Blackzilians hoping that a focus on boxing will help fuel UFC comeback
The Blackzilians' darkest night unfolded under their sport's harshest glare. At UFC 156 in Las Vegas, MMA's glitziest team suffered losses that ranged from bewildering to embarrassing. Rashad Evans, the team's most recognizable star, appeared listless and tentative in his unanimous decision loss to Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. Evans' highly touted heavyweight teammate, Alistair Overeem, absorbed a flurry of fists to the head from Vegas longshot Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva before referee Herb Dean stopped the fight.
But even after the fights were over, the Blackzilians kept getting punched.
Silva struck at Overeem and his team again at the post-fight press conference, telling reporters he wouldn't consider training with the Blackzilians because of a string of losses that included a recent 1-9 stretch. The Florida-based team would be the punch line of countless jokes, the subject of plenty of disparaging message board threads, and the recipient of Dana White's toughest post-fight criticism when he told journalists that February night, "The Blackzilians did not represent this evening . . . They probably need to re-evaluate some things in their camp."
Blackzilians owner and manager Glenn Robinson didn't just reevaluate his camp, he's revamping it, refusing to bet on any axioms about the darkest hour coming just before the dawn.
SI.com has learned the Blackzilians have added Guillermo Rigondeaux, the two-time Olympic gold medalist and WBC super bantamweight boxer, to its stable of fighters. Bringing in Rigondeaux, who defected from Cuba in 2009, is the team's first step to expand beyond MMA and include boxers in its camp, said Robinson in his first interview since the UFC 156 disappointments. He also announced that Dr. Pedro Diaz -- who trained Miguel Cotto in his 2011 title defense against Antonio Margarito -- will replace Mario Sperry as the team's boxing coach. Sperry, according to Robinson, left the team because of too many time commitments in the coach's native Brazil.
The revisions to his camp, the manager stresses, aren't reactions to the losses as much as they are quests for growth.
"We were looking to evolve, whether those losses were there or not. We know we needed improvement," Robinson says. "The reason people focus on the Blackzilians so much is because we grew so fast so quickly. Otherwise, no one would even be talking about us. So we made a major impact in the world of MMA . . . When we had our run of wins, everyone said we were one of the top 10 schools in the world and then when we had a few losses, all of a sudden, quickly, we weren't."
Established in 2011 after fighters Jorge Santiago, Danilo Villefort, Yuri Villefort and Gesias Cavalcante defected from American Top Team to form the nucleus of the Blackzilians, the new team made an immediate splash in the MMA community. Unlike other teams that operated underground in the sport's earliest days in dingy dojos, the Blackzilians were undergirded by Robinson, a wealthy entrepreneur who launched a tool company, Iron Bridge Tools, and took over the athletic apparel line, Jaco. He built the Blackzilians a sleek, modern gym with the finest equipment, and he plied them with the financial support that would enable his fighters to train fulltime.
Some in the MMA community have speculated that the posh training facility and financial stability Robinson provided the team might be behind its recent struggles. Put another way: Mickey in Rocky III might have warned, "The worst thing that happened to you, that can happen to any fighter: You got civilized."
It's a notion Robinson quickly brushes off.
"I don't coddle them in my arms and rock them to sleep," he says. "I just make sure they're able to survive between [fights] and they have a good working environment. The fighters didn't lose because they weren't hungry. The fighters needed some improvement in their game, whether it be hand speed, conditioning or some other aspect of mixed martial arts. So as long as we address all of those aspects of mixed martial arts in the current changes, and soon-to-come changes we'll announce, the wins will come."
The biggest change thus far will be a renewed emphasis on boxing at the supercamp, led by Diaz. "Every day boxing is missing in MMA, yet every day boxing is becoming more and more important," Diaz said. "I'd like to see MMA competitors use their hands better, and use their legs in a more coordinated way."
A former coach with the Cuban national boxing team and Ph.D. in pedagogical studies, Diaz said he had no reservations about joining the Blackzilians, despite its recent struggles, nor did he express any reservations about bringing his star boxer, Rigondeaux (11-0), to train at the MMA camp.
Rigondeaux, who faces Nonito Donaire April 13 in a title unification fight at Radio City Music Hall in New York, said he plans to remain a boxer rather than crossing over to mixed martial arts.
Evans, for one, is excited about the boxing emphasis Diaz brings through his coaching, as well as the experience Rigondeaux offers by simply training with the team.
"Training with Pedro Diaz, you learn so much," said Evans, who has been hitting mitts with Diaz for the last month. "He's great for the Blackzilians and definitely for me as a I get ready to fight [Dan Henderson at UFC 161 in June]."
Robinson expressed so much confidence in his team's boxing-heavy approach that he issued a challenge to Klitschko (either brother, he says), claiming Blackzilian Tyrone Spong could beat him (or them). Spong, who has boxed, kickboxed and fought MMA, is fresh off a mid-March win over kickboxing legend Remy Bonjasky at Glory 5.
"Tyrone would be willing to fight Klitschko anytime, anywhere, any day," the manager said.
Robinson's changes haven't happened soon enough for at least one Blackzilian. UFC lightweight Melvin Guillard announced via Twitter last weekend he'd be leaving the Florida team.
"Melvin called me up and Melvin said he felt it was time for him to go back to Jackson's," Robinson said. "We only want what's best for Melvin, so I spoke to the coaches and they agreed it was a good chance for him to make a change that he probably needed. We support the decision. Unfortunately, it didn't work out for him there and he's talking to some other people. We want to see the best for Melvin. We wish him the best. Wherever he does end up, we're sure that Melvin will come out and have some great fights. He's still an incredible athlete and I think the world will see still a lot of great things to come from him -- [he just won't be] trained by us."
Guillard's departure is simply another reminder to the Blackzilians that nothing in MMA is permanent -- not the team roster, not the staff at the helm, not even those pesky losing streaks.
The team saw what looked like dawn on March 23, with major wins by Spong and a World Series of Fighting victory by headliner Anthony Johnson over Andrei Arlovski.
"We had some losses but that doesn't define us," Robinson said. "What defines us is how we train every day. What defines us is how the future is handled. And what defines us is how we walk forward -- not how we look backwards."