At UFC 161, Rashad Evans beat Dan Henderson by decision, and you could feel the exhalation in Calgary.
But Evans wasn't only in the business of self-redemption last Saturday night. He was carrying an entire camp, the one of which Evans is the most famous member: the Florida-based JACO Hybrid Training Center and pro MMA cabal commonly known as the Blackzilians.
Evans departed the monolithic Greg Jackson training team after his much-publicized falling out with Jackson and star pupil Jon Jones. When Evans went to the Blackzilians, he appeared to be the crown jewel of a growing empire.
But he was far from a one-man band. The camp was founded by Glenn Robinson and other splinters from the venerable American Top Team. The Blackzilians' renegade persona and team-first mantra attracted not just Evans but combat-sports luminaries like Alistair Overeem, Vitor Belfort, Tyrone Spong and Anthony Johnson.
But a funny thing happened on the way to celebrity status. The team's members started losing, often and badly.
UFC 156 in February may have been the public nadir, when an overconfident Overeem caught a knockout from Antonio Silva. On the same card, a massively favored Evans dropped his second straight and probably put on the worst performance of his career in an inert defeat to Antonio Rogerio Nogueira.
The bleeding didn't stop there, either. In February Ryan Jimmo fell to James Te-Huna, and Jorge Santiago was dominated by Gunnar Nelson. In the same month at UFC 157, Yuri Villefort lost an upset to Nah-Shon Burrell. A month later, Siyar Bahadurzada came up short against Dong Hyun-Kim.
At one point in 2013, the Blackzilians' collective pro MMA record for the year was 4-9. The losing streak caused lightweight Melvin Guillard to flee the camp and forced the team to make deep coaching changes.
Gone was head coach and jiu-jitsu legend Mario Sperry; in came boxing instructor Pedro Diaz and Olympic boxing gold medalist Guillermo Rigondeaux. Shortly thereafter the team lured Olympic wrestler Kenny Monday away from an assistant coaching gig at alma mater Oklahoma State.
The Blackzilians deserve credit for taking the losses seriously and adjusting their sails accordingly. That was in April. What has happened since?
Evans and Jimmo earned victorious (if lackluster) decisions at UFC 161. In May, Belfort put his name on the Knockout of the Year short list with that spinning head kick on Luke Rockhold. In June, light heavyweight Thiago Silva finally got a clean win with a knockout of Rafael Cavalcante. Overeem, Spong and Johnson, among others, have what appear (on paper, anyway) to be winnable fights on the horizon.
All told, since the beginning of April, the team's UFC record is 5-2. That's good, if not overwhelming.
Is it enough to assert that the team has finally jelled and is now living up to its early hype? Probably not. But is it a sign that things might be turning around? I'd answer, cautiously, in the affirmative.
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