The “next big thing” is a frequent topic of conversation in mixed martial arts. But rarely is the subject 40 years old.
When you hear about MMA’s most unheralded new knockout artist, you don’t expect to find out that he was a wrestler who competed at 105 pounds on the world stage.
And when you talk about this man’s debut on the national stage, you don’t expect to hear that in his first televised fight, he knocked out a world champion.
But this improbable story played out Sept. 24, in Canton, Ohio, when undersized bantamweight Alexis Vila knocked out Bellator featherweight champion Joe Warren in 1:04.
Vila won the world championship in freestyle wrestling for Cuba in 1993 and 1994 and followed with a bronze medal in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. When he was announced in Bellator’s loaded bantamweight tournament a few months back, the immediate reaction was that he was an aging former wrestler being fed to one of the company’s biggest stars.
But it took mere seconds to find out that wasn’t the case. Warren had come into the fight with a 7-1 record, virtually all against top competition. He isn’t the best technical fighter, always made mistakes and almost always got in trouble in his fights. But, as a world champion in Greco-Roman wrestling, Warren could will his way out of almost anything.
After Vila’s first punch landed, though, Warren’s expression changed. It was the look of fear. When the next solid punch that landed, Warren’s eyes went blank and he was on the mat, out cold. Just like that, Vila was a force in mixed martial arts.
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“It was something that God gave me, the power,” said Vila.
Warren, as always, had talked big before the fight, but Vila can look back and understand what he was doing.
“No, I have no problem with him now,” he said. “This is a fight and you have to be a professional. He has no problem with me. He started running his mouth to impress me.”
“When I moved to 135 [pounds], I kept my power. People don’t realize how strong I am. I thought, ‘I’m stronger than you.’ When I punched him, he felt my power and it changed the fight.”
If things had been different, perhaps Vila could have been an early MMA legend. He started boxing at the age of 5, and MMA at 14, where he quickly excelled. Before he went to the Olympics, he saw the early UFC and Royce Gracie for the first time and immediately thought it was something he could be good at. But at the time, he walked around at 119 pounds and of course, lived in Cuba. “I saw it, but they had no weight classes then,” Vila remembered. “I remember Gracie, all those guys I saw. I remember watching and wishing that they had weight classes so I was waiting.”
Vila (10-0) headlines Saturday night’s Bellator 55 event at the Cocopah Resort and Casino in Yuma, Ariz., facing Marcos Galvao (10-4-1) in the semifinals of this season’s bantamweight tournament. The other semifinal also takes place on the event that airs live on MTV2, with Ed West (17-5) facing Eduardo Dantas (10-2). Dantas was 4 when Vila first was a world champion in wrestling.
After winning the bronze medal in Atlanta, Vila realized he wanted to get out of Cuba. He defected the next year while traveling to a wrestling meet in San Juan and eventually made his way to Florida, where he worked as a coach for a youth wrestling program. At the time, there still wasn’t a place for someone his size to get into MMA, and the sport faded in popularity so he could never follow up on what he saw years earlier.
His next taste of the sport didn’t come until 2004.
“I was in Michigan, and I was training with Rashad Evans,” he recalled. “He had just finished college wrestling [before Evans made his name in the second season of [‘The Ultimate Fighter’] and had started fighting. I taught him some boxing to help him for his first fights. He invited me to his gym. When I started training with him, he said, ‘Why don’t you start fighting too.’ ’“
“After that, I had a little problem,” he said.
While Vila doesn’t like to talk much about it, fact is, he spent three years in federal prison after a 2004 incident in which he crashed his car into a terminal at Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Vila maintains to this day that the incident was simply an accident, and that he accepted a plea agreement in order to avoid terrorism charges during a politically charged era.
“It was an accident, my windshield, I couldn’t see out of it, so I didn’t know where I was going,” said Vila, who served three years in prison.
“Most of the time I was locked down,” he said, noting between the ages of 33 and 36 he had no opportunity for training. “I got into fights a lot. It was really hard for me. I had to be in one cell by myself.”
He was almost 37 when he got out of prison, and then started his fighting career. The next problem was getting fights at his size. He had grown since his wrestling days, and was hovering between 140-143 pounds. So his natural competitive weight class would be 125 and there weren’t a lot of opportunities for a guy that size and age, even with an Olympic pedigree and rocks for fists.
“For me, age is only a number,” Vila noted, and it’s clearly a number he doesn’t think about. If you ask him how old he was when he went to the Olympics, he takes a while and can only give you an approximate guess. “I think I’m more experienced. I have everything. I took care of myself pretty well which is what is important. You have to be in good condition with good cardio. The difference is I know how to fight like a champion.”
Vila had knocked out six guys, submitted two and only gone to a decision once, fighting mostly at 125 pounds, when he was discovered by Bellator
. “When Bellator had a Florida tryout one time, I went over there,” Vila recalled. “I was doing a tryout for 125 pounds, but there was nobody else there. So I moved to 135 and I made it. After that I felt my position open when they decided to call me to be part of the tournament.”
It was a loaded field, with Galvao and Warren as two of the most established names.
Galvao, a Brazilian, felt robbed of a decision in a non-title fight with Warren on April 16 before the tournament started. He followed it up with an impressive overall performance in an exciting decision win over former World Extreme Cagefighting bantamweight champion Chase Beebe on Sept. 24 in Canton in the first round of the tournament.
He’s a Brazilian jiu-jitsu wizard, having won two world championships in his sport, is in his prime at 30, and is the physically bigger man.
“I can’t predict the fight,” said Vila. “I just go 100 percent. I’m going to push my will, and any mistake he makes, I’ll make him pay.”
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- Alexis Vila