by Mick Hammond
Since the inception of the Brazilian Top Team, their commitment to excellence and achievement has been nearly unmatched in MMA. Case in point was this past Critical Countdown 2005 where the team went two for three and one member advanced to the final four of this year’s installment of Pride’s Middleweight GP.

Mario Sperry, one of BTT’s founders and current leader took time out of his always hectic training and traveling schedule to discuss the team’s overall performance at CC 2005and what he hopes to have lined up for them in the coming months.

When asked how he felt his team performed a couple of weeks ago at CC 2005, Sperry seemed pleased with the overall outcome, “I think our performances went pretty good. Unfortunately (Antonio) Rogerio (Nogueira) did not win because ultimately Shogun (Mauricio Rua) surprised us with his strategy in that fight. Rogerio fought well though, as did (Ricardo) Arona and Minotauro (Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira). Both of them had great chances to win in their fights and overall I feel we did good.”

Sperry commented further on Nogueira’s inability to overcome Shogun’s strategy by saying, “I think Shogun won the fight because he changed strategy at the beginning of the fight. Rogerio was having a good game standing up, so Shogun took him down and kept the fight on ground, staying on top of Rogerio and earning points. Shogun realized that was best way to win rather than get caught by punch, so he deserved to win.”

According to Sperry the BTT’s initial gameplan for Shogun was to concentrate on neutralizing Rua’s stand up, so when he repeatedly took Nogueira down and disengaged from trading shots it altered the preparations the team had made prior to the fight. Even with the loss however, Sperry feels that Rogerio is continuing to become one of the most complete fighters at 205lbs.

“He’s improving a lot and he continues to work hard to get better,” commented Mario. “He showed that his boxing skills cannot be overlooked anymore. His Muay Thai defense is very good now and the only thing that is hurting him is the lack of interaction between different ways of fighting.”

Sperry continued, “He needs to put his boxing, wrestling, and Jiu-Jitsu together and be able to go from one to the other during a fight. In the future he’ll get better at it. I also think his takedown defense needs improvement and he needs to work on getting his opponent out of top position.”

While Sperry’s honesty about his fighter’s areas needing improvement is rare in an age where people would rather sugar coat things and avoid open discussion, he is also quick to point out his happiness when it comes to Nogueira’s growth. “I’m very pleased with Rogerio overall. He’s grown as a fighter so much this year and works so hard at his game. He’s only going to keep getting better I think.”

Even though Rogerio could not advance to the final four of the GP, one other member of the Top Team managed to make his way to Final Conflict 2005 in the form of Ricardo Arona. “The Brazilian Tiger” as Arona’s known, stepped up his game against Japanese MMA legend Kazushi Sakuraba, dominating the older, more experienced fighter over two brutal rounds to get a TKO victory.

As Sperry says, criticism of Arona’s earlier GP performance fueled his more aggressive nature at CC 2005. “I think Dean (Lister) was a bad fight for Arona (at Total Elimination 2005) because they have a similar style. A lot of people said Arona was not an exciting fighter for that fight and he is angry about that, that’s why he fought like he did.”

For Arona fighting Sakuraba was a dream come true, but he didn’t allow his admiration for Sakuraba’s legacy to stop him possibly putting the Japanese fighter into retirement. “Arona was very confident heading into the fight,” said Sperry. “He was dominating all parts of the ring and fight because he was not afraid to lose position to Sakuraba and wasn’t afraid of any of Sakuraba’s attacks. Sometimes Arona gets too cautious, he wants to keep position all the time so he works too hard to stay control. This time he fought without any fear.”

Sperry continued, “Arona just kept going and kept hitting him because he was very confident. He tried submissions in the fight but I told him that Sakuraba is slippery and to win against him you have to hurt him and keep hurting him. He did that and Sakuraba couldn’t keep up.”

With the Middleweight GP set, the return of former Pride Heavyweight Champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira to the ring after six months absence went as expected. He dominated a clearly overmatched Pawel Nastula to get back on the winning track after a tough loss to Fedor Emelianenko at Shock Wave 2004.

The lack of challenge in the match did not ultimately factor into the fight as Nogueira executed his gameplan to perfection without getting caught in something unforeseen. And according to Sperry, this fight was merely a tune up for Minotauro’s continued goal of recapturing the heavyweight crown.

“Pawel doesn’t have the experience to fight someone like Minotauro,” proclaimed Mario. “Minotauro is just too experienced and didn’t give Pawel a chance to show what he could do. He was very confident and not nervous at all for Pawel. He took his time, stayed in control and tried anything he wanted. I think it was a good fight to keep him in shape and ready for other fights.”

According to Mario, the plan is for Rodrigo to stay active and see how the upcoming fight between Mirko Cro Cop and Fedor turns out before he sets his sites on the winner and makes his run at the title. “Near the end of the year you’ll see Minotauro fight more now that Cro Cop and Fedor are fighting in August. He never takes any time off and is always training and getting stronger. He is going to get heavier because we feel he was too light against Fedor. He’s always been very technical but he needs more power to fight Cro Cop or Fedor again. I’m sure he’ll fight again soon.”

With CC 2005 out of the way, the focus has now shifted towards Luis “Buscape” Firmino’s appearance at the upcoming Bushido show against current Shooto Champion Tatsuya Kawajiri and maybe even more. “Buscape is going to have a tough fight against Kawajiri,” said Sperry. “He is very excited for this fight and if he wins he will be in the Lightweight Grand Prix in September we think.”

Firmino missed the last installment of Bushido due to illness, but as Mario explains, he is fully healthy and has his sights set on not only Kawajiri but also current lightweight king Takanori Gomi. “He’s ready to go and he will fight at a higher level now I think. Gomi is the guy right now and Buscape wants to fight him because he is the best. It’s nothing personal at all; it is just that Buscape knows to be the top fighter he has to beat Gomi. It’s Buscape’s goal to win against Kawajiri and get into the GP and fight Gomi. He knows he can beat Gomi 100% and will be training very hard to make that happen.”

Along with Buscape, the remainder of the team looks to stay busy in the second half of 2005. “Paulo Filho should be fighting soon,” said Sperry. “He is strong and healthy again and is ready to fight. He has one fight left on his contract so I am going to push hard for him to fight in August. In September possibly (Murilo) Bustamante, (Milton) Viera, both Nogueiras, and myself will be fighting. Late in the year or maybe next year we will have Antonio de Silva in Pride. He has the Cage Rage title and is very big, 6’5″ and about 140kilos (308lbs) and has no fat on him at all. Look for him next year to make an impact.”

For Sperry, he was supposed to make his return to fighting after winning his last fight in February over Hirotaka Yokoi, but things did not go as planned. “I was supposed to fight in Korea last month but it didn’t happen at the last minute,” commented Mario. “I was ready for it and trained hard and cut the weight so I wasn’t happy it didn’t happen.”

As for what is next for Mario, a return to Pride and in particular a rematch against the last fighter to beat him is something that Sperry would most enjoy. “I still have one more fight on my contract with Pride and I would like to face Yuki Kondo again. My strategy was off in that fight and I was concentrating not enough on my training because I was getting everybody else ready for their fights.”

“If they don’t offer me Kondo it’s okay,” concluded Sperry. “I will fight anybody, I just want to get in the ring and enjoy myself…I would just enjoy it more if it were Kondo.”