A few years ago, sports manager Glenn Robinson helped a handful of mixed martial arts fighters build a new gym where they could train and prepare for events. The fighters had left a camp called American Top Team and established themselves as the Blackzilians, thus giving birth to one of the most intense rivalries in MMA. The two gyms sit only 15 miles from each other in South Florida—and thanks to the initial defection, the bad blood between ATT co-founder Dan Lambert runs very deep.
That rivalry will come to a head with the latest episodes of The Ultimate Fighter, which kicks off its 21st season tonight at 10 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1. For the first time in show’s history, the action has decamped from Las Vegas to South Florida, pitting the two gyms against one another in a battle for camp supremacy—under the guidance of pros like Tyron Woodley, Vitor Belfort, and current welterweight champion Robbie Lawler.
The show has come a long way since debuting 10 years ago and helping to lauch the careers of champions like Rashad Evans, a member of the Blackzilians who serves as a coach this time around. “I thought it was a great idea,” Evans says of the “gym wars” concept. “It was a great place to showcase both our talents, what we do as a team-building talent and taking fighters to the next level.”
The result is an entirely new version of the show that presents a fresh batch of challenges to the contestants, even if they’re working in familiar surroundings. “I think a lot of fighters on the show kind of thought they had already made it because they were on the show,” says Evans. “I had a talk with the guys on my team to tell them, ‘Look, you didn’t make shit. You didn’t win anything.'”
“Even though we did have a lot of things better, it was the first of its kind,” says Carrington Banks, a Blackzilian who fought on the show. “It was the first time they allowed people like Tyron and Rashad and our teammates to come in and cheer. On the other seasons, it’s kind of quiet during the fights. It’s closed; not a lot of people are allowed to come in and cheer and watch. Even though we got to be with our coaches and teammates, there was a little bit of added pressure. The environment was very intense.”
That scenario adds a ton more drama to the end-of-episode fights, and leads to some impressive heckling on both sides. “It was a lot like a Brazilian soccer game,” says Evans. “A lot of chants and a lot of profanity, and a lot of Portuguese. We had a lead chanter to get everybody going.”
The bad blood between the Blackzilians and American Top Team starts with Robinson and Lambert, and over the course of the new season of The Ultimate Fighter, it plays out among the competitors. The owners’ rivalry is real, too. “A couple of times, I wanted to train with Rashad,” says Woodley. “So I went to Dan and said, ‘he’s like my big brother, and I think he can show me some things to help me out.’ And he said, ‘As long as you don’t do it at the Blackzillians!’ These two guys, Glen and Dan, I’ve dealt with them both, and they are like mystical beings. You know the names, but you never see their faces, and you’re going to see their faces for the first time.”
With the natural rivalry in place, Evans promises the show plays out in Hollywood-esque fashion. “I feel like what happened on the show is storybook. It’s made for TV,” he says.
“You couldn’t pay someone to write up what happened on that show,” says Sabah Homasi, an American Top Team fighter. “It was a great experience, and if I had to do it again, I’d do it again.”
“That’s a brave man!” Evans laughs. “I wouldn’t do it again!”