For once things seemed to be going well for the Blackzilians, the embattled super camp out of Boca Raton, Fla. The team's losses, most notably poor performances from superstars Rashad Evans and Alistair Overeem, were verging on the unacceptable, becoming fodder for bloggers and internet memes. Finally, at long last, things were turning around.
In England, Tyrone Spong, the team's fearsome kickboxing star, dismantled former K-1 great Remy Bonjasky with startling ease. A right hook in the second round finished off the man who three times claimed the K-1 World Grand Prix championship.
Across the Atlantic, in New Jersey, Anthony Johnson, 60 pounds heavier than in his UFC heyday, stood in the pocket with former UFC heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski and had his hand raised after a very competitive fight. Johnson indicated the heavyweight experiment was over after just a single bout. Though he acquitted himself well, and looked as skilled as ever, his future was somewhere below 206 pounds. And it was a future that, despite weight problems, still looked very bright indeed.
But while his teammates were celebrating, UFC lightweight Melvin Guillard was quietly packing his bags and hustling his way out of town. Once a fighter on the path to a title shot, Guillard had lost four of his last five and was on the doorstep of oblivion—the fast path right out of the UFC. The solution, he believed, wouldn't be found in Florida. Guillard decided, instead, to pack his bags.
Though Guillard won't apparently be joining his old team as he hoped, his departure from the Blackzilians was confirmed by Bleacher Report. It's a seismic shift from when I met up with him in July of last year, Guillard seemed more than content with the Blackzilians team. He was relaxed, bordering on ecstatic, glowingly singing the praises of Glenn Robinson, the Blackzilians kingpin, who created the team as a way to help build his Jaco clothing brand:
"(Glenn) basically offered me and my wife a better life. There's a lot of great things I could say about him and there's a lot of great things I love about this team. Our team, right now, is strong as a family. Look around. This is a family. My biggest drive, right now, other than wanting to win and be a champion, is to give him something back that he's given me," Guillard said, an evangelist's passion in his voice. "I'm so confident to go in the ring. Whatever happens, happens. But I'm going to make sure I'm controlling the outcome. Because the guy that I'm fighting, he's not better than half the guys at my gym."
Guillard was especially thrilled at the promotion of Mario Sperry, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu legend and former Pride star, to the position of head coach. Sperry and a team of jiu-jitsu stalwarts seemed the perfect answer for what had been a nagging problem for Guillard for much of his career—submission defense:
"That's definitely a confidence builder. We want to be a winning team. Our team here is no stronger or weaker than when I was at Jackson's (the MMA super camp Guillard used to call home. It's also the home of his next opponent, Donald Cerrone). We have the same chemistry here. The energy in the locker room, you couldn't cut it with a knife. I feel like, for the first time in my life, I'm on a professional team. I feel like, when I go to work, I'm going into an NFL locker room.
"That's the feeling we have when I go into the gym. The facility, it speaks for itself. But to me, it's the guys in the gym that make the facility. We have an amazing facility. But without the right guys, it would just be another room with walls. We definitely have the X-factor in our gym."
Eight months, and consecutive losses, later, Guillard has decided to cut his losses. He won five in a row with the Jackson-Winkeljohn team before moving to the Blackzilians, a move that was jinxed from the start. He lost his first fight under their banner, a 47-second blowout loss to Joe Lauzon, and his career has been in freefall ever since.
At the time, Guillard's move way from Jackson-Winkeljohn was a curious one. He was better than ever under Jackson's tutelage and raved about the camp's impact on his fight game. Coach Mike Winkeljohn told me at the time that they were trying to harness Guillard's considerable physical tools, hoping to reign in his bursts of fury that coaches thought stemmed from fear:
"That skittishness was a lack of confidence in knowing he could be in the proper place at the proper time. To keep that destructive behavior from hurting him or those attacks from hurting him. To keep from getting caught. Through repetition, through throwing certain sparring partners at him to do these things, keeping him calm.
"I think it takes time and repetition. And it's working. He is getting better. He's becoming a much smarter fighter. He already had all of the God gifted tools and the physical aspect. Reaction time and more speed than anybody out there. But now he's starting to understand when and how to use it...I had to get that into Melvin's mind. That he has the ability to control the distance and control where the fight is at. He doesn't have to get excited if he doesn't want to."
Guillard wasn't alone among Blackzilians in his UFC struggles. Though the team has a winning record overall since its inception, in the Octagon they've gone just 11-19-1. In their last 10 fights in the promotion, the team is a combined 1-9—a record that seems to coincide with Sperry's ascension to the head coaching position.
Before Sperry took the lead role, former NCAA wrestling champion and UFC competitor Mike Van Arsdale, a long-time assistant under Greg Jackson, was the head coach. Under his guidance, the Blackzilians were an even .500, 8-8, in the UFC and 21-14-1 overall. Since his departure, their UFC record has slipped to 3-11-1.
"With Mike Van Arsdale, some of the guys loved him, and some didn't," Robinson told Bloody Elbow's Stephanie Daniels last year. "There was some tension that grew during the Rashad camp, because he and Rashad were very close, and he was spending a lot of his time with Rashad, so some of the guys felt neglected. At the same time, that's not why he left. One day, he came in my office and said he needed to spend more time with his family in Arizona. It wasn't about any fighters saying they didn't like him. The reason he left is because he wanted to be with his kids and be a good father."
Guillard, in particular, was most vocal about Van Arsdale's departure:
“I’m glad he’s gone,” Guillard said during a media conference call last year. “I told Glenn when I first got here, the guy wasn’t a head coach. No disrespect to coach Van Arsdale, but he was never a head coach at Jackson’s...
“It’s kinda hard to learn how to be a champion from a guy who never was a champion, or a guy who was basically brought to the UFC as a set-up fight. I just never had that level of respect for him. The way he would talk to guys on the team and he felt like he was this big superstar, but I knew the real Van Arsdale.”
Whether the team's decline since Van Arsdale's departure is correlative or causative is undetermined. What is undeniable is the pressing need for improvement. Sperry, too, recently left the team. Blackzilian fighters are now acting as their own head trainers, a situation that is untenable in the long term.
Careers in MMA are too short, each loss too important, to allow mediocrity, or worse. And, like it or not, the Blackzilians will be judged primarily on their UFC results—the Octagon is still the ultimate proving grounds, and success there will determine perception. And for Robinson, whose primary MMA business is selling Jaco merchandise, perception is everything. No one wants to walk around in a loser's gear—and if they aren't careful, loser is the tag that will stick to the Blackzilians.