Gianna Villanueva couldn’t wait anymore.
Her dad, Ike, was in Las Vegas, putting food on the table as a prizefighter, always willing to go that extra mile for his family. His daughter wasn’t expected until September, but on August 23, she decided it was time to make her entrance into the world.
“My wife, she was trying to hold on, but she went into labor right after my fight,” said Villanueva. “It was crazy. The baby wasn't due until September and she just couldn't hold on anymore, and we were blessed to have her.”
Is it possible that the cut that ended Villanueva’s fight against Jordan Wright induced that labor?
“I believe it was the cut,” he said. “She knew how much I put into this training camp, and for me to go out like that, it happens. It's the fight game. She's understanding, but not that much. (Laughs) It was just a freak accident, but it's what we signed up for, it's the fight game.”
The loss, the second in two UFC appearances for the Houston native, was a crushing one, but it wasn’t anything seeing his baby girl couldn’t cure.
“Oh man, most definitely,” he said. “My kids are getting older, but this one, it's like I'm rejuvenated. It's starting over again, me and my wife. I'll go train, and I'm a tough guy at the gym, but then I come home and I'm watching Cocomelon. (Laughs) It's crazy, but I'm enjoying it. It's a blessing.”
The 36-year-old has taken those good vibes, erased the memory of a 2020 that he’d like to forget when it comes to his time in the Octagon, and is now looking straight ahead with optimism at a year that begins on Wednesday when he faces Vinicius Moreira on UFC Fight Island.
“I just got through the hardest year of my life in 2020, was blessed with the greatest daughter I can be blessed with, and if I can get through 2020, 2021 it's time to come up and I'm excited for it.”
"This is my shot & I got to make it happen. It's do or die." - Ike Villanueva (@Hurricane_UFC) talks about fighting #InAbuDhabi, what fighting in the @UFC means to him & his #UFCFightIsland8 bout with Vinicius Moreira 🔊⬆️— UFC News (@UFCNews) January 17, 2021
Watch on ESPN+: https://t.co/1UoaQtDShp@VisitAbuDhabi pic.twitter.com/HhWgbqyWAO
It’s a crossroads battle for Villanueva and his opponent, both of whom are looking to enter the UFC win column for the first time. But coming up the hard way and delivering with his back against the wall is nothing new for the gritty Texan, who learned his propensity for hard work and resilience from his father Big Tom, who passed away in 2013, but not without imparting many important lessons to his son.
“My hero growing up was my father, and all that comes from him,” said Villanueva. “It's that seed he planted in me a long time ago. My dad boxed as a kid and you always hear those stories. So I always wanted to follow in his footsteps. He was a machinist. I followed him. And that ‘never quit’ attitude was something he always had. My dad wanted to be a business owner and wanted to run his own business. And when he finally did it, I was amazed. He was 40 years old when he opened his business. All that time, he never gave up on that dream. Me as a fighter, I knew eventually I would get to the UFC. I just had to keep on pushing.”
Villanueva had spotty results early in his pro career, only managing to go 7-7 in his first 14 bouts. Then his Tom Villanueva died, and his son was devastated, with fighting the furthest thing from his mind. The “Hurricane” didn’t fight in 2013 or 2014, his career apparently on a permanent hiatus.
“I was running his business and still mourning,” said Villanueva. “I wasn't ready to come back. My mind wasn't right. The thing about this fight game is, you can't BS it. You can't cheat the game. And if I couldn't give a hundred percent, I wasn't gonna half-ass it.”
Eventually, he got the fire back.
“When I was finally focused and finally ready, I told my wife, it's time,” he said. “And once I stepped back, there was no looking back. It was straight pushing.”
Villanueva won nine of his next 11 bouts, and after halting UFC vets Roger Narvaez and Rashad Coulter, he got the call he was looking for. He was a UFC fighter. And though his career in the big show hasn’t gone as planned thus far, don’t count him out.
“Don't let nobody ever tell you that you can't do something,” he said. “The whole thing about it being great in America is that you can keep dreaming. Don't quit. Hard work will pay off. And no matter how old I get, I still got it. I was born in 1984 and this '84 Chevy is still rolling. (Laughs) I'm ready to go.”
Make sure to watch Villanueva and Moreira at UFC Fight Island 8, Wednesday, January 20: Prelims begin 9am ET/6am PT, Main Card at 12pm ET/9am PT.
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