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The rise and fall of the Blackzilians, MMA’s original refuge for the wayward

Glenn Robinson (center) and the Blackzilians in happier times, after Kamaru Usman won The Ultimate Fighter in 2015.
Glenn Robinson (center) and the Blackzilians in happier times, after Kamaru Usman won The Ultimate Fighter in 2015.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The Blackzilians aren’t dead. Not according to the group’s original architect, Glenn Robinson, who built the first iteration of the South Florida “superteam” out of wayward fighters looking for a new beginning. Then again, nobody’s quite sure what the Blackzilians actually are anymore. Not even Robinson, the owner of Authentic Sports Management, who in early 2017 finds himself trying to visualize new mansions growing out of rubble.

That’s because as of early January, just days after his contract come to an end, primary coach Henri Hooft officially parted ways with Robinson and formed his own team at Combat Club MMA in Lantana, Fla., some 20 minutes from where the team had been hubbed for the last five years in Boca Raton. Following Hooft to the new confines were many of the brand name fighters that comprised the Blackzilians’ identity — Anthony Johnson, Michael Johnson, and Rashad Evans, the latter who fights Daniel Kelly on Saturday night at UFC 209 in Las Vegas.

With no Hooft, Evans, AJ or “Menace” — and with so many others having recently jumped ship — what is left of the once-mighty Blackzilians?

“Right now I have a good core of loyal people, and we have a lot of people that want to come down to us,” Robinson recently told MMA Fighting. “So I let the dust settle with Henri, because I knew everything was going to go in a different direction after December. Now you’ll start hearing a lot of new announcements, and like I said a long time ago — I built this team’s reputation in just a couple of years. It’s what I do. So it’s not going to be hard to do it again.”

Whatever lies in store in the coming year, Robinson feels it can’t get any worse than it was in 2016. Not only did his team begin to come apart at the seams, but he suffered a health crisis that left him laid up in bed for four months right at a time when mutiny was festering in the ranks. To complicate matters, he and his wife separated and, this past summer, he saw his company, Iron Bridge Tools — which afforded him his passion-driven side venture into MMA — file Chapter 11 reorganization. All in the space of a year Robinson’s deepest and most wide-ranging relationships crumbled before him.

Still, Robinson vows to keep the Blackzilians’ name intact, and to keep moving forward with what he started. Now operating out of the 17,000-square foot CS MMA gym in Pompano Beach, there are renovations underway to outfit his new facility with state-of-the-art equipment. Just who it will house is the great unknown. He has retained some of his strongest (if unheralded) pillars for the time being, though. Neil Melanson, a well-known grappling coach, will now act as the head coach of the new Blackzilians. And decorated kickboxer Tyrone Spong will now operate as the primary striking coach.

Glenn Robinson discusses the Blackzilians during the TUF Finale in 2015.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Familiar names such as Yuri and Danillo Villefort are still around as well, but otherwise the team is undergoing a rebuilding process that Melanson refers to as, perhaps more accurately, “a fresh start.” The Blackzilians are right now the fill-in-the-Blankzilians, a recognizable team in the industry with some glaring holes — one of which Robinson says was ground zero for all the drama and tension.

“It’s still running, it’s still functioning, it still trains everyday,” he says. “We’re bringing in somebody else [to coach] wrestling, but we’re going to have a great group of coaches. A lot of people want to come down and train with us, but Henri wouldn’t let them. He would turn down major UFC names without telling me, because he didn’t want to do all the work on them. When he moved over to the other gym, whoever was there, he kissed their ass.”

Robinson speaks of Hooft’s departure from the Blackzilians like the clearing of a toxic cloud. He says he feels like “a thousand pounds” has been lifted off his shoulders since Hooft left. Even if the Blackzilians as a team concept has been largely wiped out in the process, he says it’s better to start over in a healthy atmosphere than proceed with a team divided.

“Look, the bottom line is I started this gym by accident because four guys left ATT [American Top Team], and now that’s what’s happening to me,” Robinson says, as if such things are inevitable in a karmic world. “I have no hard feelings over it. I’d actually rather have negative people out of my life. It’s the truth. I’m admitting I had a rough year last year. I’m admitting that, could things have gone smoother? Absolutely. But I was in bed for four months and bedridden.

“It was not a good year. It was a bad year. But I come from a world where, if someone was there for me, I was there for them. I came from a world that if you use the word loyalty, you meant it. I was there for a lot of people that really weren’t there for me.”

If there was a word that could best describe Robinson’s attitude toward all that has happened with his team, it’s hurt. He uses that word quite a bit when discussing it, mostly from the managerial side of things after watching many of his fighters — from known pros to unknown amateurs — break ties with him. He admits he should have intervened more, or that he should have been more of an authoritative presence, and that, in retrospect, maybe he did take on too much. He admits, too, that he didn’t pay Hooft for December, the last month of his contract. That’s because, as Robinson sees it, “Henri didn’t work.”

(“Hell would have to freeze over before I pay him for that,” he says.)

Henri Hooft
Henri Hooft is now training former Blackzilian fighters at a nearby gym in Lantana, Fla.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Still, Robinson feels that he’s been taken advantage of during what amounts to a perfect storm of events: The confluence of Hooft’s contract coming up, the sale of the JACO Hybrid Training Center and the team’s pending relocation from Boca Raton to Pompano Beach, and his own personal, financial and health problems.

“It was just a year of issues, but I was there for every one of those guys when they were down and out,” Robinson says. “I dealt with bail outs from prison, to women issues, to pregnancies, I’ve dealt with a lot of stuff…I won’t do it, and I never want to, but I could tell you in detail the things I’ve done. But when you remind them of any of it they slip and say, blah-blah-blah.”

Robinson feels he was very generous to the fighters and coaches of the Blackzilians. He believes he helped Hooft, in particular, ascend to the kind of heights that would afford him to venture out on his own. It’s a paradox that has always been part of fighting. Olive branches are extended, taken, snapped, and set afire — faiths run to new hearts, memories blur the sequence of events, and sides are drawn. One man makes another, or is it the other way around? It’s always both; the longest living resident in the fight game is skew.

Robinson’s point-of-view is easy to comprehend: Without the Blackzilians, where would Hooft be? If there’s a word other than hurt that describes his feelings surrounding the exodus from his team, the one that comes to mind might be bitter.

UFC 202 Photos
Anthony Johnson has left Glenn Robinson and the Blackzilians to train with Henri Hooft.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

“Right after his contract ended, I’m getting termination letters on management from fighters — mostly young fighters — and they’re almost all worded the same,” Robinson says. “So I asked some of the fighters, and they said Henri’s going around and he’s telling them, ‘you don’t need Glenn, send the letter.’ He said he had no plans to [open his own gym] before, but he was training in the gym for six months prior, and he admitted in an interview the other day that he’s a profit holder — so come on, he didn’t know?”

In late January, Anthony Johnson dropped Robinson as his manager in favor of Ali Abdel-Aziz.

Bitter is the word that comes to mind when he’s talking about Hooft.

The original Blackzilians was formed when several American Top Team fighters — namely Yuri Villefort, Gesias Cavalcante, Danillo Villefort and Jorge Santiago — bolted Coconut Creek in 2011. That foursome became the bedrock of the Blackzilians under Robinson, a set of defectors looking for better situations. It was an organic build after that, a kind of salvation army which Robinson describes as playing out “like the movie Houseguest.” People would be brought in as training partners, fall in love with the vibe, and never unpack their bags. The party started at Imperial Athletics, and later moved to the JACO Hybrid Training Center.

First there was Rashad Evans, estranged by Jackson-Wink’s in Albuquerque after he felt Jon Jones double-crossed him back in 2011. Eddie Alvarez found his way to Boca Raton from Philadelphia; the late Ryan Jimmo from Canada; Muhammed Lawal from California; Matt Mitrione from Indiana.

Gallery Photo: UFC 161 media day photos
Rashad Evans was once synonymous with the Blackzilians.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Stragglers with upside. Stragglers who could be champions. Stragglers who were champions. Odd fits and egos. Alistair Overeem. Vitor Belfort. Kenny Monday. Melvin Guillard. The Blackzilians collected MMA outcasts and drifters and made them the cornerstones of a family. From Evans, who was managed by Robinson, everything bloomed. It was Mitrione who suggested the team bring in Melanson, and it was “King Mo” who suggested Evans bring in Spong to prepare for his fight with Tito Ortiz. It was Spong who suggested they bring in Hooft, a military-type Dutchman who commanded the room. Spong, says Robinson, gave Hooft instant credibility.

When dealing with so many tramps from so many different walks of life, a stern voice was needed to bring them all together. Hooft had that. Of a team that used a portmanteau of “blacks” and Brazilians,” it was a Dutchman who came to lead it.

Robinson gave him a multi-year deal, helped him secure a visa, and put him up with fellow coach Mike van Arnsdale (also a person Evans brought in, originally as a wrestling coach). At first, Robinson — the moneyman and facilitator — was behind Hooft’s direction, and loved his work ethic. But he remembers the first rifts beginning fairly early on, with Hooft’s growing reputation and burgeoning sense of autonomy.

The growing rift, it should be noted, coincided with the growing success of the team.

“Somewhere around the second year, somebody introduced [Henri] to Instagram — and that’s kind of when things started changing,” he says. “All of a sudden he’s on Instagram and he’s getting like thousands of followers. He was working with a guy named [Jorge] Blanco, and it’s important to the story. Blanco was a Canadian guy originally from Spain, and they wrote a program teaching regular people how to fight. The program was called Hooft and Blanco.”

Robinson says that they started getting affiliates, which was, to his way of thinking, already a breach of contract. He says he didn’t hassle Hooft about it because Hooft never asked for a raise, nor complained about the direction of the team. Then it became seminars, and trips to other gyms, such as when Hooft showed up at AKA to help train Luke Rockhold without his knowledge.

“The first three years he was a workhorse,” he says. “But then after that he started dividing his time, and calling his own shots.”

Then, “basically a lot of shit happened at one time,” Robinson says. The team would be uprooted.

He sold the gym a couple of years ago and was planning on moving the team to a new location that would cater exclusively to the fighters. “More of a private club,” he says, separating them from the regular people that populated the JACO Hybrid Training Center. He had secured a location, and even began demolition, but it never happened. Despite giving him a down payment, taking over the gym, and paying the bills, the three-man group that bought it never actually signed the deal, having some questions about the language in the contract.

UFC 192 Media Day
Rashad Evans (from left), Tyrone Spong and Kamaru Usman representing the Blackzilians before UFC 192 in 2015.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The ownership hydra began to dissolve, as one was forced out, and another lost interest. Robinson eventually took back the gym, which was now — after being converted into a CrossFit center, and seeing its membership base drastically reduced — doing a quarter of the revenue it was when he sold it. He said he recently had another gym approach him, which had inherited all the members that left the original gym during the CrossFit conversion, saying they needed a bigger space.

“They said, ‘would you be interested in selling us your location?’ I was like, ‘hell yes,’ and we worked out a deal,” Robinson said.

That meant moving into a temporary space, which was supposed to take place on Oct. 1 of this past year. Robinson says he delayed as long as he could, because he didn’t want to interfere with Anthony Johnson’s camp leading up to his rematch with Daniel Cormier (originally slated to take place at UFC 206 on Dec. 11 in Toronto, which was postponed until April 8 at UFC 210). He pushed it to Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.

In the meantime, things were quickly disintegrating. There was the pending move looming, with uncertainty if there would even be a new gym or not. The nomadic fighters that came to define the Blackzilians now sought stability, not change. Hooft, who had a definitive place to go, represented that. And was it even a team? Evans hadn’t been a dedicated Blackzilian for a long time. The team had become, over time, a loose collective. Many had come and gone. Hooft was already planning to leave, and little quibbles were finding their way to the mats and being magnified daily. Who’s leaving? Who’s staying? Who’s doing what, and who did what this time to whom?

In short, it wasn’t a great place to be when focusing on a fight, and there were a lot of people turned off by it.

“I mean, at the end of the day, I got so sick and tired of going into the gym and having to put out these fires, and there was so much drama, and everybody jockeying and pushing for position,” Evans said during an interview on The MMA Hour in January. “I was just like, yo, I just want to train, man. And there’s a lot of other guys that just want to train, and that’s what the team was made for. So we could have a great training environment. But you start bringing everything else into it and all the drama, it just got exhausting.”

Others were stuck in the middle.

“I saw both sides at times, and sometimes more than others,” Melanson says. “Sometimes I feel like maybe the past history between [Hooft and Robinson] — after five years together — had more to do with the current feelings towards each other. Because there were times where things were becoming ‘big deals,’ that to me weren’t. It was like, okay, so? Why is that a big deal? When you have history with people, it hits differently, it hits that nerve differently.”

Hooft was definitely on Robinson’s nerves. And, as you might expect, Robinson was on his. There are two sides to every story. Sometimes there are a thousand, and the jangling of nerves goes on down through the gym.

For his part, Hooft says it was just time to break away.

Anthony Johnson (MMAF, EL)
Anthony Johnson hitting pads with Henri Hooft in 2016.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

“I was already thinking about going out on my own for a while, maybe for the last year,” he says, already speaking like a man well into the next chapter of his career. “Maybe not start my own team, but I wanted to go in a different direction. I wanted to be my own boss, and make my own decisions, regarding who I wanted to train and who I wanted to corner. Also, I had so many people contacting me that wanted to train with me, but couldn’t come because I was dedicated to just one team, and that was Blackzilians.”

Hooft became as much of the scaffolding of the Blackzilians as Evans or Robinson. His name is just as synonymous with the brand. As a kickboxer, he specialized in the stand-up game, and — even in the last year, when so much was going on behind the scenes — managed to have one of his most successful years as a coach. In some ways, the dysfunction going on at Blackzilians didn’t really affect all that much in terms of results. But it affected people going about their day-to-day. It became untenable.

Hooft speaks of his time at Blackzilians as an experience where, of all the things he learned, perhaps the most notable was that “team identity” doesn’t necessarily jibe with what a fighter is really gunning for.

“It’s more about the fighters themselves,” he says. “It’s about Team Rashad Evans. Team Anthony Johnson. Instead of all these managers and all these people, these team owners, wanting some piece of the fighter, I don’t understand that at all. The owner of an NFL team doesn’t have his name as the team name. It’s all about the fighters themselves, and I think that’s a good thing. You fight under your name, and I want to keep it like that. Free spirits.”

Hooft says he found himself being limited at Blackzilians, that he wasn’t able to grow in the ways he had hoped. He doesn’t cite Robinson’s presence directly for hindering his growth, but does so indirectly. In particular, he says the fact that the lion’s share of big-name fighters accompanied him away from Robinson speaks its own volumes.

In short, he says leaving Blackzilians and forming “Hkickboxing” has been nothing short of liberating, and his recent training with Rockhold is more in line with how he wants to be.

“Me and Luke were just cool people,” he says. “We liked the same stuff and we connect, and I like his coaches over there. He didn’t leave AKA, we just like training with each other. We have some mutual friends. When you want to grow as a person in the sport, you want to make sure in a couple of years from now you have what you want. You can’t do it when people keep you in a certain place. But it’s also, again, I just like to spread my knowledge that I want to spread it with, not somebody else. It was a good couple of years.

“People say, hey we gave you the chance, yeah you gave me the chance but I made myself, and I built everything with hard work. I worked hard.”

Hooft says that another lesson he learned while at Blackzilians is that less is more. He points to John Kavanagh, who runs the Straight Blast Gym (SBG) in Ireland. Kavanagh is able to focus his energy on his small stable of fighters, and in turn helped turn one of them into the sport’s biggest star.

“I have 17 people in the UFC, and four in Bellator, so if they fight three times a year you know every week I’m in some place training and cornering people,” he says. “It’s not like some gyms. Some trainers, like Conor McGregor’s coach, he has Conor McGregor and that’s it. Two or three other guys, and that’s it, and I have 17. I don’t want that anymore. I want the good guys that I want to train, and that’s what I want to do — concentrate on that.”

When the Villeforts, Santiago and Cavalcante left ATT to help form the Blackzilians, a rivalry naturally followed them down the beach. Nothing kicks off a rivalry quite like betrayal. Evans and Jones played out at UFC 145 under a delicious set-up that Jones had betrayed his mentor. Bad blood sells. The Blackzilians/ATT rivalry culminated when the two teams went against each other in the 21st season of The Ultimate Fighter, which ran into the summer of 2015. These kinds of break-ups fuel the fight game.

And part of what went into the Blackzilians identity was just that — betrayal, from one side or another. There was a time when the Blackzilians were accused of poaching talent from other gyms, when people claimed they were paying fighters to train there. Drama and betrayal. Betrayal and drama.

“You got to understand, it was so, so much drama,” Evans said while on The MMA Hour. “It was so much drama. It was worse than 10 high schools put together, a bunch of gossiping. It was really just a buzz-kill to go into the gym at some point.

“Now, the state of the Blackzilians…I guess there really is no Blackzilians. It’s all in the namesake, but for the most part everybody — or most of the people who was training with the Blackzilians — we’re still training together.”

Only it’s at a new team in Lantana that doesn’t have a name. A team that won’t have a name, because it’s been determined by its head coach that every man for himself can sound, to the right set of ears, like a call to freedom.

“I’ve always said, I want to do the Freddie Roach approach,” Hooft says. “I want to be open. I want to make good business, and a good business model, and a good business model is not giving stuff for free and trying to hide most big names just to build your name up. I want to do a different formula. I want people to come to me, not because I’m cheap or because it’s easy to come to me. I want them to me because they think I’m the best for their style. I’m a product. So they need to pay for it, but they get something. And it’s not because somebody else is writing my paycheck.”

In some ways, if you want to follow the line of disharmony between Hooft and Robinson, there it is — the signature line on a paycheck. To one it means loyalty, to the other it came to mean resentment.

“The situation that happened with Henri is that, the gym closed, Henri had a place, Henri’s the striking coach — he’s a good striking coach — so it was perfect,” Melanson says. “It was a perfect scenario. So if the Blackzilians had ended and Henri had just said, okay, I’ll take it from here, it’s gift-wrapped. But then Glenn was like, look, I’m still in it. For him, it’s a passion. He’s going aggressive at it. I’m happy for the guy. I’m in the middle, and it sucks.”

What happens to the Blackzilians? What happens to fight teams in general. What happened to Team Takedown, or Team Quest? Sometimes teams go on more silently. Sometimes they just one day cease to exist.

UFC on FOX 17 Open Workouts
Michael Johnson hitting pads with Henri Hooft in 2015.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

“I think that, you know, Glenn, he’s not a bad guy, and I don’t want to say anything bad about him,” Evans said. “I just think he wasn’t honest with himself about what he can and can’t do, and he didn’t say no enough. And at the end of the day, the fight game eats and chews you up if you’re not strong enough and resilient enough to deal with everything that goes along with it. And that’s one thing that I learned. It’s very unforgiving. If you’re not willing or able to do what you need to do, and say no, or stand up for yourself, or be able to make the right choices, you’re going to get passed up and passed over.”

The fight game passes everyone over at some point. Even Evans, a former champion, is looking for something in the twilight of his career that may not be where he thinks he left it. A loss against Kelly will only strengthen the idea that the game has passed him by. That he has been deluding himself.

Robinson is no different. He wants to recapture something that he still believes is in his grasp to do. He wants to build the Blackzilians again, at a moment where that seems increasingly unlikely. Like Evans, he has a game plan. He says he learned from his mistakes. Hooft will corner Evans, and he’ll either share in his triumph on Saturday night, or partake in his sorrow.

Will Robinson and Hooft now form a rivalry, like Robinson and ATT’s Dan Lambert did when he started the Blackzilians nearly six years ago? If he can rebuild his team the way he thinks he can, it might be inevitable.

Between Lantana and Pompano Beach is 17 miles of bad blood.

“His record’s not on the Internet anywhere,” Robinson says of Hooft, undermining his credentials. “Anyone who has had 110 fights like he claims, their record’s on the Internet. Try to go and find his. If you search hard enough you’ll find fights under Hari Hooft, because for whatever reason he changed his name. So he said that’s the way it’s done in Europe, and everyone in Europe said that’s not the case. You might find some of his fights, maybe six or seven under Hari Hooft if you look hard enough.”

“I mean, I don’t know what [Blackzilians are] going to do,” Hooft says. “But all the key guys, everybody leaves the team, and leaves the manager, and now they start the team again with whoever they want. And the people who are staying there are the people that were complaining the most about everything. It’s just a funny story, man. I wish nobody bad, and I hope they succeed with whatever they want to do. I wish everybody good luck, and I’m just going to keep doing my thing. My train is a high-speed train.”

“He is literally the greatest manipulator of minds I’ve ever seen in my life,” Robinson says. “He would say the most horrible things about the guys behind their backs, and then in the next moment go shake their hands and say, my man, how are you?”

“There’s a reason everyone left,” says Hooft.

“I have to admit, there were individuals that were shooting for the team to fail, and it’s unfortunate,” Melanson says. “It’s very unfortunate. But, now after the fact, it’s easy to explain the problems and stuff, but the reality is that’s over, and now we’re moving forward.”

“I think that a big part of the Blackzilians is due to the fact that Glenn failed in some respects,” Evans said.

“The reality is, we’re rebuilding right now,” Melanson says, pointing out he has a “soft spot” for Robinson, who hit rock bottom in 2016. “And I think once we actually have all the coaches on the mat and things start going like that, it’s going to take off. And I’m not saying Henri’s won’t, we’ll just go in different directions. It’s a unique opportunity for athletes or people wanting to get in on the ground running, because it’s basically a fresh start. Whereas all the problems that happened in our history can now be avoided.”

One thing that will not change is the name. Robinson’s team will go on as the Blackzilians. It is depleted, it has relocated, and it is very different. But it is not dead. Not according to its original architect.

“It’s a name that’s known worldwide,” Robinson says. “And right now the Blackzilians name doesn’t stand for black or white, it just stands for power. It doesn’t stand for race, religion, creed, color. It just stands for honor, it just stands for strength. We’re definitely keeping it.”

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