Mario “Zen Machine” Sperry — Inside the Mind of a Legendary Fighter

Mario-sperry-bjjMario Sperry climbed into the Pride FC ring and gazed across the mat at Murillo “Ninja” Rua.

They were there to settle the tense and long standing rivalry between Brazilian Top Team and Chute Boxe Academy.

Mario turned to the audience with a wide smile and raised his arms in the air as the 19,000 cheering fans thundered with approval.

The energy at Pride is beautiful, man,” Mario said. “That’s something I’m going to miss for the rest of my life. I still feel shivers.”

Within seconds after the referee started the fight, the two combatants started trading violent punches until Mario caught one in the jaw.

For a split second, Mario was knocked out and collapsed to his knees.

Unbelievably, Mario fought his way back up, put Ninja in an upper body clinch and drove him across the ring as their battle continued.

Mario was dizzy the entire twenty minutes of the back and forth war which he calls the highlight fight of his career.

Mario Sperry is a pioneer and legend in the Jiu-Jitsu and Mixed Martial Arts community.

Mario was the first fighter in history to submit a Gracie in competition when he finished Royler Gracie with a clock choke. Mario is a three time World BJJ champion, two time ADCC World champion and won three ADCC super-fight championships. Mario’s mixed martial arts record spans thirteen wins and only three losses

Mario grew up in Brazil, which is a beautiful country, but the streets are tough. Everyone has to fend for themselves so Jiu-Jitsu is part of the culture.

When Mario was a boy, his mother thought there was something wrong because he could not sit still. She had Mario checked by a doctor who diagnosed him as a kid with a lot of energy. The doctor prescribed martial arts.

At five years old, Mario started Judo and Jiu-Jitsu classes which set him on course for a career as a professional fighter.

Mario stuck with Jiu-Jitsu most of his childhood except for breaks for swimming, water polo, volleyball and gymnastics. He excelled in every sport and won championships in the water sports.

Mario’s father was a competitive swimmer, so sports and a healthy lifestyle were an important part of his childhood.

Mario’s family was his greatest influence and he credits his father, mother and grandfather for molding the values that forged him into a championship fighter.

He grew up in a military family that raised him with strict discipline. Mario’s father was the kind of guy that would wake Mario early on Sunday mornings.

A good man does not sleep in. You can sleep in on the street, but not in my house,” Mario’s father told him. “And make your bed before you leave.”

Now that Mario is raising his own kids, he realizes finding the correct balance of discipline is difficult, but he would rather error on the side of too much.

I’ve never heard of people failing in life from too much discipline.”

Mario said people who lack discipline are the ones who struggle in life.

Mario spent five years attending a difficult military school and then went to the University of Rio de Janeiro to earn a degree in economics.

During college, Mario dominated Jiu-Jitsu competitions and began earning his reputation. He went ten years without ever losing a match or having a point scored against him.

His Jiu-Jitsu success led to an offer to fight in MMA, but Mario was torn.

After college he started a job as an economist for a Exxon, so he had to choose between a stable career in economics and the risky life as a professional fighter.

Mario went to his father and received the advice he had heard many times. 

Do whatever you want, but do your best,” Mario’s father said. “If you decide to be a fighter, be the best fighter in the country.”

His father would not care if Mario became a gardener, as long as he became the best gardener in town.

Mario dominated that first MMA fight and it launched his professional fighting career.

When Mario was 24 years old, he moved to Southern Brazil to open a gym and make a living teaching while training for his fights. He moved in with his grandfather who gave Mario a place to live while starting his business.

His Grandfather, “The General,” was also a strict military man with a unique way of showing love.

He was a tough guy,” Mario said. “If he didn’t like you he treated you very well.”

The General was 94 years old when he told Mario he was going to pass away.

I’m tired,” The General said. “I want to meet your grandmother.”

Come on Granddad,” Mario said. “You can’t leave. I need your help.”

The General looked at Mario and said, “You mother fucker. You are 220 pounds. You’re a fighter. You’re a champion. Go fuck yourself. Go do your shit. You don’t need me anymore.”

The General loved Mario and gave him everything he needed, he just did it in a tough way to make Mario stronger. Mario’s entire family was tough, but supportive, which is what forged his mental strength.

Many have said that Mario is a technical fighter, but he denies it. Instead, he was always physically and mentally prepared to push the pace of the fight.

I was best at imposing my strategy.” Mario said. “I would always push the guy so he would end up getting tired. Then I looked technical.”

Mario compared himself to a Volkswagen fighting a Ferrari. The fancy sports car looks good, but if it runs out of gas, Mario is going to pass in the Volkswagen.

Mario thrives on pushing his body to the limit.

I would never give up,” Mario said. “If you want my blood, you can have it, but not until the end of the fight.”

That is how he earned the nickname “Zen Machine.”

I don’t go to the fight to fight,” Mario said. “I go there to take what is already mine. The fight is easy. The training is the hard part.”

Mario said that ego can come with a negative connotation, but it is important to be confident in your abilities. 

I prepare my mind to believe that I deserve more than you,” Mario said. “I’m better than you in that moment because I trained more than you.”

Mario had a lot of turn-overs in Jiu-Jitsu with guys he thought were higher skilled, but Mario believed he was always better prepared mentally.

You need to have a strong ego in a sense that you will not accept a loss,” Mario said. “I could not accept losing because in my mind, he could not have trained more than I did.”

During the fight, Mario has a different mindset than when the fight is over. He has no problem losing and he pointed out that his favorite fight was his loss to Ninja.

I never fought to prove anything to anyone,” Mario said. “I fought to prove that I could be better than I was before.”

Mario felt blessed by his few losses and used them as an opportunity to learn from his mistakes.

Everything that happens is my fault,” Mario said. “No blaming God or the referee. If you submit the guy there are no chances left to the judges.”

He has seen a lot of fighters crumble after a loss and they lose their will to fight.

After I became world champion, I would go to the gym and expose myself,” Mario said. “Blue belts, purple belts, and brown belts would tap me. No problem. We’re training. I’m developing my skills.”

Losing is part of the lesson that Jiu-Jitsu has taught Mario about life.

Every morning you wake up and get out of bed you’re fighting against yourself,” Mario said. “You fight to maintain your family and your business. It’s not easy. It’s a battle. You’re fighting to survive.”

That’s what fighting gave to me,” Mario said. “It showed me that everything I want in life, I’ve gotta fight for it.”

That fight comes from desire, which Mario says is one of the three things that lead to becoming the best – desire, talent, and discipline.

Mario explained that some people are born with talent. You either have it or you do not.

The only thing that beats talent is discipline,” Mario said. “But if you have talent and discipline together, you’re going to be hard to beat.”

Mario said there is a saying in Brazil that “You can’t teach an old parrot to speak,” which means that if you are not pushed as a kid, you will grow up to be soft without discipline.

This is why Mario becomes passionate when he brings up his frustration with society’s shift towards socialism.

Your feelings are hurt?” Mario asked. “So what, the political correctness is bullshit, man. It’s for the weak, because the weak don’t have the guts to do anything for themselves.”

Ninety-eight percent of those guys are fat, weak and unsuccessful,” Mario said. “They hate success and they hate people who succeed.”

Mario warned that you have to be suspicious when you see something that looks easy.

Every single thing I’ve gotten in life was hard to get,” Mario said. “If you have two paths to choose from, take the hardest one.”

At forty-nine years old, Mario is still putting in the hard work. He trains every day at the gym, but he admits that age holds him back.

I saw guys were getting better,” Mario said.  “It was very hard for me when I realized I could no longer be the best. I got frustrated seeing people fighting and I couldn’t do the same thing.”

Mario moved from Brazil to Florida and retired from fighting, but later realized leaving the fight business was a mistake.

Today Mario can look back on his career with a clearer understanding of success.

Success is doing something you want to do, but you’re not quite sure it’s going to happen,” Mario said. “Success is not about reaching the goal, it’s about the journey.”

After some time away, Mario realized he had a gift and is now on a new journey.

Mario has a renewed passion for teaching and is setting up a Jiu-Jitsu school in Florida. He is also excited to give back to the sport and looks forward to working with guys fighting in the UFC.

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2 Replies to “Mario “Zen Machine” Sperry — Inside the Mind of a Legendary Fighter”

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and journey. Definitely worth sharing with younger people to gain confidence and self discipline especially appreciation for the martial arts collectively worldwide.

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