The Cuban defector from a hardscrabble background is ready to challenge all-comers.
In 1997, North Carolina State assistant wrestling coach Carter Jordan was on a recruiting trip in Florida when he heard the news: Cuba’s two-time World Champion wrestler Alexis Vila had defected. Was he looking to wrestle in college? Would he be eligible? Jordan reached out and got Vila on the phone. In a few weeks, the decorated Cuban was on his way to live in Tobacco Road. Vila, then 26 years old, didn’t pass the NCAA’s eligibility Clearinghouse, but Jordan had seen him wrestle in the 1996 Olympics and knew he had to find a way to retain his talents.
“We put him on staff,” says Jordan, now the head wrestling coach at N.C. Sate. “We got him an apartment and we got him some money—the dude was bad.”
Vila began grabbing guys for extra workouts, teaching technique sessions, and contemplating a career in coaching.
“He didn’t speak a lick of English, but I spoke Spanish,” says Jordan. “He’d show moves, and I’d interpret them for the guys in the room. It worked well for the year, but he wasn’t really able to do everything he needed to do to continue on as a coach for us.”
Jordan became Vila’s de facto uncle, helping him apply for a driver’s license and earn extra spending money. Vila also wowed Jordan with stories of a life spent in Communist Cuba—the training, the weight cutting, and the country’s pressure on its athletes to succeed. Jordan had a young family, and Vila talked of the pain of leaving his newborn daughter in Cuba. He also showed off his physical prowess on occasion, most famously by doing three one-armed pullups… without grabbing his wrist.
“Dude is freakishly strong. Freak, freak, super freak,” says Jordan.
Vila eventually left N.C. State for Michigan State where he began training with future All-American wrestlers Nick and Andy Simmons as well as soon-to-be MMA stars Gray Maynard and Rashad Evans. Vila was training and coaching and, for the first time, was feeling some stability and success in America.
Vila grew up in Santa Clara, Cuba—the capital city of the Vila Clara province, which is in the heart of the country, equidistant from the north and south coasts. Vila says he was the young son of a thoughtful, tough mother—the type that saw a lively boy and put him into boxing lessons at five years old. However, boxing didn’t quell his rage, rather only exasperated it.
“I was fighting too much,” says Vila. “I was fighting all the time, and she wanted to make sure that I didn’t get into more trouble.” When he was 13 years old, his mother put him into wrestling.
Some wrestlers are brawlers, and Vila could have been one, but it was the Soviet-styled coaching—the highly technical approach to gameplans, maneuvers, countershots, and match preparation—that seemed to accelerate Vila’s game. “I always liked the technique because it taught me how to win the tough matches,” says Vila. “You make a gameplan for your opponent and you can win against anyone.”
From 1993 to 1995, Vila proved that theory right. He beat everyone. In two of those years, he was named World’s Most Technical Wrestler by FILA, the international body that overseas Freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling. He also won two World Championships. At only 22 years old, many considered Vila to be the best wrestler in the world. In 1996, he was expected to win Olympic gold, but a suspicious set of calls in the semi-finals (some have claimed there was a paid official) cost him a chance at the finals. Vila settled for bronze.
With the wins came the responsibility of constantly performing and keeping his weight down. Vila wrestled at the since-eliminated 48 kg (105.5 lbs.) weight class, but he had a natural body weight of 125 lbs., which meant he was being forced to cut 20% of his body weight once or twice a month.
“We flew all over the world to wrestling matches in Korea, Australia, Japan—we even spent three months in Mexico wrestling at elevation,” he says. The weight cut was difficult and cruel. Vila was once locked in a room for two days with nothing but a television and told to make weight. It was the Cuban way, but Vila’s anger from enduring that trauma hasn’t subsided.
In 1997, the Cuban team traveled to the Pan-American Games in Puerto Rico. As was the norm in the 1990s, the 26-year-old Vila took home the gold. After the match, Vila dutifully walked beside his teammates and minders, leaped onto the podium, and received his medal. The team was then planning to walk together with their minders over to the 60 kg finals match where another Cuban was competing. The team monitors stood close by and watched the match along with the wrestlers. As soon as they were distracted, Vila turned and trotted out the front door of the gymnasium and into the waiting car of a friend living in Puerto Rico. Vila had defected.
“I had to leave my newborn baby girl in Cuba to come to America,” says Vila. “I couldn’t tell anyone that I was coming here or something could have happened to me and my family.” Vila also left behind his mother and father and all of his friends. He was immediately granted amnesty. Vila arrived in Miami four months later, where he met Carter Jordan and made his way to N.C. State and then Michigan State for a few seasons. Then July 4, 2004, happened.
A scant three years after 9/11—when airports were still airtight cathedrals filled with AK-47’s and screening rooms—Vila drove his maroon-colored 1998 Lincoln Navigator into the ticket counter of South east Airlines at the Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Nobody was hurt, but the front windows of the airport were obliterated, and Vila—tackled by police officers trying to flee the scene—was arrested, charged, and put under psychological surveillance for 72 hours.
Federal and local investigators debated seeking terrorism charges—good for Vila that he was raised Catholic—but nothing ever came of it. Eventually, the charges were reduced when it became evident that his actions were emotional—or accidental
(Vila says he was dozing off). The court recommended a lighter sentence of 30 months in Miami FDC, a far better situation than spending 40 years in Leavenworth.
The popular refrain might be that prison is where Vila learned to fight, but it’s not—it’s where he learned confidence in his fighting ability. Many wrestlers have gained their initial bravado to step into a cage by watching former teammates and competitors win fights and then drawing the obvious conclusion—I can do that. Vila was in federal prison, and at 130 lbs., he was an easy target for other inmates. They antagonized, and he fought. “Inmates always tried to mess with me, but I know how to fight,” he says. “I spent my life in the fight. They come after me, but I know better. I don’t talk, I fight.”
Vila completed his 30-month sentence but was forced to wait another six months behind bars as Immigration and Naturalization Service determined whether or not he was to be deported back to Cuba, as often happens when new immigrants turn criminal. Vila was given a second chance, and upon his release, he immediately began teaching wrestling camps and looking for a way into MMA.
“I trained like I did for wrestling, maybe thee or four times a day,” he says. “But I train different, because in MMA I need to learn so many more things, and I need a gameplan. The guys at Top Team, they help me and they show me all the techniques, and I show them wrestling.”
Heading into Bellator’s Season 5 Bantamweight Tournament, the 40-year-old Vila was 9-0 with six finishes. His longtime friend Yoel Romero, another Cuban defector and Olympic silver medalist, had just risked his unblemished record in a Strikeforce fight and been KO’ed in the second round. Vila was facing Bellator’s Bantamweight Champion Joe Warren, a World Champion wrestler that Vila had known from their years competing in the same tournaments on the wrestling circuit, albeit different weight classes and styles.
“Warren always said that he respects me, but then he comes into this fight and talks shit,” says Vila. “I don’t get it. I never did anything to him, but he acted like he was my friend and then he tells people lies about me.” Warren had gotten under Vila’s skin by peppering him with insults, first about his fighting, then his wrestling ability, and then un-backed assertions that Vila had been doping.
“Warren was nothing to me,” Vila says. “He did not impress me or intimidate me. How are you going to impress me? I’m not some little kid.”
On fight night, Vila was in the throws of emotion, and not the falsetto of a high school actress. Vila looked like he was boiling from the inside out. In Vila’s mind, Warren had gone to the nice college (University of Michigan) and maybe had a nice family and some money. Vila had clawed his way from a small town in the center of Communist Cuba, wrestled the world, left behind a daughter, and scrapped through three years in a Florida prison, and now he was fighting to protect his new life. Stepping into the cage, Vila’s face showed every ounce of his fearless rage.
“I come to America and I have nothing,” he says. “Nobody give me anything. I leave behind my island and my baby. I go to jail. I fight in the streets. I do things that matter to me to make my living and feed my family.” The best knockouts are cathartic. Fans might not have known that the Cuban was a defector, or that he’d sacrificed everything for a chance at a better life, but they did know he was the underdog to the prickly Warren. When Vila landed the right hand that sent Warren stumbling back into the fence at 41 seconds into the first round, he knew his gameplan was perfect.
“If I want to take him down, I take him down,” says Vila. “I wanted to stay on my feet and use my hands. I like to fight, and he can’t stand with me. I know this. It was my gameplan.”
Warren bounced away from the fence and Vila followed the separation by throwing a left hook. Down went Warren, right arm seized skyward like a child’s action figured being pushed aside. A mere 67 seconds after it started, Warren was unconscious and falling to the canvas. Vila followed-up but was tossed aside by the referee and quickly somersaulted to his feet. He flexed his muscles and screamed at the top of his lungs.
At 40 years old, Bellator’s next star was born.