Houston born and bred, Ike Villanueva wanted nothing more than to fight at Toyota Center on May 15 as UFC 262 rolled through his hometown. But with a fight scheduled with Marcin Prachnio for this weekend and the pay-per-view show already booked, he got to do the next best thing:
Take a victory lap.
“It's an amazing feeling to say I'm in the UFC and I'm signing autographs,” Villanueva said days before he made the trip to the event. “I'm bringing my wife because I want her to experience this with me because she's been on this ride along with me. I'm excited for that. Since I've been in the UFC, she's seen the outside. She hasn't got to come on the fight trips with me yet. She's been along for the whole ride and she was the one that kept me sane, telling me to stay patient, it's gonna happen. So I'm very thankful for that.”
Gratitude is a big part of Villanueva’s life these days. He’s grateful that Kim gets to see her husband achieve his dream of being in the UFC, grateful that his kids get to see the value of hard work and what it gets you, and grateful for the arrival of his youngest, GiGi, who was born as he drove home from his second UFC bout against Jordan Wright last August.
“I'm just very thankful,” he said. “Like a lot of fans know around here, that's just my blue-collar mentality. Hard work got me here. I didn't stop, I didn't have to beg nobody; I just kept grinding through all the downfalls, through all the tough times, and I just kept pushing because I knew deep down that I would finally get here. Now I'm here, and I'm 37, but I'm like a fine wine. (Laughs) I get better with age.”
He may be right. After a short-notice UFC debut in May 2020 resulted in a loss to Chase Sherman, his next bout with Wright also ended up with a stoppage defeat. But with his back against the wall in January, “Hurricane Ike” blew through Fight Island, with a second-round knockout of Vinicius Moreira putting him in the UFC win column for the first time.
“I knew I had time,” Villanueva said. “I had the birth of my daughter and it kind of fueled the fire a little bit more to keep it burning. But getting that victory finally, it shut the people up who talked bad about me. I belong here, but that feeling, it's a lifetime memory. That knockout I got, that's a walk off. Not many guys can say they did that in the UFC, and I kept my job. That knockout got me a new four-fight contract.”
And a new lease on a career that’s had more than its share of ups and downs. Yet through it all, Villanueva kept pressing, kept working, kept doing whatever was necessary to put food on the table and move forward. That’s not nearly as easy as it sounds. Not even close.
“I needed that support system at home because usually when you take a loss like that, all the fans, they leave,” said Villanueva. “It's just your family there, even if that. At the end of the day, it was just my nephew, my kids and my wife that stuck by me and really told me that I can make it. My wife saw the grind. I get up early, go to work, go train, just to provide for my kids and give them a better lifestyle. I knew deep down I could make it, but I'm thankful for her and I told her be patient, and she was telling me to be patient because she knows I'm a man with no patience when it comes to work. (Laughs) Everybody was like, 'Oh, he's so close to being there,' and I always had that mess-up.”
Those are the perils of trying to get to the UFC while on the regional scene. A few wins can get you on the radar of the promotion, but one loss tosses you back with everyone else until another winning streak could be put together.
In February 2020, the UFC was in Houston for UFC 247. Villanueva had won four straight in the Fury FC promotion, with back-to-back knockouts of Octagon vets Roger Narvaez and Rashad Coulter. He went to the event and made his way to matchmaker Mick Maynard.
“That was kind of like my pitching point where I got to sit down with Mick and meet (UFC President) Dana (White) and (matchmaker) Sean Shelby and everybody, and at least tell them my argument for why I should be in the UFC. I let them know that night and it's crazy because three months later, I got signed.”
It was a victory not just for Ike, but for Kim, as well.
“The blessing is, I'm thankful I have her as a support system at home, because if I didn't, you see guys that get the momentum and they get dragged down by the nightlife and everything catches up to them and they get distracted,” he said. “I'm glad I'm a veteran of the game and I've got a support system at home that kept me in line to keep pushing.”
At 37, Villanueva isn’t the youngest fighter on the roster, but he’s not the oldest either, so he’s got enough gas in the tank to compete with the best of the best, but also the experience to not get caught up in any nonsense. In other words, it’s perfect timing.
“I'm glad it actually happened now,” he said. “I mean, I would have loved if it happened earlier, but I'm just so mature and more driven. I've got kids, I've got two sons I've gotta put through college, so I've got a fire that's really pushing me and keeping me in line. There ain't no time to play games. I'm missing time with my family, but I'm really working and my kids know what I'm doing and they see it. Hard work is gonna pay off. I'm raising men at home and it's amazing when my sons can say, 'Dad, I'm proud of you.' Having your kid tell you that is priceless.”
It's also earned, and no one knows that better than “Hurricane Ike,” who didn’t take the easy road to this point, but who did do it the right way.
“I've been to those dark waters,” Villanueva said. “I've been to the bottom and I worked my way up. And I did it more than once. Guys that fall, some can't bounce back. Some, it will lead to drugs, lead to alcohol. Me, I've got kids at home. I can't go that route. Because that makes me look like a coward. If I lose, I'm gonna put that on me, swallow my pride and get back to work. And when you do it with hard work, you appreciate it more. Nothing was given. I just gotta stay hungry, stay motivated and never be satisfied. Because once you get satisfied, you plateau. So I haven't done nothing yet; I'm gonna keep on pushing and making people proud.”