This is a guest post by Ben Thapa aka Tree Frog of the BE grappling team.
For a smaller guy, Marcos da Matta has done big things.
The 38 year old instructor to ATT stars like Thiago Alves, Brad Pickett, Rich Attonito and Gleison Tibau has amassed an 8-1 record in MMA and won gold in the Brazilian nationals and a silver medal at the Worlds in 2000.
Marcos recently sat down with me for almost an hour and spoke at length of his beginnings in Copacabana, Brazil, his life as an elite competitor and his experiences and thoughts as an American Top Team instructor and gym owner. He even gave his thoughts on the current competition stars of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
BT: Could you give us a bit of background on who you started your fight career with and how you ended up at ATT?
Marcos da Matta: I started off with Carlson Gracie. Carlson was a friend. He met me when I was 11 or 12 on the Copacabana beach. I used to play beach soccer and football with my feet and he was always bothering me saying, "Come on, let's train! You need to come to my gym and train!" I was like, "You know what Carlson? I don't like fighting." Just like any other Brazilian kid, I wanted to be a soccer player, you know?
Then one day I decided to just go because this guy was not going to stop bothering me. I went there and stayed there for a week or two to prove to him that I don't like it and then I was going to go back to my beach soccer and obviously, 24 years later, I'm here in the States and teaching at American Top Team. Carlson was always a great instructor. I started out with him in 1987 and I was with him until 2000 when we had the whole split between Carlson Gracie and Brazilian Top Team. I went to Brazilian Top Team with Ricardo Liborio and Amaury Bitetti.
For those who are coming to this as new to Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Ricardo Liborio and Amaury Bitetti are two of the very best to have ever competed in the sport. They had their prime around the turn of the millennium, with multiple Brazilian, World and ADCC medals being won from about 1996 to 2000. This is around the same time Marcos went on his competition tear and added to that collection of impressive hardware. The creation of ATT in 2001 forced them from the competition circuit, but immediately established them as one of the premier collectives of combat sports training.
BT: Were you at Brazilian Top Team with the Nogueira brothers, Demian Maia and the others?
Marcos: Yeah, the Nogueira brothers, they came to Brazilian Top Team through de la Riva, which was pretty much their instructor, but he didn't have any mixed martial arts training at his gym - just jiu-jitsu. He was a very close friend and he's a Carlson Gracie black belt. He said, ‘I'm gonna hand to you guys, those two brothers because they want experience in mixed martial arts and I want them to be the best in the world and I can't provide the correct training.' So that's when they hooked up with us at Brazilian Top Team and that was the beginning of the Nogueira brothers era.
BT: I've got some questions about Liborio. I've heard some great things about him but he's like a mystery to most people. I was wondering, on what level do you consider Liborio? Is he a teacher? What's his area of expertise?
Marcos: I think that Liborio, first of all, as a fighter, as a Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner, he's unbelievable. I never seen anyone doing the things he does at the gym against guys like [Ricardo] Arona, Murilo [Bustamante] himself, Jeff Monson. I can name so many high level guys that came to train with Liborio and they left the mat crying, some of them literally crying.
As a competitor, Liborio's amazing. Carlson used to say that he's the most talented student he ever had and that says a lot. As an instructor, he's also a very high level and phenomenal instructor. He's had many high level world champions under his belt. Arona was under his belt and some other Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champions as well. As a mixed martial arts trainer, I learned a lot from [Liborio]. He's kind of like my mentor. Even though right now he's kind of passed the torch to me a little bit, he will always be my master, he will always be there to help me out. He's been pretty much back at the gym to help everybody out whenever he can. Now he's a very busy man with all the affiliates and the programs that we have at American Top Team.
BT: Switching a bit to your training career, you're the instructor for many prominent mixed martial arts fighters and I was wondering, do you train with your fighters in a gi? Is that beneficial for MMA or do you train primarily in no-gi?
Marcos: If it was up to me, all of them, all my students would train with a gi because I think if you want to be good on the ground, there's only one martial art that's proven to be the best one and that's Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Brazilian jiu-jitsu is practiced with a gi. If you do no-gi, you're not practicing Brazilian jiu-jitsu. If you're doing no-gi, you're doing grappling, you're doing submission wrestling or whatever you want to call it but it's not Brazilian jiu-jitsu. In my opinion, the gi is what makes the difference between you being a technical fighter and you being a tough and hard to submit fighter.
I can prove what I'm trying to say. If you take the Abu Dhabi tournament, which is the most prestigious tournament for the no-gi grapplers in the world in the past 12 years, 95% of the winners are people that train daily with the gi. The only guy that actually doesn't train with a gi regularly and wins is Jeff Monson. I might be mistaken, maybe I'm forgetting one or two other competitors that won that don't train with a gi but basically, if you say Leo Vieira, if you say Royler Gracie, Rafael Mendes, all featherweights that won, they train with a gi on a regular basis. Marcello Garcia, Jean Jacque Machado, all these guys train with a gi. Even the heavyweights like Fabricio Werdum. All these guys train with a gi. There's a reason for that. The gi provides you the technique that you need.
He is generally right about the vast majority of ADCC winners being people who train both gi and no-gi grappling. However, in the early years of the ADCC, large wrestlers like Mark Kerr and judokas like Mach Sakurai had some considerable success. I'm not sure if the rules changed, the competition invites changed or if the game simply evolved past them, but since 2001, Jeff Monson and David Avellan are really the only consistent ADCC medal contenders to not have a BJJ- dominant background. Not bad for off the top of his head in the middle of an interview...
BT: When you say the technique, what specifically does the gi help MMA fighters with? My own thinking is that it helps for defense because there's a little bit of more avenues for attack but I'm not the expert that you are.
Marcos: Yeah, it provides more friction so it improves your defense and your escapes because when somebody holds you down with a gi, it's very hard to escape. Without a gi, it's different. You're all sweaty, maybe bloody and you'll be able to escape and not only that, it's to learn new positions that you can transition to the MMA game and I believe the gi is the answer.
What I do with my fighters, is that when they're off season, some of them train without the gi. For example, Rich Attonito trains without the gi regularly. Thiago Alves, I could perform a miracle and put the gi on him [Marcos is joking about Alves being a consistent no-gi grappler]. Gesias Cavalcante, who's not with me anymore, he used to train with a gi. With a bunch of the guys at ATT, what I would do is when they're off season, which means right after their fight, they would train with a gi. When it's close to the fight, we'll start mixing it up and training gi and no gi. Like three to four weeks out, they train only no-gi to get a little better.
One good example of doing that with me was Gleison Tibau. Gleison's been doing only gi with me and in the last fight [against Rafaello Oliveira], he changed his jiu-jitsu game a lot and he got the Submission of the Night. He did pretty good against Kurt Pellegrino as well. It's a process with people who aren't used to training with a gi. They put the gi and it's a little strange feeling but once you pass that wall, once you break that point, it's all better.
BT: I know that some people may not know this, but some of the best fighters in our sports have started out as pure Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners. One of my favorite matches ever is Minotauro Nogueira against Roleta Magalhaes in which Roleta gets out of a kneebar. We've seen Demian Maia do amazing things and I can't help but wonder why so many fighters these days choose to avoid the gi in jiu-jitsu and I'm also wondering about belt levels. Is that important at ATT or is everybody mixing and matching wrestling or things like that?
Marcos: It's kinda hard to give belts to people that don't train with the gi. If you want a belt, that means you use the gi. If you use your gi, it's ok but sometimes MMA fighters have such a busy schedule, they have to train wrestling, Muay Thai, boxing, doing their conditioning, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and it's kind of hard to make them train with the gi so we have two different types of training: the pro fighters training and the regular students training. Obviously the regular pro fighters Is the no-gi but some of them, they come and do the regular students classes so that's when they do the gi.
BT: Are you the video breakdown guy for ATT?
Marcos: Yes, for my fighters, I have so many fighters at American Top Team. We have probably currently close to 70 mixed martial arts fighters. I take care of some guys and Conan Silveira takes care of some other guys. So the people that I take care of, I watch all fighters from his opponents and I put a little bit of strategy together and I sit down with the striking coach and the wrestling coach and we all put everything together and we start putting a training camp down for each one of them so that's why I have to watch a lot of videos.
BT: I know you've rolled with some of the greats in the past, Carlson, Bitetti, Alvaro Romano and Liborio. Have you rolled with Marcelo Garcia?
Marcos: Yes, yes I did, unfortunately [laughs]. No, I'm just joking. Fortunately I had the chance to roll with him. He's unbelievable. He's very, very, very, very good.
BT: Can you pick out why he's so good? Is it just training or is he naturally gifted?
Marcos: I believe that Garcia has something that few people have. He's probably ahead of everybody in technique. Not everyone has a website that shows how you train, what you're gonna do in competition and having the whole training videos available. If you open that much information about yourself, that means you really believe you can improvise when people are already expecting what you're gonna do, you know?
I think his best ability Is his hips. It's very hard to follow his hips and in my opinion, hips are the best part of your body that you might have in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
BT: You competed at featherweight at the Brazilian nationals and things like that, correct? [Note: due to a brain fart, I had the weight divisions all messed up and a couple of the following questions build off my mistakes. Forgive me if you can.]
Marcos: Yeah, bantamweight. Back then I used to fight at both. In the biggest competitions, I would compete at 61 kilograms which is 135 lbs.
BT: If you were to get back to tournaments, would you be competing at the same division as Cobrinha, Rafael Mendes and Tanquinho? [Three of the very best pound for pound black belts in the world now and perhaps some of the most controversial too.]
Marcos: I believe that if I have the chance to prepare myself for the worlds, I would need at least 10 to 12 weeks to get in shape and I would rather go down compete against the guys in the bantamweight division: Gui Mendes and all the other guys.
The current bantamweight is also a tough division to compete with on the elite circuit, but it is perceived as being slightly easier than featherweight at the big competitions.
BT: I was wondering if you had an opinion on the battle between Cobrinha and Mendes. Do you like Mendes' game?
Marcos: I think Rafael is a very, very talented fighter. I think that whole [Atos] gym is very talented and Rafael is unbelievable. He's young and so flexible and unorthodox. He comes with sweeps that people don't even know exist, so I think right now he's the man to be beaten in his weight division. Cobrinha had his time I would say a few years back and then I would say Rafael came and passed him in his own prime.
BT: I want to shift tangents a bit and ask your opinion on the current landscape for MMA bantamweights. We had the Cruz-Faber fight and it was phenomenal. I wanted your opinion on the depth of the division and your students.
Marcos: It's so amazing what the sport has grown in the past two years. You see Faber and Cruz, they're already a reality but you've got guys like Demetrious Johnson, Scott Jorgensen, Brad Pickett. All these guys have potential to become champions - even Miguel Torres, he's not in a good phase of his life but he was always a very good fighter. You have fighters like Joe Benavidez and that's just to name a few of the bantamweights that are coming to fight.
Dana White said that maybe Demetrious Johnson is going to get the shot before Brian Bowles, so that's kinda sad to me because one of my students was his only loss. Brad Pickett beat Demetrious Johnson, but had so many problems in the past year with injuries that he's not above Demetrious Johnson on the rankings. It's unbelievable the depth of the bantamweight division.
BT: If it happens at the ADCC this year, the match between Eddie Bravo and Royler Gracie, who would you pick and why?
Marcos: I competed with Royler in 1999 and I was supposed to compete with Eddie Bravo in 2005, but unfortunately Hurricane Wilma came and devastated Florida. So I know both of them very well because I studied Eddie Bravo a lot to train to fight him, to grapple with him and I think Royler has the edge because Royler has a varied strategy, a point of view and he will not get caught in the same position twice. That's what I believe and I think he has the technique over Eddie in the ground game. Eddie's a phenomenal grappler, he's a phenomenal innovator, he creates names for positions and everything and he has a very, very wide array of students but I still think Royler, even though he's a little older than him, if this fight happens, Royler has the edge.
BT: My last question, in your long career, from Rio, to Carlson, to BTT, to ATT, who's been your favorite person to roll with in terms of learning and competition?
Marcos: Oh man, I have so many great training partners. Renato Tavares is one of them. Nowadays, Chris Manuel is a guy that helps me out a lot [another ATT instructor and black belt]. I have a lot of students that help me out: Rafael Diaz, Ryan Gallagher, I can sit here and name at least 40 of the people that have helped me out nowadays. I would say throughout my whole career, the people that rolled with me the most was Renato Tavares.
BT: Would you like to thank anyone?
Marcos: Thanks for the opportunity to talk a little more about myself and American Top Team. Always like to thank ATT for the opportunity that brought me here. Ricardo Liborio, without Ricardo Liborio, I wouldn't be where I am right now and I wouldn't be as respected as I am right now in the mixed martial arts business. I'd like to thank all my students that helped me out the most and obviously my wife and my family for putting up with my bad moods and my trips.
I thank Marcos da Matta for generously giving his time for an interview on a Sunday evening. I'd also thank Brian Hemminger of MMAmania for transcribing the interview from our Verbal Submission show; way to help the deaf guy, buddy. I wish Marcos well with his brand new gym at American Top Team West Palm Beach and I hope you all enjoy this.