LOS ANGELES -- Fighting in front of fans inside a faraway arena is one thing. Fighting inside your opponents' gym with dozens of fellow fighters and coaches screaming for you or against you? A whole different situation entirely.
That's the scenario the fighters on 'The Ultimate Fighter 21: American Top Team vs. Blackzilians' had to deal with. They were able to train with their own coaches at their own gyms. But when fight time came, the stakes seemed higher than ever.
The bouts took place inside one of the South Florida gyms -- American Top Team in Coconut Creek or Jaco Hybrid Training Center in Boca Raton. And the winning fighter earned his team home gym advantage for the next contest.
"I think it was the most intense, hostile environment that anybody could possibly compete in," Steve Carl, who represented American Top Team, told MMAFighting.com at a media function in Hollywood on Wednesday. "It wasn't like an MMA fight at all. It was like an old-school backyard brawl. Get all your guys, I got my guys and we're jumping in the middle. It wasn't like people were in the stands. Everybody is right there. The cage was just surrounded and it was just so loud. So many people and just so much energy in there. It was so amazing."
TUF 21 premieres Wednesday night on FOX Sports 1. The format is obviously much different this season. Instead of the 16 welterweight contestants being whisked away to a house in Las Vegas, they were put in a mansion on the beach near their gyms. The Blackzilians and American Top Team lie less than 14 miles apart in between Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
At stake are bragging rights, a huge team trophy and $500,000. And on an individual level, the winners are guaranteed UFC contracts. The finalists will square off at the TUF 21 Finale on July 12 in Miami.
The biggest difference between TUF 21 and previous editions of the show definitely came when it was time to throw down.
"There are 40 guys who all know how to fight on their side and 40, 50 guys who all know how to fight on our side," said Kamarudeen Usman, who represented the Blackzilians. "These are guys that you hear and you train with. They know your voice; you know their voice. It was very hostile to be in there supporting your side. The pressure was unbelievable. It was extreme pressure."
Tecia Torres, an American Top Team fighter and contender in the UFC's women's strawweight division, described the six weeks of filming as hectic.
"There were times when we did class and it was so crowded," Torres said. "It's already crowded. We have over 70 pros. It was extra crowded these days. Some practices were cut short. In that respect, some of the fighters didn't like that [who] weren't on the show. They got upset, especially if they were in camp. I know some even went out of state to train with other friends, because of everything that was going on."
Octagons had to be moved into both gyms, setting the stage for a very unique atmosphere. The owners of each facility, Dan Lambert of American Top Team and Glenn Robinson of the Blackzilians, legitimately don't like each other, going back to Robinson's time as a student at ATT. Robinson ended up poaching some of Lambert's stars and starting his own team just minutes away.
The hatred between the two owners seeped down into the coaches and fighters. Their competitors were not just winning and losing for themselves. It was like they were the part of something bigger.
"That energy really, really carried over," said former UFC light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans, one of the leaders of the Blackzilians. "It was sometimes damn near explosive. If your guy goes out there and something happens to him and it's not what you wanted to happen and you got emotions for him and he gets f*cked over, you want to do something as a fighter watching. You always felt that element the whole time throughout the show."
Carl and Usman both said the level of competition was higher than most recent TUF seasons. Carl is a former WSOF welterweight champion and Usman is one of the top prospects in all of MMA. Nathan Coy of American Top Team is a Bellator and Strikeforce veteran. ATT's Steve Montgomery and Michael Graves as well as Carrington Banks of the Blackzilians are competitors to watch.
"I think in a couple years you're going to see a handful of these guys all in the title picture," Carl said. "They're all going to in the title hunt. I think some of these guys have the potential to be the future of the UFC."
It might not get any tougher than going into your foe's gym with all of his coaches and training partners there cheering him on, even if your own team is right there behind you.
"At this point in the game, fighting is mostly mental," Carl said. "We're all tough. We're all good athletes. It's all about how you perform. Getting out there and seeing all those faces, hearing the screams and all the chants. The chants were so loud. It felt like the bass from a music festival or something. You could feel it in your body. When you see it, you don't understand."