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Authors: Sam Sheridan

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Just watching Liborio around the gym you can see that nearly everyone feels they have a special relationship with him (me included). He takes the time to have a few private words with everybody, in particular with every single little kid in there. Liborio spends time down on their level, in their private world.
I know from being a student, and the son of educators, that when a teacher is genuinely invested in you—when a teacher actually cares—you can tell, and it makes a big difference. My mother in particular had taught at a variety of institutions, from New England colleges to Indian reservations in New Mexico, and she had come to the conclusion that basically the best thing you can do is love and show unconditional interest—it was the only real way to connect to students. As a student, you can feel it even if you never put a name to it.
“I’ve been on different teams. I can remember the struggle to get attention on Carlson Gracie’s team—it’s impossible for one man, with so many good guys, to pay attention to everyone. So now I am just trying to bring in more coaches. You have to put the money back into the team, and the team has to keep growing or they’ll leave.
“You need someone in charge, though, because that’s the big problem with pro fighters, the egos. When they reach a certain level, with the money and the spotlight, they need a leader. And they need to respect the leader and understand the program.”
The question of ego was one that I had discussed at length with Eddie Bravo, a jiu-jitsu instructor in Hollywood who developed an innovative guard style and was a commentator at the UFC. Eddie is uniquely positioned in the sport; because of his commentating he was always rubbing elbows with the best fighters in the business. And watching them, carefully.
“Ego is a big reason that guys stop advancing in the sport,” Eddie said. “Because in jiu-jitsu it feels so bad when you tap. You got killed. Jiu-jitsu is great because it filters out the assholes who can’t control their egos, the douche bags who can’t handle showing physical inferiority. But for these fighters, once they get famous, they can’t just roll, everyone wants to tap them. The famous guys start limiting their training. It’s very hard to take risks to get tapped when you get famous. So they stop progressing.
“Everybody has ego. I have it, too. But you have to be the black belt and the ego has to be the blue belt—you have to be controlling it. I don’t like tapping. I’m teaching my students how to beat me and they are dying to do it, even though they respect me. But I’ll roll with everybody, and I get tapped by my students. I got some vicious dogs in here. But you can’t be one of those instructors who thinks it’s bad business to show weakness so they stop rolling. I’m selling evolution. You grow or you die.”
Eddie’s been criticized for his style, which he touts as the future of no-
as having ways to be beaten. Eddie just laughs about it. “Of course, nothing’s a hundred percent. Every style has a counter. But it’s good to have options. Rubber guard [Eddie’s style] doesn’t work every time. It’s like a punch combination that doesn’t work—you don’t abandon it. Go back to it. Set it up differently.”
The only reliable indicator of future success in MMA has always been the quality of training partners. You needed good guys around you to perform at a high level. You need killers “in the room,” as Gable would have it. The best fighters in MMA nearly always come from the best camps, drawn together to push each other. Liborio was well aware of it.
“The victory is never yours, it’s the teams, it’s everybody. The boxing coach, the training partners, the guy who sets up the training schedules and buys the tickets. It helps to have a big gym, with a lot of big name fighters, because you can get them fights on many cards. I can say to promoters if you want Jeff Monson you need this guy on the undercard.”
On our last day together, Liborio said something that really stuck with me.
“Maturity is a big part of success in fighting, because it means you understand the game—that losing is part of the game. It doesn’t mean to let yourself get conquered, but to know that you can win again, at the right time you can be great. The key to doing well in competition is to
.” Liborio holds the word reverentially in his mouth, emphasizing with his face and body. “
you can lose, you can not perform. Take this big bag of rocks out of your backpack, take the pressure off, and you’ll do better. Once you understand that, man, you can do well.”
At the ATT gym I rolled with Chainsaw Charles and had the familiar feeling of helplessness. You can feel when the guy you’re rolling with is too good for you to threaten, and vice versa. I held my own for a while, but when he wanted to he took me out of my depth, into places where my knowledge was surfeit. Do I grab that ankle? Do I make space with my shoulder? He tapped me pretty quickly. And then I watch him with Liborio, and Liborio is moving at maybe half speed and he’s dominating and frustrating Charles. I’m used to the feeling, but for good grapplers to run into great ones is particularly frustrating and hard on the ego. Charles has a bread-and-butter move that works on everyone but, when he tries it on Liborio, Liborio takes his back, time and again. The deeper knowledge leads to far deeper anticipation. Liborio knows where Charles is going and lets him go there, but he makes it much worse for him when he gets there. Charles’s sense of his ability is a little offended, but he just shakes his head and asks Liborio about it at length.
Liborio discusses the problems with favorite moves. “Often you have a guy, and he does something that’s very consistent. He has one great takedown that he always does and he gets everybody with it. In his gym. In a different environment, a new, bigger gym, where he can’t take guys down with it, he breaks mentally. In a fight it’s just like that.”
Liborio went on to the flip side of the problem. “You can be in a fight and you get a chance for an armbar. Now, the guys you train with are all good black belts and they never give you the armbar, you never get it, but you can’t skip drilling the armbar because you might get it in a fight. It has to be in the arsenal.”
Marcelo Garcia is the latest incarnation of the iconic martial artist, the smaller, unassuming, nondescript man who comes out of nowhere to defeat his opponents with ease. I watched him roll with a former judo Olympian who’s built like a bodybuilder and must weigh more than two hundred pounds. The judo guy spent the whole five minutes running for his life, standing up and leaping out of reach, backing off, playing like he was going to engage but never engaging. It’s the only way to survive with Marcelo.
As with the movie
about the greatest boxer of all time, Muhammad Ali, there’s something lacking in writing about Marcelo Garcia. The fictional film with Will Smith playing Ali was good, until the fights start—then it falls apart. Because the whole point of Ali was the way he fought, the way he moved. That a big man could be so graceful, so fluid—it’s entrancing to watch. It’s beautiful to watch him fight. I could watch Ali shadowbox for an hour. I often thought they should have just cut to real fight footage in the movie, because Ali as a myth and a man doesn’t really make any sense unless you watch him move, unless you see him fight.
Marcelo is something like that. You have to watch him roll to appreciate him. I’m not saying he’s some mysterious Jedi knight who does magical things—although at times it appears that way. Like all great jiu-jitsu players, Marcelo does the basic things extremely well, nearly unstoppably. He does the basic things to the best guys in the world. He took Renzo Gracie’s back for ten minutes in Abu Dhabi—something you wouldn’t have thought possible.
I remembered what Mike C had said about Marcelo, the excited look in his eyes when I pressed him about it.
“He’s all he’s cracked up to be. I never had a chance. It was embarrassing because a lot of people at the seminar were watching, and they knew I fought in the IFL. Then I watched him do the same thing to everyone else. You couldn’t tell who was a white belt and who was a black belt—he made everybody look like a beginner.”
I asked Mike to analyze Marcelo’s game as best he could. Mike thought about it, and then he slowly answered, “He’s so dedicated. He can think so far ahead and he never settles into a position. He’s always moving on you, forcing you into transitions. People don’t realize you have to be in great shape to keep up with him on the mat, and he’ll run you out of gas in a minute. People are used to getting into a position and sort of thinking, like closed guard or half-guard. But Marcelo is gone, he’s attacking, and by the time you get there it’s too late. He’s under you sweeping, he’s arm dragging, he’s x-guard sweeping you. He never stops. I was waiting for my chance to try something. He’s a nightmare—you have to keep up his pace to even have a chance.”
One of the few things I had learned for my no-
game was that conditioning could make up for a lot. Most of the guys I roll with are much better than me, but sometimes I can just keep moving, squirming and scrambling, and make things difficult for good guys. Especially in a bad position you have to become a perpetual motion machine.
“He started out in ’03 with arm drags and x-guard sweeps, and he put them on the map, he dominated with those. Now people start figuring that out, he comes along and he’s hitting crazy guillotines from every position. He has a whole series of back attacks. I’ve been following his DVD series. I’ve got all four sets.”
Mike is talking about the common practice of famous guys putting together instructional DVDs as a way of making money. It’s the old-school way to learn MMA, to buy DVDs and study your heroes, to go to seminars.
“While you’re learning what he’s BEEN doing, the old stuff, he’s pulling out new stuff. Stuff people haven’t seen, now he’s got so many ways to get an omoplata and a guillotine and a crucifix, they are the big things his latest set focused on. There were three or four DVDs on the omoplata alone, I didn’t realize there were so many variations. He’s revolutionized different positions. While you’re trying to figure out what he did, he’s moved on to two and three more positions. He had everything mapped out in his head already.
“Last time I rolled with him, it was all new crazy shit I’d never seen. He tapped me three times with the same move, and I can’t even figure out what it was. I thought it was a fluke at first. Then I saw some pictures, and he taught it the next day at the seminar: an omoplata with one leg to finish, the monoplata. I knew what it was and thought, Oh he’s not getting me with this, so I countered but he shifted to a variation of the triangle armbar, and it was crazy. I had nowhere to go. Now I do it at our gym and blow people’s minds. They make me show them what it was, because it’s a wild thing. And I’d watched all his DVDs and his matches and never seen it.
“He’s not strong or superfast—he’s got solid athleticism in all areas. His mind is better. He causes scrambles, but it’s all calculated, his mind moves so fast he KNOWS what you’re going to try and do. He knows your options. He’s a solid athlete, but its not that. He causes scrambles and causes you to think when he already knows what’s going on. You’re moving so fast without thinking that you walk right into stuff. He caught me with something three times and I should have figured it out. But he makes everything happen so fast, from different angles and different positions. You don’t figure it’s the same move. You think you’re doing good and then you’re tapping. There were times when he had me in stuff and I was still fighting—I didn’t even realize he had me. I didn’t know I was in a submission. He was just holding me.”
It all makes Mike laugh.
“I wouldn’t have thought anybody his size could tap me the way he taps me. The highlight of me rolling with him was I almost got hold of his leg and put his back on the ground.” Mike laughed again. “I almost got to half-guard. He’s like a ball, when you try to put him on his back, he never settles for a position. He’s always got his legs in, elevating, working under you. I’ve never seen him in closed guard looking for something. He’s always moving, causing scrambles. He’s the king of scrambles.”
Marcelo is also known as not only the nicest guy in the game, but he is jokingly referred to as maybe the nicest guy on earth. So many fighters and jiu-jitsu guys I talked to confided in me that Marcelo was their best friend that it became comical. Everybody is his best friend. From the first time I met him he lived up to that billing, smiling, gracious, warm, and sincerely interested in what I was trying to do. He’s got a round face, wreathed in smiles, and narrow eyes.
I am a little in awe of Marcelo, and some of that admittedly comes from my inexperience. I’m a low-level grappler and when I see what he does to the high-level guys I find it a little incredible.
So here I was, finally sitting down to lunch with Marcelo, and as we started talking he wanted to make one thing very clear in his thick Brazilian accent: he’s not so special.
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