After UFC 247 took place in his hometown of Houston in February, Ike Villanueva made sure he found UFC matchmaker Mick Maynard to make his case for a shot at competing in the Octagon.
It had already been a long run for the then 35-year-old, owner of a 16-9 pro record over the course of a career that began in 2008. If we’re talking about paying dues, Villanueva paid more than his share. And yeah, the record wasn’t spectacular, there were some key losses at key times, but man, “Hurricane Ike” hit hard, and in his last two victories, he knocked former UFC fighters Roger Narvaez and Rashad Coulter.
“Sir, who do I gotta beat? Who's left? What else do you want?” Villanueva asked. Maynard listened to him and while there wasn’t a contract on the table, the Texan did leave the conversation assuming that if he was going to get a call from the UFC, it was going to be as a short-notice replacement.
“I was okay with that,” said Villanueva. “I've known Mick a long time and we were in his ear. The only way to get noticed is work. Just show him you can do it and that's all I did. If I can't get it now, I'll keep winning. Bring whoever. Bring all these prospects in. I'm a different fighter and these guys are just not there yet. My job is to break them, and that's what I've been doing. I was prepared for anybody. Just give me my opportunity and I'll show the world I belong here.”
Villanueva’s manager, Jason House, told his fighter to stay ready. He did, even as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down gyms and sports around the world. Thankfully for Villanueva and his family, he didn’t have to worry about where his next paycheck was coming from, as his job as a CNC machinist remained intact.
“We've been staying busy, but it's been kinda crazy because I've got family at home and I'm still trying to find ways to train and it's a matter of trying to take care of ourselves and be safe in this time,” he said. “(At work) They spread everybody out, we gotta keep our distance, and wear our masks, but it's been a blessing to be able to work.”
Then on May 1, Villanueva had to clear his schedule for even more work, as House called him with the news every fighter wants to hear.
“I thought he butt-dialed me,” laughed Villanueva, who got the offer to face Chase Sherman this Wednesday in Jacksonville.
“Going through this crazy thing we're all going through, you get the phone call, there's no doubt,” he said. “Let's go. I don't care what weight, what guy. This is the UFC. You answer the phone call and you don't say no. So me, as a blue collar Texas working man, let's get it, I'm excited for this.”
Well, at least he was until all the paperwork that goes with fighting in the big show arrived.
“I tell you what, I had no idea,” he laughed. “I got all this paperwork Friday, and I was like, wow. My manager said, ‘Welcome to the big leagues; it's part of the process.’ But I was shocked. I just want to train to fight.”
Villanueva got a little more advice from his friend and teammate, UFC heavyweight contender Derrick Lewis, and he tore through the paperwork like an old pro. Now he just had to focus on the returning Sherman, and with both fighters unafraid of a good ol’ fashioned fistfight, he couldn’t have asked for a better matchup.
“I was licking my chops,” Villanueva said. “This was a blessing. It's the perfect matchup.”
And the perfect opportunity to make all the sacrifice worth it. Whether he’s 36 or 26, he’s here now, and his fists control his destiny. More importantly, his family gets to see him achieve a dream while also setting example for the little ones in the house, including a daughter he and his wife are expecting in September.
“There's no ego here,” he said. “I'm just a blue-collar guy and I know what to expect. I'm going here to work. Those younger guys, they've got a lot of distractions. They're living the life. Me, I've got a family and this is for my kids and my wife, and I've got a daughter on the way in September. I'm showing my sons - I've got two six-year-olds - that hard work will pay off, and they're seeing it firsthand. Age is nothing but a number, and if you work hard, it will pay off, and that's what I'm doing.”
In a ruthless game where dreams can be dashed with one punch or one bad night, Villanueva’s rise to the UFC is a feel-good story. Don’t expect the “Hurricane” to get too emotional about it, though.
“I think my emotions hit me when I got the phone call that it was real,” he said. “My wife always told me to be patient, it's gonna come, don't force it. So there's no butterflies. That s**t was out the window in 2008. (Laughs) I'm a hardcore professional and the world has not seen the ‘Hurricane' yet and I can't wait to unleash it and show the people who I am. I think they're gonna love me. The locals love me down here and I'm just happy to get a chance to show the world who I am and it's a blessing that I get to do it May 13th.”