‘Blackzilian’ MMA members out to make name for themselves



We could describe the guy who came to Palm Beach County looking for a good fight, found it, but also found the love of his life, who happened to live virtually around the corner back in their native Brazil.

We could introduce the man coaching these fighters in the finest of “do as I say, not as I did” fashion. The first line of his fight record? LOST (THREW UP).

But what would be the point? Because once we say the name of their team is “the Blackzilians,” everything else becomes background noise.

What exactly, everybody wonders, is a Blackzilian?

“If you look it up in the dictionary, is it a word?” says Boca Raton’s Anthony Johnson, the team’s rising star. “No, not at all.”

“If I’m not black,” some ask, “I can’t join the team?” (Again: No, it doesn’t mean that at all.)

The name was concocted by one of the team’s originals, middleweight Danillo Villefort, who noticed that all the members were black or Brazilian. The name stuck even though the team welcomes anybody with the fists to put up a good fight and the fortitude to avoid puking in front of opponents, as coach Jorge Santiago did as a boy starting out in judo tournaments.

“That’s how they stopped the fight,” Santiago, 33, says, laughing. “Can you imagine?”

No need to imagine. Almost on cue, one fighter loses his breakfast amid the type of training the Blackzilians endure five hours a day, six days a week at the Jaco Hybrid Training Center in southeast Boca Raton.

In here, it’s a commiseration-loves-company world. This is where fighters don’t step onto the mat to train without first bowing to it out of respect. This is where friends beat the hell out of each other, padded fists and feet furiously flying, the rap-rap-rap of each blow echoing off gym walls. The Heat and Pacers can’t get through a playoff series without wishing they could get away with some of this, yet here, nobody holds a grudge. Ever.

“It’s difficult to explain,” says featherweight Tom “Stoneface” Niinimaki, who came from Finland. “It’s friendly. Sometimes you can get emotional, like you make a mistake and you get angry to yourself. I never get angry to my training partners. Never.

“If I do something wrong, I’m angry to myself and I want to punish myself for it. But I never think about, ‘This guy hit me. I’m going to hit him back.’ ”

This is where you’ll hear more fighters refer to the Blackzilians as their family than their team.

“When we’re out, you might see one guy, but believe me, there’s two or three of us within 10 feet,” Johnson says. “We’re just a happy group of guys that are a little bit crazy. That’s it. We punch each other.”

Saturday nights are pay-per-view nights — for bouts around the world — when the punches and kicks get turned up a notch against outsiders from around the world. Not everyone is wired to walk down that aisle in the spotlight and step into a cage with someone intent on beating them up.

“Fighters are like, dead, you know?” says lightweight Gesias Cavalcante, another Brazilian.

Come again?

“Whenever I step in the cage, I know I’m not dying there — it’s just a sport — but the mentality goes, ‘I came here ready to die.’ ”

Or, maybe, to live.

Rashad Evans (19-3) is UFC’s third-ranked light-heavyweight and a former champion of the division. He says that when he entered MMA, “I felt like I found a piece of me. … It’s one of the most addicting feelings in the world. There is no drug — no drug — that can get you that high.”

Niinimaki: “You give your little finger, and it takes the whole arm.”

Speaking of which, Cavalcante once broke a hand in Round 1 of a fight.

“I kept fighting through to the end,” he says. “After, the doctor, she said I was crazy.”

Luckily, the contact didn’t aggravate the clean break. Nothing a plate and screws couldn’t fix.

“So,” he says, “it wasn’t that bad.”

Cavalcante wanders off the mat and points to Tyrone Spong.

“See how freaky he is?” Cavalcante says. “He shouldn’t be walking.”

Spong broke the tibia and fibula in his leg in a fight in Istanbul, presenting a dilemma. Doctors there didn’t want to administer painkillers, saying they would inhibit bone healing. But he wanted to undergo surgery in South Florida.

“It was just a living hell flying back with no painkillers,” Spong says. “I flew business class from Istanbul to New York. When I landed at JFK, I missed my connecting flight. Took a cab to Newark, New Jersey. They don’t have business class, so I flew coach from New Jersey to West Palm Beach. I landed and took a car service right to the hospital. So I’ve been through hell and back, yeah.”

Contrary to what some think, inflicting injuries like these is not the goal.

“I don’t want to hurt my opponents,” Villefort says. “I just want to win my fight, get my check, go back home and rest.”

“We’re not wild beasts like people think we are,” Johnson says.

Some are romantics. Take Cavalcante, although nobody calls him that. He’s “J Z.” When you take a leap and ask if his wife is as attractive as Beyonce, he pulls out his phone, offering concrete evidence on behalf of Geisa Souza.

“She’s a model,” he says.

They came from the same neighborhood in Brazil and their mothers were best friends, but they didn’t meet until her mother saw that Hurricane Wilma was bearing down on South Florida in 2005 and asked his mother if he could look out for her.

“Every bad situation has a present inside,” says the man who took Beyonce’s advice and put a ring on it. “We just have to know how to open it.”

The guy in the middle of the room is not Romeo. He’s Henri Hooft, 44, retired professional kickboxer. If Santiago is the colonel on this team, Hooft is the drill sergeant, the striking coach. When he shuts off the music to make an announcement, you listen. Hooft’s message: If you show up at 11 a.m. for the 11 a.m. workout, you’re late. Go home.

“I’m from the Netherlands,” Hooft explains. “So we’re very direct. We don’t do a lot of fancy stuff. We like to work hard and I believe in very simple stuff. … Five minutes before, for me, is on time.”

Yet every so often, Hooft wanders by a fighter, says something only the two can hear, and both will crack up.

“You need only a couple of muscles to laugh and a lot of muscles not to laugh,” Hooft says.

The Blackzilians have outgrown their training center, so Glenn Robinson, who owns the Jaco facility and manages most of the Blackzilians, soon will move them a few miles to a bigger, fully-staffed facility in Boca that will include physical therapists.

Evans explains that when the Blackzilians came together in 2011, they were hyped, quickly humbled, then rebuilt. It’s much like Johnson’s story: talented fighter who constantly fought to make weight, was cut by UFC, fought for other organizations for two years before moving up in weight class and returning to UFC in April. That’s when he beat Phil Davis and shot to No. 5 in the light-heavyweight division. He’s scheduled to fight Antonio Rogerio Nogueira on July 26 in San Jose, Calif., on Fox.

“The local scene here has been amazing,” Johnson says of the response following his latest victory. “People have been coming up to me left and right and saying congratulations and welcome back and stuff like that. I didn’t expect that response before or after the fight, but I’m getting it and I’m thankful for it.”

Outside of the MMA world, most have no idea this group of mixed martial artists with welts and belts has set up camp in Palm Beach County. Maybe that’s about to change.

“On national television, it’s always, ‘Fighting out of Boca Raton, Florida,’ ” Hooft says.

As for the name, Johnson has a simple solution: Get “Blackzilians” in the dictionary someday.

“We’re definitely working on it,” he says.


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