MMA may be an individual sport, but no fighter from the earliest inceptions of MMA to the current age of competition has ever made it to the top without a good team around him or her.
From coaches to nutritionists to sparring partners, it takes a village to build a champion, and as fighters start to reach for the stars, typically that means their teams are coming with them.
Teams and coaches almost always come to prominence because of the success of their fighters, and it’s been that way since the inception of the sport. Everybody knew the Lion’s Den because Ken Shamrock started having success in the UFC. American Kickboxing Academy landed on the map after fighters like Josh Koscheck, Mike Swick and Jon Fitch started tearing through the UFC rankings like tissue paper.
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For the Blackzilians, the spotlight landed on their gym from the day the team started, which meant the scrutiny that came along with every win and every loss was going to be magnified 1,000 times over.
It was impossible to avoid the attention after Danillo Villefort, Yuri Villefort, Gesias "JZ" Cavalcante and Jorge Santiago had a very public split with their former coaches at American Top Team, but things ratcheted up even more after Rashad Evans decided to break away from his coaches and teammates at Jackson’s MMA in New Mexico to join them in a venture that would eventually become the Blackzilians.
More and more fighters started to flock to the gym including UFC stalwarts like Anthony Johnson, Vitor Belfort, Melvin Guillard, former WEC champion Miguel Torres and another American Top Team fighter in Thiago Silva.
Former UFC competitor and longtime Evans friend Mike Van Arsdale joined the team as the new head coach, and things were off and running in South Florida.
Unfortunately, the Blackzilians didn’t get much time for a learning curve, and when the ups and downs of the fighters training at the gym began to happen, they were greeted with hostility and shock instead of patience. While almost every high-profile MMA team stumbles out of the gate before hitting its stride, the Blackzilians weren’t afforded that luxury. And when some of the biggest names from the gym started losing, the pressure only turned up that much more.
Coaching changes were the first hiccup at the gym when Van Arsdale left and was replaced by famed Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner Mario Sperry, before he eventually split from the team as well. Olympic gold medalist Kenny Monday was brought in as a wrestling coach, and he, too, eventually left the team.
During one stretch in the UFC, the Blackzilians put up a 1-9 record over 10 fights, with the only victory coming by way of Vitor Belfort’s win over Michael Bisping. Blackzilians team owner and founder Glenn Robinson disputes that the team was ever really mired in any kind of losing streak, but thanks to some high-profile losses, it sure made it seem that way.
"We did lose five or six high-profile fights, and because they were all in a row, everyone says we had a down period. But we won a bunch prior and won a bunch after Greg Jackson could lose six in a row and no one says a word," Robinson told FOX Sports. "We lost two in a row and everybody says, ‘Oh my God, it’s the death of the Blackzilians.’ "
One fighter who did find success almost right away after teaming up with the Blackzilians was Anthony Johnson, who at the time was competing in another organization outside the UFC. But outside of one misstep when he first joined the Florida-based gym, he was winning every fight in impressive fashion.
Just like Robinson, Johnson refused to hit the panic button because the team was going through some sort of perceived down period. Instead, Johnson and the rest of the fighters just ignored the media outcry that the Blackzilians were some sort of failed MMA experiment.
"In this sport, you’re going to have your losses. That’s just the name of the sport, nobody can stay on top forever," Johnson said in 2013. "Even though we’ve had our losses, the team still trains hard and we still do our best, and that’s all that matters. We don’t care about what everybody says. We know people are going to talk — let them talk, and we just keep it moving. You win some, you lose some; it’s all about can you bounce back."
Robinson echoes what Johnson said when he looks back at that bad stretch during late 2012 and early 2013. The team needed to focus on getting better and not get caught up in the negativity that was permeating the landscape of the gym around that time.
"We never paid attention to it," Robinson said. "Only the media did."
Just when it appeared as if the Blackzilians were traveling around with a black cloud over their heads, a funny thing happened — they started to win fights.
Rashad Evans picked up two big wins in 2013 over Dan Henderson and Chael Sonnen to get his career back on track. Vitor Belfort tore through Henderson and Luke Rockhold while becoming the new No. 1 contender at 185 pounds. Michael Johnson dominated Joe Lauzon and Gleison Tibau en route to an undefeated run in 2013.
The team also found stability under new coaches including Jorge Santiago and Danillo Villefort, who both decided to turn their collective focus on making the people around them better instead of pursuing their own fight careers any longer. Striking coach Henri Hooft started seeing huge returns with the Blackzilians’ fighters, and the wins began to pile up.
Actually, when examining the team as a whole both inside and outside the UFC, the Blackzilians only experienced what every other gym in the world has experienced — good times and bad, wins and losses, ebbs and flows. And through it all, no matter how many times people insisted the sky was falling, the fighters who were the heart of the Blackzilians never stopped beating and keeping the pulse of the gym alive.
"The world is built around being negative whenever something goes wrong. We’re not negative on each other," Johnson said. "If one person loses, we all lose. We don’t see it as, ‘Oh, that guy lost’ — no, we see it as we all lost. It’s a team thing, a family thing. No matter what, though, we keep pushing."
Stay tuned for the final installment in The History of the Blackzilians coming soon, and don’t forget to watch "The Ultimate Fighter: American Top Team vs. Blackzilians", debuting on FOX Sports 1, Wednesday night, April 22, at 10 p.m. ET.