DORAL, Fla. — Alexis Vila has been fighting all of his life. Now he wants his chance to do it on the biggest stage. With an undefeated record, the Cuban-born flyweight feels he has done more than enough to deserve a spot with major promotions like the UFC.
“I want the opportunity to fight in the UFC,” says Vila between sessions at American Top Team’s location in Doral, where he was met with hugs and kisses from supporters as he entered the gym to train. “I’ll fight in whatever weight class. I’ll even fight with Mike Tyson.”
Wearing a beanie and sweatpants on an uncharacteristically chilly Florida evening, Vila looks determined in preparation. Already considered one of the best 125-pounders in the world, Vila prepares for his ninth pro bout against Lewis McKenzie on Saturday at Mixed Fighting Alliance “New Generation 4” at the U.S. Century Bank Arena on the campus of Florida International University in Miami, Fla. His hardcore workouts are common, like brushing his teeth every day. They are nothing new.
At the 1996 Olympic Summer Games in Atlanta, Vila took a bronze medal in the 106-pound freestyle category. It was the fruit of intensive labor started in the city of Santa Clara, Cuba — the site of the last battle of the Cuban Revolution, where the bones of Che Guevara and 16 of his rebel combatants killed in 1967’s Bolivia campaign remain.
“It was a dangerous neighborhood,” Vila recalls. “You needed to know how to fight. My brothers would teach me how to fight.”
Situated in the heart of the Caribbean island, Vila, one of seven children in his family, recalls a troubled childhood that saw his parents put him in a boxing gym at just 3 years old.
“I would love to mess around with the gloves and bags,” he remembers.
He says that, even as a youth, he carried a knife wherever he walked in his neighborhood. His athletic ventures did not stop with boxing. Vila was also a baseball player, a powerlifter and a track and field star. Ultimately, his rebellious youth led him to another sport that would define his athletic career.
Vila’s brothers were acquainted with coaches at a school for promising athletes, where Cuba’s future Olympic medalists were groomed and developed. They urged the young Vila to join the program’s wrestling team.
“I had bad conduct. I would break into cars; I did a lot of bad things as a kid,” says Vila. “And since I came from a rough neighborhood, I didn’t understand the concept of two guys rubbing on each other.”
Vila was forced into a wrestling tournament with very little training. Unsurprisingly, he lost his first match. However, his failure immediately led him to take wrestling more seriously.
“I lost the match, so I got pissed and I wanted to knock him out. The trainers held me back. At that point, the trainers said I had a future in wrestling. I told my opponent after the match I was going to train to beat him later,” he says.
In 1993 and 1994, Vila won back-to-back world championships in the 106-pound freestyle division. In 1996, in an Olympiad dominated by the Americans and Russians, Vila took his bronze medal, one of Cuba’s three medals that year. A year later, he traveled to the Pan-American Games in Puerto Rico; this time, competition was not his focus. Vila defected, settling in Hialeah, Fla., where he opened up a wrestling academy. He worked as a personal trainer.
However, Vila could not really settle down. He packed up and moved to Williamston, Mich., in 2000, and he spent three years as an assistant wrestling coach at Michigan State University. Three years later, he departed again. However, no matter where he went, Vila could not escape his destructive past.
On a Sunday morning on Independence Day weekend in 2004, Vila was accused of being intoxicated and driving his Lincoln Navigator through two sliding-glass doors and into a ticket counter at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport at 45 miles per hour.
Vila was forced to undergo mandatory psychiatric evaluation after he was subdued by an air marshal and police. Investigators initially worried that it was an act of terrorism. He faced the potential of 20 years in prison.
He pled guilty to airport violence and wound up spending three years behind bars.
However, during his time in prison, he never stopped training, telling himself he would change his life when released. Yet, he fought frequently in prison. Vila says the fights were not only about gaining respect — perhaps essential for a 5-foot-4 Cuban in prison — but also practice. It was in prison that he was introduced to MMA by a fellow inmate.
Once released, he met Bellator Fighting Championships veteran Jorge Masvidal, who later introduced Vila to American Top Team. Since tapping out Steven Nelson in his December 2007 debut, the man known as both “The Exorcist” and “The Little Monkey” has proven unstoppable inside the cage.
“I want more competition. I spoke to UFC about fighting in the bantamweight [division], but my weight is a disadvantage. I know I can beat them,” says Vila, who walks around at a ripped 132 pounds. “I will give you my weight for free. I am ready. I prefer to fight in the UFC at 135 instead of fighting in these local shows at 125 pounds for nothing. I want them to pay, and I know they won’t regret it. I will give them a show.”
Marcos da Matta, a former Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion and one of ATT’s top grappling exponents, calls Vila an absolute natural and sees him as fully capable of being a top 10 fighter at bantamweight
“It is easy to work with these types of athletes; everything we teach him he learns real quickly,” he says. “He transitions very well from a wrestler to a grappler.”
“He has always been a worldwide athlete, as he fought in the Olympics,” says striking coach and fellow Cuban Manuel Lopez. “He is ready. He just needs the opportunity.”
However, at 39 years old, if Vila wants to be a showstopper in the big leagues — regardless of weight class — it will have to come quickly. With informal talks of the UFC adding a flyweight division in the future, interest in the 125-pound class has spiked, leading to more opportunities for fighters both domestically and internationally. However, Vila’s past looms large. Japan remains one of the most viable destinations to get fights in the division, but his prison sentence has complicated his visa status.
Vila was expected to travel to the west coast in May to meet Greg Jackson product John Dodson in what would easily be the most significant fight of his career. However, he instead opted to honor his commitment to MFA, a promotion with which he has a multi-fight deal. Top competition remains the top priority, however.
“I would like him to see him against Jussier da Silva, from Brazil, the number one flyweight. We tried to put it together in Tachi Palace [Fights], but we couldn’t reach an agreement,” says de Matta. “I think Alexis would beat him.”
Vila, however, sees himself as the top flyweight fighter already.
“Everyone can come and talk and fight, but there isn’t room for too many people,” he says. “This is like, two people enter the cage, and only one comes out. All I am waiting for is that call and [I] am ready.”