While Gian Villante is one of the most intense competitors on the UFC roster on fight night, on any other night, the Long Islander is as laid-back as they come, quick with a laugh or a self-effacing joke as he searches for the next good time.
So it’s not much of a surprise that as he prepares to receive another round of “Uh vai morrer,” aka “You’re gonna die,” from Brazilian fans before he faces Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in Fortaleza on Saturday, he’s not too rattled.
“I think it’s awesome,” Villante says with a laugh. “We’re on our way and we’re growing here in the States, but the UFC down in Brazil, it’s that and soccer to them. If we can keep growing the sport and hopefully catch up like they did, it would be a great thing. So I love it and I love to see how much they love the sport. Nobody knows who I am in New York, but I get off the plane in Brazil, people are telling me right away I’m gonna get my ass kicked.”
In the great scheme of things, it’s really the only way for Villante or any non-Brazilian fighter to react when fighting in front of some of the sport’s most diehard fans because the bottom line is, those fans won’t be in the Octagon when the gate shuts. There’s a fight to be fought, and that should be the only focus.
And it is for Villante, even though he is fighting an MMA legend in Rua. But that’s the fun part for him, so what is he concerned about this weekend?
“Hopefully it’s not too hot in the arena like it was last time,” he said, referring to his last business trip to Brazil, a 2014 bout in Natal against Fabio Maldonado. Villante lost that grueling three-rounder via decision, but he’s since won four of his next six, with three of those victories over Sean O’Connell, Corey Anderson and Saparbeg Safarov earning him Fight of the Night honors.
In a 205-pound weight class in need of rising stars, Villante fits the role perfectly, and a win over a former world champion in Rua would cement that status. So this is his biggest fight ever, right?
“(Rua is) a guy I’ve always looked up to and a guy I’ve always wanted to fight just because I thought we’d have some fun fights together. We both fight in a similar style where we like to brawl, and the fans will get to see that soon enough.” --Gian Villante
“This is the biggest fight of my life, but so was my last fight and so was the fight before that,” he said. “They’re always huge. There’s no small fight in the UFC.”
Maybe this is why Villante is able to keep everything on an even keel. He has been on the UFC roster since 2013, he has had his wins, he has had his losses, and he’s still here. So while “Shogun” is still an imposing name and one Villante admires, he still has to fight him, and it doesn’t get more cut and dried than that.
“It’s crazy that he’s only four years older than me because I feel like he’s been around forever,” the 31-year-old said of Rua. “He’s a guy I’ve always looked up to and a guy I’ve always wanted to fight just because I thought we’d have some fun fights together. We both fight in a similar style where we like to brawl, and the fans will get to see that soon enough.”
For some, that’s just talk. For a guy like Villante, if he says he’s looking to brawl, he means it, as much as his coaches may be losing hair over his propensity to dump the game plan and start slugging the first time he gets hit. Then again, Rua made his name in the sport with such an attitude, setting the stage for what may be one of the best fights of the first quarter of the year. And as uncomfortable as Villante and Rua are going to make each other once the fists start flying, there is an odd comfort in seeing two athletes in their element.
“There’s a comfort in knowing that we’re gonna go in there and have a good fight,” Villante said. “He’s not gonna do some crazy, spinning attacks, he’s not gonna try to take me down and lay on me. He’s gonna try to punch me, I’m gonna try to punch him back, and we’re gonna have a war. So it’s gonna be some fun stuff, nothing I haven’t seen before from anyone else. I think it’s a great matchup and the matchmakers made a good call having us fight each other now.”
Most people, even professional prizefighters, wouldn’t want to fight “Shogun” Rua, let alone stand in the pocket and trade with him. Villante is cut from a different cloth, and that makes him a special fighter. If he wins, the rest of the world will know that too. If he doesn’t, well, he’s not thinking that far ahead, win or lose.
“I’m not a guy that really looks too far past tomorrow for the most part,” he laughs. “I live it day by day and enjoy myself and have fun as I’m going. Anyone you meet who knows me knows I’m all about the moment and having a good time. So I don’t really think about anything past beating him, but I do think about going in there and whipping his butt for damn sure. I know it’s a huge fight, but I’ll be just as nervous as I was for my last fight. There’s no let-up in pressure with anyone you fight. You can be doing this for 30 fights or it could be your first fight; there’s the same amount of pressure. It sucks.”
He laughs, knowing that, despite that statement, when his name is called, he fights. That attitude may get him a world title, it may not, but in the meantime, he’s going to make sure he brings the fans along for those good times in the Octagon.
“The UFC is about entertainment,” Villante said. “It’s not about going in there and guys laying on each other. I was a good wrestler but I don’t think I’ve gone for one takedown yet in the UFC. I’m in there to put on a show, put on an exciting fight, have some fun with those fans and to have them want to see me fight again. I’m gonna get fans by being me, having fun, and the best way I have fun is by getting punched in the face and punching someone else in the face. I’m gonna be me.”