When the first pieces of American Top Team came together in 1995, neither Dan Lambert or Conan Silveira had any idea that what started as a group of like minded grapplers would grow into one of the largest and most successful MMA teams in the history of the sport.
Over the past 20 years, promotions have come and gone, champions have won and lost, but the vast majority of fighters who started with American Top Team are still there to this day.
The team always found a way to evolve right along with the sport itself and fighters who found a home at the Coconut Creek, Fla., gym never had any reason to leave. As time passed, many of the fighters became friends and later family and that dynamic is one of the most attractive parts about American Top Team since the team officially adopted that name in 2001.
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"I’d like to say we’ve got a nice family going on down here but everybody would say that. Who am I to say that we’re any different than any other team? I know we make it fun, I know our guys are friends and I know we’ve created an environment to get better what we do," Lambert told FOX Sports.
"At the end of the day, there’s a type of guy who fits in our gym and a guy that doesn’t. For a long time we tried desperately to fit that round peg in a square hole and make the gym work for everybody and we realized the kind of damage we were doing to the overall environment. Now what we do is we find the guys who are coming into our group and if they like it they stay and if they don’t, they leave. We’ve got good chemistry."
For fighters like UFC welterweight Thiago Alves who came to the United States to work with American Top Team, family was just as important as the actual training he received at the gym. Lambert talks about his fighters like they are his children and the feeling is very mutual, especially for somebody like Alves who literally grew up in the Florida gym.
"He’s everything. Dan’s the reason I came to America. Dan’s the reason my family today in Brazil has a better quality of life, and it’s the reason I’ve got all this opportunity in front of me," Alves said about Lambert in 2012.
"I’m just so young and I’m so blessed for everything he’s done for me, and he’s still doing it. He’s everything. I see him as a father figure, but in the same way a godfather. Whenever I fight, whenever something legal I need to get done, everything that I need, I just come to him. He always has the biggest smile and the biggest heart, and whatever you want he’ll take care of it."
Fighters like former UFC veterans Din Thomas, Mike Brown and Denis Kang started and stopped their careers all under the guidance of American Top Team. Former "Ultimate Fighter" veteran and current UFC featherweight Cole Miller loved the team so much he even got the logo tattooed on his arm.
Loyalty and a sense of family has always been one of the greatest foundations at American Top Team, which is probably one of the reasons why the split that happened with four fighters at the gym back in 2011 seem to hurt that much more.
Danillo Villefort, Yuri Villefort, Gesias "JZ" Cavalcante and Jorge Santiago had all been long time members of American Top Team before they left the gym and started a new team along with Florida business owner Glenn Robinson and former UFC light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans.
Robinson has maintained that his relationship with the fighters stemmed from their desire to work with him in a management capacity, which eventually spiraled into the team they started that is now known as the Blackzilians. Lambert has a much different recollection of the events that led to the team being formed.
"Glenn’s wife used to take fitness classes at our gym. Glenn used to come and sit on his fat ass and watch her take fitness classes because that was basically the extent of Glenn’s physical abilities was to sit in a gym and let people train," Lambert said. "So he used to come and watch her train and I think at one point he started looking around and he got this vision of how cool he would look as some big boss with his own team. He knew he had no knowledge of the sport or the business so he stuck with the one thing he had plenty of and that’s money."
Lambert paints a very nasty picture when it comes to how The Blackzilians came together although Robinson disputes major parts of his version of the details. Still, Lambert has no problem putting an exclamation point on what ended up being a very nasty split with four fighters he always liked while taking aim at Robinson for being the catalyst that started the entire ordeal.
"He offered a bunch of (money) on the side quietly to our fighters and our coaches to come up with a scheme to get them to leave and start their own gym," Lambert claims. "He approached me with the idea of he was going to open a strength and conditioning facility up the street from our gym and wanted to be affiliated with us.
"He told me all of our guys could go there and train for free and how he just wanted to help the team and it took me about 30 seconds to realize this guy was full of s–t and he did not have the best of intentions where it was related to our team so I politely said ‘no thank you’ and he went back to his group of guys he was already plotting with, signed their checks, got them to leave and got more guys that were successful at other gyms to do the same thing and the Blackzilians were born."
Lambert claims that a huge list of fighters were offered the same deal at the time, but the only four who left where the ones that eventually helped found The Blackzilians. When it comes to loyalty, Lambert says he doesn’t need to look any further than the small number of fighters who actually left the gym versus the total who were actually pursued.
"As far as loyalty to our group of guys that went, I think it speaks volumes that only a very small group of guys actually took him up on the offer. I don’t begrudge the guys all that much really," Lambert said. "How many times in your life to do you get some millionaire mark to stroke you a bunch of money just to satisfy his ego and go train at a new gym. The guys had a chance to take on a bigger role on their own team and get a paycheck for doing it. I don’t begrudge them for taking advantage of the opportunity.
"I wish they would have handled it a little differently, maybe come up like a man, look us in the eye and say ‘hey this guy’s offering us a bunch of cash to start our own team’ rather than quietly scheming and recruiting and plotting everybody else on our team. Everybody who was successful on our team at the time got the same offer and it wasn’t just Glenn doing it. Glenn got his small group of guys and gave them the plan and those guys when from guy to guy to guy and tried to get them jump ship. As far as them leaving to take an opportunity for more money, who doesn’t want an opportunity to better themselves?"
Four years later, Lambert says he really doesn’t feel any ill will towards the four fighters who left American Top Team to start the Blackzilians, but when it comes to Robinson — well he definitely doesn’t hold his tongue when speaking about his rival team owner.
"I don’t really have hard feelings towards the guys. Glenn, that’s an entirely different story. I think he’s a piece of s–t. I think he’s pathetic," Lambert staid. "Nobody is happier than I am that the business evolved and there are people who are successful in other walks of life that want to be involved in it, I think that’s great, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to get in this business.
"He wanted to be successful and relevant tomorrow. He short cutted the process and went to other gyms that had put in all that time and all that effort and created those successful fighters and he offers them all money to leave and come to his gym. Now he claims responsibility for their success, which is bulls–t."
Lambert and Robinson will certainly go head-to-head again on the upcoming season of "The Ultimate Fighter" when American Top Team faces the Blackzilians in the first ever team competition of the reality show. It all kicks off on Wednesday night, April 22 at 10pm ET on FOX Sports 1.
Make sure to stick around for the final installment of our look at the history of American Top Team for what Lambert calls the greatest moment in the 20 years he’s been involved with the sport.