By Can Sonmez
Ricardo Liborio was the first super heavyweight champion at the inaugural Mundials in 1996, fighting considerably heavier men. At the time, he was around 83kg, yet chose to compete in a division for athletes of 100kg and up. This was in order to address the one blemish on his record, a 1993 loss against the super heavyweight, Leonardo Castello Branco. Liborio went on to earn bronze and silver medals in the ADCC (in 1999 and 2000 respectively). He was born in 1967 in Rio de Janeiro, starting his martial arts journey with judo as a four-year-old. As a teenager, he walked onto the Carlson Gracie mats, back when the academy was shared with Carlson’s brother, Rolls (who sadly died in a hang gliding accident a few months later). Liborio described it simply as “not a place to train easy.”
In 2000, when Liborio was cornering Murilo Bustamante in Japan in 2000, he discovered both of them had been kicked out by Carlson due to a contractual dispute. They attempted to mend the relationship by flying to Chicago, but Carlson’s mind was made up. This led Murilo and Liborio, along with several other exiles, to form Brazilian Top Team. Some time later, Liborio remembers how he “suggested to the group of guys there, let’s open up the Top Teams. We’ll go to a country, cheering for Brazilian Top Team in America, or Japan, or in Canada, or in Australia. So let’s open up the Top Teams, use the same logo, the country’s flag, and go from there. They said, ‘No, let’s concentrate on Brazilian Top Team, we’re going to divide the brand.’ I understood that, but I thought it was a good idea.” In 2001, again while cornering a fighter in Japan, a promoter asked Liborio to remain in Japan to teach fighters there for six months. Liborio was still considering a stint in Japan when Dan Lambert presented another proposal.
During the early ‘90s, pro-wrestling fan Dan Lambert was looking further afield than the USA. “I used to watch a lot of pro wrestling in Japan, and I used to tape trade with folks over there, and that’s where the quasi-shoot promotions over there started in the early ‘90s like Pancrase and the UWF.” Closer to home, the Ultimate Fighting Championship launched in 1993. Two years later, the rival Extreme Fighting promotion caught Lambert’s attention, particularly its heavyweight champion, Conan Silveira. The muscular Brazilian ran a gym in Miami near where Lambert lived. “I said, ‘I’m there’. So I went down to his gym and got my ass beat by some 15-year-old kid who weighed about 100 pounds less than I did my first day, and I said, ‘I’m in!’”
Lambert’s financial clout helped to build the team into a notable force in MMA. Several years later, he almost ended up buying the UFC when the original owners were struggling, but was outbid. His motivation had been the future of his team (many of whom looked to the UFC for their competitive prospects), which he was about to secure through another business deal. Lambert managed to convince Liborio to come to Florida in 2001. Liborio found that he liked it so much he wanted to stay permanently. He sold his 25% stake in Brazilian Top Team, ready to progress his idea of other Top Teams. The two men joined forces with Lambert’s coach and Silveira’s brother Marcelo, forming American Top Team. As Lambert told Fox Sports, “once Liborio said he was going to stay, a bunch of his disciples decided to come up, so the floodgates opened up a little bit.”
Among the many top BJJ and MMA prospects who have emerged from ATT is Gezary Matuda. She was born in 1983, not long after the young Liborio had begun training at the Carlson Gracie academy. Initially, her interest in martial arts was focused on striking, beginning with capoeira, after which she dedicated herself to muay thai. By 2004, her coach suggested she try grappling. Matuda therefore joined Carlos Conceição’s BJJ class in 2004, part of the Carlson Gracie lineage. Brazilian jiu jitsu would provide Matuda with the competition satisfaction she had never been able to glean from muay thai, despite repeatedly trying to get into the ring. Before she had spent a month on the mats, Matuda was entering BJJ tournaments. She stayed with Conceição up until purple belt, after which she moved to the States. ATT was her school of choice. It was there Matuda earned her brown and then black belt in 2012, having won the Worlds.
ATT has become a centre for elite MMA and BJJ fighters, but it has also built links to the local community. When Liborio’s daughter, Bella, was a year and a half old, she was diagnosed with a genetic condition that resulted in the loss of her sight. The Liborio family were helped through that difficult time by the Lighthouse of Broward County, an organisation that provides support for the visually impaired. A teacher that Liborio met through the Lighthouse introduced him to one of her students, George Stern. Providing help with transport to the gym, Liborio trained Stern at ATT. His new student would become a state champion, competing against sighted opponents. Stern was not the only blind ATT athlete finding success in competition: he would be joined by Felipe Rodriguez, among others. Liborio went on to start an annual summer camp for visually impaired students, in an effort to continue giving back. To leave the last word to Liborio, discussing how the experience has impacted him personally:
“Tremendously, that’s definitely my way to give back, not just to the Lighthouse, but to the visually impaired community. I gain a lot, because just to have visually impaired people around is a great way to learn. […] I see barriers being broken all the time. They have way more to teach you than to learn from you.”
1967 Ricardo Liborio is born in July.
1996 Liborio wins the super heavyweight division at the first Mundials
2000 The Carlson Gracie team splits, Liborio founds Brazilian Top Team with some of his teammates
2001 Liborio accepts Dan Lambert’s proposal to teach in Florida. The two found American Top Team a few months later
2012 Gezary Matuda becomes World Champion
Sources: BJJHeroes.com • AXS TV, interview with George Stern • Susan Cingari interview with Liborio • Damon Martin on FoxSports.com • girl-jitsu.com • Grappling Central Podcast