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Alexis Vila’s long road to Bellator includes defection, prison

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Cuban wrestler-turned-fighter Alexis Vila became a well-known name in MMA on Saturday, when he knocked out fellow world-class wrestler Joe Warren in the opening round of Bellator's bantamweight tournament. Before starting in MMA and putting together a 10-0, Vila's past includes an Olympic bronze medal, a world silver medal, a defection to the United States from Cuba and a stint in prison.

Vila was once part of Cuba's dominant freestyle wrestling team, winning a bronze at the 1996 Olympics. He defected to the U.S. in 1997, leaving behind his family and country, and began coaching at Michigan State where he worked with future UFC fighters Rashad Evans and Gray Maynard. Then, he got into a car accident that changed his life.

Just three years after September 11, Vila crashed his car into a terminal at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. No one was hurt, but authorities thought he was attempting a terrorist act and charged him with airport violence. He could have gone to prison for 20 years. Vila plead down for a three-year jail sentence.

He talked about his time in prison on the MMA Hour:

"I was in prison for three years," Vila said. "It's no good. I'm a little guy so people who don't know me try things all the time. So I fought a lot. They didn't believe that I could fight. I said when I get out and I fight I'm going to be the champ."

At five-foot-four, Vila doesn't have an imposing figure, but he does have the kind of cauliflower ear that can only be earned through years of brutal training. His tormentors in prison likely learned the same lesson as Warren did on Saturday night: You don't mess with a little man with a bad left hook.

Next, he'll take that striking and world-class wrestling to Arizona, where he'll fight Marcos Galvao in the Bellator semifinals on Oct. 22.

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