Monday, January 27, 2020

Ruben Villa: On the Cusp

Most of the elite young American fighters are already known by just one name: Teofimo, Devin, Gervonta, Vergil, Shakur. These five in particular have galvanized boxing fans. They provide hope that boxing, and American boxing specifically, will remain vibrant. And if undefeated featherweight Ruben Villa continues his upward trajectory, boxing fans may soon need to add a sixth name to this illustrious class. 

Although Villa (17-0, 5 KOs) has yet to receive the same fanfare as some of his peers, his credentials speak for themselves. He was a two-time National Golden Gloves winner at 123 lbs. (2014, 2015). He was also the Junior National Olympic Champion in 2012 and 2013. He beat Shakur twice in the amateurs and also has an amateur win over Devin. 

Photo Courtesy of Showtime

On Friday, Villa, 22, from Salinas, California, will headline a ShoBox card against Cuba's Alexei Collado (26-2, 23 KOs). Villa is a classic boxer and his fast feet are just as impressive as his considerable hand speed. He commands the ring with his footwork. In and out, side-to-side, southpaw or conventional, it's hard for an opponent to land a clean shot on him. But Villa doesn't use his feet just for defense, he moves to create angles for his offense, leading to opportunities where he can connect on his opponent without receiving incoming fire. 

Friday's fight will be a matchup of the boxer (Villa) against the puncher (Collado). And to Villa, who started boxing at five years old, he's seen Collado's style many times. 

"I’ve seen all styles in the ring," he said. "Most of my recent opponents have been aggressive guys. We know I can beat aggressive. Eventually I also want to fight some guys that can box and have some real [technical] skills."

As an amateur, Villa, a natural right-hander who fights more often out of the southpaw stance, looked up to cerebral boxers such as Floyd Mayweather, Juan Manuel Marquez and Vasiliy Lomachenko. Villa describes his ring style this way: "I’m a pure boxer. I’m pretty good at adjusting and making my opponents frustrated and uncomfortable. Whatever I see and whatever I can capitalize on in terms of my opponents’ mistakes, I do it...I fight inside or outside the pocket. It’s just whatever I see and what I’m comfortable with, whoever I'm up against."

In his last fight against Jose Vivas, Villa sat down on his shots more than he had in recent bouts and scored a second-round knockdown. If not for a bizarre incident with the ropes breaking in the fight, it's very possible that he could have won by an early stoppage. However, Vivas had over ten minutes of recovery time after being hurt and was able to make it to the final bell. 

Villa's hometown of Salinas, a city in Monterey County a little more than 100 miles south of San Francisco, isn't exactly known as a hotbed for boxing. Its most famous resident was the author John Steinbeck, who set his novel "East of Eden" there. To get good sparring, Villa will often conduct part of his training camps at the Robert Garcia Boxing Academy in Riverside, five hours away in Southern California (although he remained in Salinas for this camp). Villa appreciates the gym's challenging and competitive environment. Villa's head trainer is Max Garcia (no relation to Robert), who is also from Salinas and has worked with Ruben since early in his professional career. Villa has learned a lot about professionalism from his time training in Riverside.

"I look at the other guys at that gym [the Robert Garcia Boxing Academy]," he said, "and see how much hustle they put into it. You know, we’re all chasing the same dream, so seeing other guys work hard really motivates me to do a little more, whether it’s an extra round or an extra mile. We all want a world title. You have to be ready to work, because if not, you're going to be outworked."

For Villa his life is essentially boxing. After losing to Shakur Stevenson at the 2016 Olympic qualifying finals (they have split their four amateur fights), he wanted to turn pro instead of waiting for another Olympic cycle. That loss and a number of other tough amateur fights helped him realize how seriously boxing meant to him. He now knew that he wanted to make the sport his career. After aligning with manager Danny Zamora, he fielded offers to turn pro from several interested parties. Ultimately they selected a joint co-promotional bid from Thompson Boxing and Banner Promotions. The promoters have helped build Villa in California with 13 of his 17 fights in the state, including multiple appearances in Salinas and Sacramento. 

Villa is a man at home in Salinas. It's a diverse community of more than 150,000 people, comprised of Anglos, Mexican-Americans, Filipinos, migrant workers and many others. The surrounding area is home to numerous farms, agribusinesses and packing plants. It's agricultural output is so bountiful that it led to Salinas's moniker as "America's Salad Bowl." The city also features a strong education sector and perhaps that's why many of the leading agricultural technology conferences find their way to Salinas annually. It's a city on the rebound with new investment streaming in; however, significant pockets of poverty remain. 

As Villa's status has continued to rise in Salinas, he feels a calling to give back to the city. He volunteers for food drives. He speaks to young offenders at the city's juvenile hall. He wants to be viewed as a positive role model. But even more importantly than that, he wants to help. 

"I didn’t have anyone to help me out as a young athlete," he said. "Knowing that Salinas needs help, why not be a guy to lend a hand and help motivate others? It doesn’t necessarily cost much to help out, but it’s more about your time, about talking with people in the community. Let them know if you work hard and do your best that they can achieve whatever they want…It definitely helps me sleep better at night knowing that I’m helping my community."

Should Villa continue his winning ways he believes that he will have the opportunity to fight for a title eliminator by the end of the year. He speaks optimistically about where he is in the sport, and life in general. He's happy with his team, his management, his family and where he lives. He's not a man with a chip on his shoulder. 

But make no mistake; he wants to fight the best. He knows that his time will come soon and he's trying to expand his skill set as much as possible for that day. He has already faced a number of the young shining stars in the sport as an amateur, and he's preparing for those opportunities as a pro in the near future. And in time, similar to Shakur and Gervonta, perhaps he will need only one name in the boxing community. He will be "Ruben." Just "Ruben."

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.comHe's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook. 

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