No stranger to controversy, Mario Sperry has always followed his heart and spoken his mind throughout his esteemed BJJ and MMA careers, both as a competitor and coach. After all, it was the “Zen Machine” along with fellow Carlson Gracie black belts Ricardo Liborio, Murilo Bustamante and “Bebeo” Duarte who left the famous “Arrebentacao” team to start the famed Brazilian Top Team (BTT) which enjoyed great success on the biggest stages in MMA between 2000 and 2007.
Afterwards, Sperry also took on the challenge as head coach of The Blackzilians MMA team in Florida, which at the time included top ranked fighters such as Rashad Evans, Alistair Overeem, and Eddie Alvarez. Unfortunately the partnership did not last long, as Sperry returned to Brazil to tend to his gym and other businesses. But Sperry says he will always reflect fondly on the opportunity to work with such gifted athletes.
“I am going to miss everyone in Florida,” explains the fifth-degree BJJ black belt, who became the first person to submit a Gracie when he defeated Royler Gracie in 1998. “I do have a gym in Brazil. Nevertheless, I came back to take care of my main business – I represent a foreign, off shore helicopter company in Brazil. They (The Blackzilians) have so much talent from different countries and different styles, training on the same mat. It was an everyday learning opportunity for me. I learned a lot of techniques from their unique styles. I had access not just to techniques, but also to diverse ways of training. So my knowledge on how to apply specific training over a planned strategy increased drastically. And that is what I love to do: create strategies and training plans.”
Sperry enjoyed a successful MMA career and competed in PRIDE FC alongside his BTT pupils, the Nogueira brothers, Paulo Filho, Ricardo Arona and Bustamante, so he knows, first-hand, the adaptation that a gifted BJJ athlete must make in order to garner success in MMA.
“The most important thing is to understand that MMA is a totally different sport – it has its own rules and most of the referees do not understand how to quantify points in a ground game environment. In MMA, there are three ground game priorities: 1. Control, 2. Damage and 3. Submission,” explains Sperry, who captured ADCC titles in 1998 in both the Absolute and 99kg divisions. “If you have control, you may be able to damage your opponent. If you can control and damage him, you will most likely have a chance to get a submission. Without control, you have nothing! If you are on top you have to follow these three rules in order. But if you end up on the floor with your back against the mat, I recommend you stand up as soon as possible and avoid being controlled because MMA judging doesn’t reward BJJ techniques off your back nearly as much as top control and ground-and-pound.”
Sperry hears and acknowledges much of the criticism from BJJ enthusiasts and athletes who feel that jiu-jitsu techniques are not sufficiently accredited within the MMA judging criteria. As MMA fighters have continued to evolve in all aspects of the game, Sperry believes that it has become much more difficult for grapplers to impose their advantage in the cage.
“With MMA getting more and more professional, the level of competition has increased dramatically. Back in the Pride days, only the Brazilians could fully understand the ground game and we had a major advantage. Not any more. Now everyone is training in all aspects of the game. Submissions are very complex and they require lots of training. Ground-and-pound is easier to convince the judges and appear dominant in an MMA fight.”
Sperry admires the remarkable strides American BJJ athletes have made over the years, especially those who have seamlessly combined high-level grappling with the striking arts.
“I’m a really big fan of the Diaz brothers. I love their style. They have outstanding BJJ and, combined with their boxing skills, they are very dangerous. The U.S. now has a lot of great grapplers, and most of them did not come from a jiu-jitsu background. Nevertheless, their understanding about all the fighting aspects creates a scenario where they can use their grappling knowledge very well. Jon Jones is a great example of such a fighter.”
While he has his other business pursuits, Sperry has never lost the hunger to train and help his pupils to develop their ground games for both BJJ and MMA. He is a big believer that practicing and drilling techniques over and over is essential for someone who wants to progress and improve their game.
“I like to focus on drills a lot. Repetition is an excellent way to understand and apply techniques. Moreover, you can have technical training, push your cardio and avoid injuries. Rolling is used in the next stage only once you fully understand the position details and how to apply them in real situations.”
Words by David Abbou
Photos Courtesy of Gameness Sports