American Top Team

Pessimism is a type of cowardice. It is a way of giving in. Your typical fighter, being by definition a brave and vigorous individual, is also an optimistic one. A great deal of his energy comes from hope. He runs on faith. It might be faith in his physical strength or his conditioning or the power of his will. Maybe it is faith in his trainer or coach or team. Very often, it is faith of a religious nature. He feels that no matter how the odds seem stacked against him, once he enters the arena unseen forces will come to his aid. He feels his success and exceptional physical abilities are gifts from above. It is not uncommon for a fighter to feel the presence of loved ones long departed with him in the ring, giving him strength and power as he battles. Occasionally, there exists a faith in the superiority of a particular art or discipline. Rickson Gracie, for example, has confidence in his family’s style of Jiu-Jitsu that borders on mystical. There is a long list of things a fighter can and will have faith in. Hope is a vital component of his psychology. To exist in the brutal world he inhabits, he must be able to believe.

 

Ricardo Liborio – fighter, teacher, coach, father figure, entrepreneur, cheerleader, visionary, salesman, you name it – leads me on a whistle stop tour of the 20,000 square foot American Top Team training facility in Coconut Creek Florida. Liborio is a curious combination of good old American drive and Latin cool. Imagine a cross between Antonio Banderas and Anthony Robbins. He is a bundle of constant motion and is ever cheerful. And why shouldn’t he be? He made it big. Five years ago, Liborio, who previously made waves as one of the founders of Brazilian Top Team, decided that it was time to seek his fortune in the United States. He met top hotel executive and MMA aficionado Dan Lambert through a mutual friend and a partnership was born.

Lambert would provide the financial backing and business know-how, and Liborio would provide the fighting knowledge and sweat equity. The product of this auspicious pairing was American Top Team. The nucleus of the new team was formed by a cadre of Brazilian fighters that followed Liborio north to the Promised Land.

 

Over the last four years, ATT (as it is commonly known) has taken the mixed martial arts world by storm. Today, in addition to the impressive main gym in Coconut Creek, there are seventeen smaller franchises and even more gyms that subscribe to the training system Liborio devised.

 

ATT is all about inclusion. If other gyms are sometimes intimidating, at ATT you’re welcome as long as you work hard, help the team, and buy into the mindset Liborio preaches. The atmosphere is warm and laid back. Fighters are polite to each other and deferential to the coaches. Everyone, whether he is a star or just starting out, is required to show respect and bow upon entering and exiting the mat. In a place of prominence on the wall, in the middle of a line of framed championship belts won by the team, is a sign that reads:

 

PRINCIPLES OF A BLACK BELT

Self-Control

Modesty

Courtesy

Integrity

Perseverance

Indomitable Spirit

 

Liborio refers to the fighters training at the facility as his students. And the fighters themselves call ATT not a gym or a team but a school. In addition to the Brazilians,

ATT has a flourishing and ever-replenishing crop of young and hungry fighters working hard for their shot. For the stars, the big enchilada is a world title shot and professional recognition as being the best. For the guys just breaking in, the dream is to make your bones fighting in the smaller leagues before getting signed by a larger promotion like HDNet Fights, BodogFIGHT, EliteXC, M-1, or the granddaddy of them all, the UFC.

 

While ATT has yet to produce a superstar, the team is remarkable in the breadth of talent it has created. Incredibly, Jeff Monson, Din Thomas, JZ Calvacanti, Thiago Alves, Marcus Aurelio, Yves Edwards, Antonio Silva, Denis Kang, Benji Radach, and many, many, more all call ATT or one of its affiliates home.

 

I once heard Pat Miletich say that he became a champion because his back had been against a wall and he had no other choice. There was no alternative for him but success in the ring. Miletich was driven by the sort of desperation that propels many fighters. But I don’t think it is desperation that brought any of these men to ATT. Most of them are college educated, and hardly any of the newer guys support themselves solely by fighting. All of them have day jobs. In other words, they have alternatives. They are here because they bought into the ATT vision. They are here because of Liborio.

 

****GOLIATH PROBABLY LOOKED LIKE THIS****

The joke is that practice starts at 12:00 o’clock sharp, Brazilian time. Which means 12:30ish. The remark is a swipe at the team’s large Brazilian contingent and their less than stringent sense of punctuality. Nevertheless, the first person to show up for practice is none other than the ATT’s resident Brazilian Man Mountain, Antonio “Pezao” Silva.

 

He is 6’4” but seems much larger. When I first see him, the impression I get is not so much one of size, but of mass. His head, his hands, and his feet are, to use Liborio’s favorite descriptive term for Silva, humungous. Silva’s great size is the result of an excess of growth hormone, caused by a tumor on his thyroid. He recently had the tumor removed and has since lost about forty pounds. He is now actually under the 265-pound weight limit. It amazes me that this mammoth man can fight in the same weight class as Randy Couture. It doesn’t seem fair to Couture.

 

Silva is something of an anomaly among giants, as he possesses a remarkable amount of dexterity and coordination to go with his size and raw power. He is not the lumbering brute you might expect. It is a remarkable experience to meet him. With his huge brooding face and his almost supernatural proportions, there is something mythic in the way he looks, something unsettling and fantastic. Whoever the hulks were back in the dawn of prehistory, that frightened our primitive ancestors and gave rise to legendary tales of giants and ogres, probably looked something like this.

 

The buzz around the gym is that Gary Shaw of Elite XC wants to make Silva a star. Shaw, an old boxing promoter, knows the type of money crowds will pay to see a huge man who can fight. The rumor is that Silva’s next opponent will be Englishman James Thompson, a fellow colossus, but one who doesn’t share Silva’s natural athleticism or dexterity. If they fight, Silva should destroy him.

 

When he spars, he thuds his huge hands against his opponents with the careful, fluid aggression of a father teaching his little son how to fight; hitting him not hard enough to hurt him, but treating him just rough enough to make him tough. Sometimes he can’t play soft enough, like when he nearly takes fellow fighter Carmelo Marrero’s head off with a knee. Carmelo drops like a man shot, but he’s tough and immediately bounces back up, sporting a deep cut on his chin. Silva quickly drapes a massive conciliatory arm over Carmelo’s shoulder. There are no hard feelings, but the sparring session is over.

 

Silva has a record of 9-1. His only loss was a disputed one to Eric Pele. Other than that, he has stopped everyone, and only two of his victims have made it past the first round. Seeing him in person, I understand why Liborio and Gary Shaw are so excited. With his size and ability to move and fight on the ground, he will create big problems for anyone he faces, and that includes Fedor Emelianenko.

 

The big man seems shy and cautious when I meet him. Whether this is because of the language barrier or sensitivity over his appearance, I don’t know. But when he tells me in his broken English that his nickname “Pezao” means Bigfoot, there is a hint of pride in the unnaturally low rumble of his voice.

 

**ROLLING**

 

The greatest compliment you can pay a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighter is to say that he is technical. To be technical is to depend more on your mastery of the techniques of Jiu-Jitsu than on your bodily advantages. To be technical, as FIGHT! photographer and BJJ

brown belt Paul Thatcher told me, is to value the cerebral over the physical.

 

Liborio is very technical. As a competitor, technical proficiency was his hallmark. When Liborio won the prestigious Mundial’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu World Championships back in 1996, he was also awarded the medal for most technical fi ghter. A high honor. When he instructs his fighters, he is meticulous and deliberate. He makes them perform the same maneuvers over and over until they get them just right. Sometimes he will correct very small inaccuracies in his fighter’s techniques. Stopping them, at times, to move someone’s hand just a few inches.

 

A few inches are all it takes. Later in the day I watch the team roll, or grapple and spar at full or close to full speed. Up and comer Micah Miller is rolling with another fighter who is much bigger than he is. The fighter seems to be a lot stronger than Micah, and has caught him in a guillotine choke, a sort of front face lock. I can tell the guy is inexperienced because he doesn’t quite have it sunk in correctly. Micah’s chin is tucked toward his shoulder protecting his neck. Micah’s opponent makes the rookie mistake of trying to force the move through, and after about a minute of attempting to squeeze Miller’s head off, he is exhausted. Micah pops his head out, sweeps the guy, and mounts him. Had it been a real match, the end would have been near for the man on the bottom.

 

“You can sometimes muscle a guy, if you are very strong. But what happens when you come up against someone who is stronger than you are?” Liborio explained to me. “Technique must come first.”

 

MMA is constantly changing and evolving, so in order to stay ahead of the curve Liborio tells me that he is continually doing research. When I ask how exactly he does that, he says it is by watching fights. Hundreds and hundreds of fi ghts. “I am always watching them. Stopping them, rewinding them, slowing them down. I am looking for what moves work and which ones don’t. I’m interested in the physiology of the moves.”

 

Danelio Injo, a Brazilian grappler who has recently joined the team, likened Jiu-Jitsu to Chess and said that it was by a series of incremental advantages that you defeat your opponent. “You must take it piece by piece, move by move.” He said as he moved imaginary Chess pieces in the air.

 

I saw this in action watching Micah’s older brother Cole Miller roll that day. At 6’1” and fighting in the 155-pound weight division, Cole has the sort of long wiry physique that BJJ is made for. Because of his build, he is rarely the strongest man in the ring but even from his back, he is always threatening his opponent somewhere. I watch him grapevine his impossibly snaky legs around his opponent’s knees, threatening to sweep him or transition to a leg lock. When his opponent moves to counter, he immediately goes for a kimura arm lock that then becomes a guillotine, which he sinks in and uses to tap his opponent out. He was probably planning for the guillotine all along.

 

The sort of hyperactive Jiu-Jitsu game that Cole is practicing, and which has been used to great effect by such other stars as Nick and Nathan Diaz and Diego Sanchez, has replaced the passive “lay and pray” closed guard defense that Royce Gracie made famous back in the 90’s. Liborio tells me that the old way is a thing of the past. Other forms of grappling have adjusted and developed ways of inflicting so much damage from inside the guard that it is too dangerous to sit in it. But also, Liborio says, “The rules have changed. Even if a guy isn’t passing the guard or doing any damage, if nothing is happening, they’ll stand them up.” While purists might contend that this rule change unfairly punishes Jiu-Jitsu players in favor of wrestlers and strikers, it was necessary for the entertainment value of the sport.

 

If Royce Gracie was the face of BJJ in the 90s, fi ghters like Cole Miller and what he’s learning at ATT represent what’s next. When I speak to Cole, he tells me that he is a martial artist first and a fighter second. He says he is most interested in creating a legacy.

He wants to accumulate as much knowledge as possible to pass on to his brother and others in his family. He admits that his brother Micah, with whom he seems very close, is the superior athlete.

 

“But I …” he continues with a knowing look, “… have the better mind for the sport.”

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