When Rashad Evans steps in the Octagon against Antonio Rogerio Nogueira at UFC 156 on Saturday, the former light-heavyweight champion says fans will see a new fighter filled with a passion he has for his new fight team, which he refers to as family.
After years of calling Albuquerque, N.M., home and winning a UFC championship as part of Greg Jackson’s team, Evans now trains out of Imperial Athletics in Boca Raton, Fla., with The Blackzilians.
The Blackzilians were founded in 2011 by Evans, CEO of Authentic Sports Management Glenn Robinson, and a handful of fighters managed by Robinson that left American Top Team — a world-class MMA gym about 25 kilometres down the road in Coconut Creek, Fla. At the genesis, the then-nameless team happened to be comprised solely of black and Brazilian fighters, so when former Strikeforce, UFC and WEC fighter Danillo Villefort referred to them as Blackzilians, the name stuck.
The team has evolved since its early days and Evans now describes his Blackzilians as more of a misfit cast of characters, which he says is a compliment and positive thing.
“That’s the things about our team. We have this brotherly connection because almost everybody on our team is not from Florida. We all come together,” Evans told Sportsnet.ca.
“We have all these different people coming together and we have nothing — all our families are somewhere else — the only thing that we really have is each other. That’s it. And that’s the definition of family, when you don’t have anybody but each other; no matter who comes or who goes you always have each other.”
Evans says the camaraderie among his teammates, the way they compete in training sessions, as well as his evolution as an MMA coach and fighter, has led to significant improvement in his own game.
“The Blackzilians is something that I had the privilege and honour of being a part of, one of the founding members, and it’s a fraternity not to be taken lightly. They really push each other and they do it from a standpoint where it’s healthy.
“Taking on a coaching role and helping out the best athletes in the game from a coaching standpoint it’s really helped me to examine my own game and my method of attack and my method of what I want to see and achieve in the cage. It’s definitely made me a better fighter and I think fans can expect that Feb. 2 when I go against Lil Nog.”
The 33-year-old has not fought since last April when he lost to his rival and former teammate Jon Jones at UFC 145. Since that relatively one-sided five-round decision, Evans believes he used his time off wisely.
“I let my body rest a little bit, getting healthy again, and just dealing with some personal issues and sorting out my personal life, but also beyond that just establishing another career doing other things and working on my after-fight career doing things with FUEL TV,” Evans added. “I want to continue to do it both while I’m fighting and then definitely after fighting because I love this sport so much and it’s become so much a part of my life that I want to stay around it as long as I can.”
In terms of his improving his MMA skills, the Niagara Falls, N.Y., native also says he prepared for the crisp boxing attack of Nogueira by training with world-renowned kickboxer turned mixed marital artist Tyrone Spong and even a former UFC star that fell out of the limelight.
“One of my best training partners is AJ, Anthony Johnson,” Evans explained. “I’m telling you this kid is just now getting to level where he’s feeling himself on all levels and he’s believing in himself and I’m telling you if he ever gets back in the UFC he’s going to be a world champion.”
Evans is a 5-to-1 favourite and judging by his confidence those odds sound about right.
“I think it’s going to be a totally new Rashad (fans) are going to see,” Evans said. “I’ve been really working and I think the journey that I’ve been on since I’ve been off has led me to new discoveries within myself and within my technique.”
Not only is Evans confident he will emerge victorious on Saturday, but he believes his team will emerge as the premiere camp in MMA this year.
And with fighters like fellow UFC 156 competitor Alistair Overeem, former Bellator champ Eddie Alvarez, UFC veterans like Melvin Guillard and Thiago Silva, plus Canadians Ryan Jimmo and Claude Patrick, and talented rising stars like Abel Trujillo and Cosmo Alexandre all training with the Blackzilians, Evans has a point.
“I think that 2013 is going to be the year that people start to be like ‘woah, the Blackzilians really have something going over there,’” Evans said. “Like, hype is hype and media can sell hype stories all day, but it’s another thing for something to live up to the hype and I think that’s what we have with the team.”
If Evans can pick up a win over an established opponent like Nogueira and bounce back from his loss to Jones, it would be the perfect way to build momentum for his gym and back up all the hype.