When Ricardo Liborio’s youngest daughter was 1½ years old, she spent three months in the hospital and 15 days in the intensive care unit. Doctors discovered that the soft part of her head had fused together before her brain was fully developed. As her brain developed, it compressed the optic nerve against the skull, which left her permanently blind.
Ricardo’s daughter endured two complicated brain surgeries, with doctors breaking open her skull to allow room for her brain to grow. After the second surgery, she started having seizures.
“It was a rough time,” Ricardo said. “I have two pictures in my wallet from when we were in the ICU and my wife and I had to learn to sleep in the chairs. Every time something goes wrong in life, I think about that time. It gives me perspective.”
Ricardo recalled being in the cafeteria of the Miami Children’s Hospital’s neurology wing at 2:00 in the morning with three other fathers.
“I talked to these guys every night for three months,” Ricardo said. “I was worried that my daughter was going to be blind, but all three of their kids had brain cancer. Two of them died, and I felt so sorry for their families, but it gave me perspective. My daughter was blind, but when you see what I saw, you think, ‘This sucks,’ but you lived through it.”
This experience was the toughest challenge in Ricardo’s life, but it was through Jiu-Jitsu that he learned how to cope with this kind of adversity.
Ricardo Liborio is a black belt under Carlson Gracie. He was a gold medalist at the first World Jiu-Jitsu Championships in Brazil, and he won an Abu Dhabi Combat Club World Championship Superfight. Ricardo is a founder of two of the most successful mixed martial teams in history—Brazilian Top Team and American Top Team. He was also a coach in the Ultimate Fighter reality television show.
“Enduring your own pain is one thing,” Ricardo said, “but when something happens to your family, that hits you at a different level. I lived through that terrible time when I learned that my daughter was blind. I didn’t know what to do, but I thought a lot about what I learned from Carlson and competition.
“There will be setbacks, there will be walls, and there will be bumps in the road. There is no way you’re going to pass through life without facing adversity. Through competition I realized that the most important thing is to keep going. You don’t have to like it, but you can’t quit.”
Ricardo broke a rib while fighting in one of the ADCC tournaments. Doctors gave him a cortisone shot to help him continue, but he was still suffering.
“It was really too much pain, but I continued,” Ricardo said. “I was ashamed I lost, because I really thought I could have won. I took third place, but it was not good enough for me. I wanted to be the best, and I wanted to impress Carson, but I felt like I failed.
“Carlson could read people so well. He was like a skilled psychologist, and if he thought you could handle it, he would push, but if you were down, he knew just what to say. He knew when to push and when to pull.”
After Ricardo’s disappointing third-place finish at ADCC, Carlson supported Ricardo by reminding him that it was good he did not enjoy losing, but the only thing that mattered was that he kept going.
“Carlson was there for me even though I was wearing the bronze,” Ricardo said. “Of course, everybody enjoys first place, but that wasn’t what mattered. He cared more about the person than the championship. He had his own style—he could be tough—but he was also kind-hearted and loved to help people.”
Ricardo has made a career of training some of the best professional fighters in the world. In that business, there is a lot of pressure to focus on the winners and ignore everyone else.
“I’ve never been that kind of a coach.” Ricardo said. “I understand the pressure of professional teams. Not everyone is going to be a champion, but they are still beautiful people and I’m not going to quit on them.”
Ricardo explained that coaching is different from mentoring. With fight technology constantly evolving, there is no way any coach can keep up with all the latest techniques.
“The most important thing I learned from Carlson, which I’ve tried to mimic, is that you have to care,” Ricardo said. “Carlson was not the most technical fighter, but he created the right environment, and that’s the most important thing.”
That supportive environment allowed Ricardo to take risks that allowed him to grow.
“If you had a bad competition on the weekend, you come back on Monday and just keep working. That’s where you grow in martial arts,” he explained. “If you put everything into winning, and you lose, are you going to quit? Then what will you do when life gets tough? But you can develop a champion’s mentality, and that’s what will keep you going when you hit life’s darkest moments.”
After years of competition, Ricardo focused on coaching fighters. He was struggling with severe pain from injuries, and it was challenging to focus on his fighters while he was also competing. He needed to focus on one or the other.
“When I was coaching, I was dedicated to the business,” Ricardo said. “As you get older, you don’t think about competition as much as you think about being involved in something you enjoy. I started finding teaching more interesting than my own training, and I didn’t want to miss coaching my guys the next day because I was in pain from training. I took a lot of time away from competition, but I missed it so much.”
When Ricardo was almost 50, he received a call from ADCC, inviting him to fight in a superfight against Mario Sperry, his friend and former teammate from Brazilian Top Team.
“It was such an honor,” Ricardo said. “I know how good he is. He’s a beast. He’s a champion, but what’s the worst that could happen, I get submitted in 20 seconds? That would have been worth it because of the experience I had training for the fight.”
After 14 years since his last competition, Ricardo went to the doctor to help him manage his neck and back injuries. When he was physically ready, he took a year away from coaching to train for the match.
“I had to put my ego aside,” Ricardo said. “Every day I was training with guys half my age, and I got my ass beat, but it was really good for me. I was not doing it for the medals. I was there for the journey. I needed that to get myself healthy and motivated. It’s great that I won, but even if I had lost, it was worth spending time training with the guys. The brotherhood—it was so amazing. It was such a privilege.”
After that superfight, Ricardo moved on to the next chapter of his life.
“I am not in competition mode right now,” Ricardo said. “I’m not focused on medals, trophies, and winning. I respect that, and I was part of that world for a long time, but only 3 percent of martial arts students are competitors. What about the other 97 percent?
“Competition and trophies are really cool, but it gets much deeper than just a medal. I see Jiu-Jitsu as a tool that can help all people, no matter what race, gender, sexuality, or religion. Jiu-Jitsu is like therapy. It’s the new yoga. Jiu-Jitsu is the yoga for tough people.”
Ricardo is concerned that championships, medals, fame, and money receive more attention than the personal growth that comes from martial arts.
“I understand the fight business,” Ricardo said. “I was there since the beginning. I’m one of the few guys who was involved in the sport before it was called MMA. It was Vale Tudo and No Holds Barred. I lived in this circus for quite a while. I saw the shift as they kept squeezing lemons, trying to get more money and viewers out of the fighters.
“Everything revolves around how much attention you can get it. If you’re the worst of the worst character but you can trash talk, you’ll make more money, but at the same time you’ll inspire a whole generation of young people to mimic a blueprint that brings a worse society. That’s just not right.
“I understand that money is dictating the shift. Money follows what the people support, but that is the opposite of what I believe the martial arts are about. How is it going to be with a community full of aggressive trash-talking gangs? I’m not saying we should raise a bunch of pussies, but the purpose of martial arts is self-defense. You get yourself ready for anything, but that doesn’t mean you should become an aggressive bully.”
Ricardo believes the 97 percent will receive more benefit from martial arts than the 3 percent. The non-athlete who takes up Jiu-Jitsu will experience more growth in confidence and in physical and mental health than the champion does when he wins the next tournament.
“It’s therapeutic every time you are preparing to become a better self tomorrow,” Ricardo said. “If you’re living through a storm in your mind, when you step into a Jiu-Jitsu session, you stop thinking. The problem is when people use drinking, drugs, and sex as a tool to escape. I’m not a saint either, but there’s healthier ways to take a break.”
To expand the reach of the benefits of Jiu-Jitsu, Ricardo is heading up a new program at the University of Central Florida.
“I’m the head Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu coach at UCF,” Ricardo said. “I think I’m teaching the first two-credit Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu college course. UCF is the second-largest university in the United States, with 66,000 kids.”
With that university’s large population, there is an opportunity to touch a lot of people through the benefits of Jiu-Jitsu.
“We are creating a holistic curriculum,” Ricardo said. “The students are learning about Brazil, Carlson Gracie, and some of the Jiu-Jitsu culture. We are going to have music and barbecues. I’m trying to pass some of my culture to the American kids in the universities. This is my mission today. It’s something I’m good at, and I think I can contribute so much. The reality is, the more people you can help create healthy habits, the better our world becomes. I know that sounds like bullshit, but it’s not. I really, truly think this way.”
The success of this program will come from creating the right atmosphere.
“It’s got to be a good environment,” Ricardo said. “Although competition taught me a lot of things, it’s not just about competing. It’s about learning character and a moral code. Character development comes from being part of a good environment that has meaning. That environment requires the right person who welcomes you into the sport and cares about you as a person instead of your medals.”
Ricardo does not measure success by his finances, but rather by the impact he can have on people through Jiu-Jitsu.
“Success comes from the amount of people I can touch and make feel better about themselves,” Ricardo said. “I love the martial arts. , so if I can give that to others, I will be successful.
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