact it was no time limit/submission only. Both athletes entered the match preparing to conserve as much energy as possible and wait out a long match - strategies that affected every exchange and colored the entire contest in long periods of even activity. Under ADCC rules they will need to push the action much more to stay in compliance with the referees and score.

Technically speaking, we saw technial grappling from both men but neither showed strong intentions to push hard for the kill (understanding that a failure to achieve the finish would leave them vulnerable). After 40 minutes of action, Pena asked out of the match in a mix of exhaustion and frustration - a big victory for Gordon in the rivalry. He had made his opponent quit without even applying a submission hold and the series had turned a corner back to him. Unfortunately, the agreed upon rematch at WNO never happened - Gordon's stomach issues became too debilitating and he had to pause his competitive career. Since then, he's only had two matches (Gaudio & Saunders).

Meregali vs Pena

While it's not the same thing, I think it's instructive to look to Meregali and Pena's recent no-gi match for some insights into how the New Wave camp may be approaching this series. They faced off in super fight action in December of 2023 and Meregali was able to submit Pena from the back - something Gordon still hasn't been able to do. The match even featured a section with no-points followed by points - similar to how ADCC does things.

Meregali came out very aggressive and ultimately just melted Pena's conditioning to the point he was able to take the victory. Meregali showed off some of his best no-gi development here, using a single leg to take down Pena, entering the legs with various ashi garami, passing his guard, and keeping a constant pressure in the form of pace. Interestingly, in a reversal of fortunes, it was Meregali taking Pena's back after an ashi garami entry in this contest.

After Pena's performance against Gordon it was clear Meregali wanted to exhaust Pena and he was able to successfully do that. Does that mean the New Wave approach to Pena is going to be identical every time? That's unlikely but it does signal that they consider this an aspect worth exploiting as part of a larger plan.

Takeaways

We've had three matches in this series and it's still hard to tell what is about to happen in the fourth. These are two elite no-gi grapplers, truly two of the best in the world, and Pena has found ways to beat Gordon that no one else can replicate. That's not just luck - there's a lot of style that plays into that.

The Pena-Gordon rivalry has taken a few turns but in large part has boiled down to Pena's unique ability to navigate Ryan's leg entanglements and turn them to his advantage. Gordon first made his name as a leg locking expert, so this is a really shocking path to victory but it has proven to be the difference maker for Preguica.

This match will rely on a few technical factors, including Gordon's ability to navigate Pena's guard without getting stuck for too long in his 50/50 and bear trap. I also think, given the match history and Pena's unique skill at turning entanglements into back takes, that Ryan would be wise to avoid dropping into the legs if possible. He's clearly an expert at that facet of the game but in this series it isn't the place he has that usual large advantage.

It's also fair to circle Pena's wrestling - especially defensive wrestling - as an area to watch. He was taken down by Gordon in 2017 before 'The King' was as polished of a wrestler and by Meregali in 2023 several times with single legs. With this kind of challenge, he cannot afford to give those up easily.

Pena's cardio and Gordon's overall health will be huge question marks for fans coming in. Fair or not, Gordon's team has focused in on pace as a weapon to use against Preguica and it's up to him to stand up against that (either by slowing things down or coming in with a higher VO2 max). It's worth noting this will be Gordon's first match of the day and Pena's third as he is also doing the +99kg division.

This is all assuming Gordon can push that level of pace. He has the stomach issues that leave him 'nearly vomiting' during matches now (like after his recent WNO win over Josh Saunders) and pushing his body into further stress will be more difficult for him than ever. Can he implement the game plan he wants or is that going to be dictated by his body's ability to answer the call?

This is going to be a pivotal match in the career of both men. Whoever wins will likely carry with them the bragging rights of the entire series. For a man like Gordon Ryan, how can he call himself the best ever if he had a rival in his era who bested him 3 out of 4 times? It's all going down Aug. 17, exclusively on FloGrappling.

Watch BJJ On FloGrappling

FloGrappling is the streaming home to the best Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu events and news coverage. FloGrappling is the streaming home of: 

Join The BJJ Conversation By Following FloGrappling On Social