Bella, 9 years old, walks out of the school building accompanied by her mother, Misti. Children are moving about the playground, excited about the conclusion of another school day. Through the laughter and shouts, Bella stops and turns as she hears a distinct whistle that could only be made by her father’s lips blowing strong and clear through a thickly humid Florida afternoon. She leaves her mother and dashes ten yards like an accomplished sprinter into dad’s outstretched arms.
Ricardo Liborio’s smile is electric as he brings daughter Bella near. Her smile equally charged in the loving embrace of the former world Jiu Jitsu champion and one of the top MMA coaches around. It is a moment as powerful as any he’s experienced on a mat or in a cage, almost every week day on his schedule is to meet wife and daughter after school.
It plays out as if a Father’s Day card had come to life. So touching that what is easily forgotten amidst all the happiness, is the white cane Bella dropped by her mother’s side when she began running toward the sound of Ricardo’s whistle. Bella is blind, has been since she was a year-and-a-half old, the result of craniosynostosis.
“If it wasn’t for growing up in this industry it might’ve been harder (for me),” Liborio said during an interview for Inside MMA. “Mentally you know you have to keep going and adjust and you have to be humble enough.”
A gifted student, Bella qualified for a magnet school program in Orlando with teachers and programs designed for visually impaired students. When she was invited to enroll, Ricardo and Misti didn’t hesitate eight months ago and pulled up the roots they had in the Miami area, leaving Coconut Creek and going north 250 miles away to Orlando.
“In a school of 2500 in Miami she was the only blind kid but now just in her class are 300 visually impaired kids. All the teachers have experience with teaching them. It was important to have that mix of kids who can see, because that is the world she will have to always have to deal with, plus she has a peer group. She has flourished. The move was an easy choice.”
He emphasizes he’s just relocating, not leaving American Top Team which he co-founded in 2001 and quickly became and remains synonymous with MMA success and championships. He knew there would a changing of roles but priorities have always been at his core, well known by those who coached and trained with him. When Bella had this opportunity there was no doubt at ATT what he would do. “Every single one there wished me well, they knew.”
They also know he is still very much a part of ATT which he proudly states, “We’ve had more pro UFC fighters than anyone else and no on has had more Bellator champs than us.” He is making plans now to expand a satellite division of ATT into the central Florida region, that I-4 corridor from Tampa to Daytona Beach through Orlando. In the meantime he is a volunteer instructor for elementary through high school students in the afternoon. Bella is one of the students.
Her toughness was established long before she took a grappling class. Ricardo still carries the pictures of her head almost completely bandaged being caressed by Misti in the hospital bed over seven years ago, coming through a life and death surgery. “When I’m having a bad day, I stop to think how blessed I am when I look at the pictures. My daughter is only blind, she is still with us, she is bright and enjoying life and having special moments all the time. I learn from her every day. She’s the toughest fighter Ive seen.”
A current goal for Liborio is to get BJJ or grappling into the Olympics, perhaps the Paralympics in the next ten years. “It is the one sport visually impaired people can compete in with people who have sight. I think it makes sense and others will agree.”
Another new phase of life in Orlando is actually having a life for Liborio who couldn’t remember the last time he had spent a full weekend at home or had family meals in the evening because of the non-stop pace required to establish and maintain ATT as an elite gym.
“I’m not retiring, I’ll be clear on that. But I am enjoying a different schedule of picking up after school, doing homework which isn’t easy,” he pauses to laugh the laugh of a truly content man. “There are more important things than winning or losing. Family comes first.”
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