Long before the UFC was selling out arenas or "The Ultimate Fighter" was even on the air, a group of friends decided to embark on a project to build a grappling team in the United States similar to some of the top gyms that were operating at the time in Brazil.
Dan Lambert, who was a successful attorney and businessman in Florida, found a new passion when he discovered MMA and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu while working with an instructor named Conan Silveira. The two friends started building a team of like-minded grapplers who would go around and compete in different competitions just for fun and the love of the sport.
That all changed in 2001 when Silveira’s good friend Ricardo Liborio met with Lambert and the three of them embarked on an idea to build a top-flight fight gym based in South Florida. Liborio was a well-known coach and fighter who helped found the legendary Brazilian Top Team, but he was interested in expanding his interests to the United States.
Article continues below ...
Once Lambert, Silveira and Liborio started working together, American Top Team was born. Before long several young, up-and-coming Brazilians traveled to the United States to begin working with the new gym. It didn’t take much time for American Top Team to flourish into one of the first ever "super camps" for MMA in the United States, rivaling gyms such as Miletich Fighting Systems, a well-known team out of Bettendorf, Iowa.
The gym produced dozens of fighters who eventually fought in the UFC with several of them going as far as competing for titles at different points in their careers. The team continued to grow, as athletes from around the world flocked to the gym to work with the same coaches and fighters who made American Top Team so successful.
But in 2011 — a decade after American Top Team was founded — a fissure happened within the gym that changed the course of their histories forever.
Four long-time members of the team — Gesias "JZ" Cavalcante, Danillo Villefort, Yuri Villefort and Jorge Santiago — split from the team amid what was rumored at the time to be a contract dispute with Lambert, who managed many of the fighters who trained there. The four fighters departing the gym wouldn’t have been so shocking had they not been fixtures of American Top Team for so many years.
Rumors abounded about the genesis of the split although both sides remained amicable whenever talking about the other in the media.
It didn’t take long for the four fighters to begin working with another local businessman named Glenn Robinson, who they met while he was actually training at American Top Team along with his wife. Around the same time as the four fighters split from American Top Team, Robinson became familiar with the business side of MMA. A chance meeting with former UFC light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans resulted in Robinson being asked to step in as the Evans’ full-time manager.
The timing of the four fighters exiting the gym and then working with Robinson raised more than a few red flags at American Top Team about the nature of their relationship and whether or not the prominent businessman actually poached talent to start his own MMA team. Robinson has always maintained that he was just trying to help out some friends after they left American Top Team and needed a place to train together.
Regardless, the bad blood between the newly formed camp and the established American Top Team gym started brewing immediately.
Eventually, Robinson and his five fighters began adding new training partners and teammates such as UFC lightweight Michael Johnson and kickboxing champion Tyrone Spong. Word of mouth began to spread and before long a host of notable names began training there from Anthony Johnson to Vitor Belfort.
Robinson invested in a new facility for the fighters that happened to be in Boca Raton — just 20 minutes away from the American Top Team front doors.
At the time, the team still didn’t have a name but while a session was underway, Danillo Villefort noted to Robinson that the gym was filled predominately with Brazilian and African-American fighters and he made an off-handed remark that they should be called "The Blackzilians".
The joke stuck and soon they adopted the name and The Blackzilians were officially a team of their own.
As The Blackzilians started making waves in South Florida, the rivalry grew between the new team and the established American Top Team gym just a hop, skip and a jump away in Coconut Creek. Thanks to the nature of how the new gym came together, battle lines were drawn and the disdain between American Top Team and The Blackzilians has only grown since 2011.
There have even been a few fighters over the years such as Melvin Guillard and Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva, who have jumped ship from one team to the other, which only made the rivalry that much worse.
The new season of "The Ultimate Fighter" will hopefully settle some of those long-held grudges as American Top Team faces the Blackzilians in a team competition with eight fighters from each gym representing their team and the winning side will get the lion’s share of a $500,000 grand prize courtesy of the UFC as well as bragging rights.
Bad blood runs deep and while individual rivalries are certainly always relevant in MMA, this team versus team war will be one for the ages.