Gian Villante (right) sported faux chops at Friday’s weigh-ins. | Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
Gian Villante took to mixed martial arts like a bird takes to air.
Just two years into his professional career, the former college wrestler and football player finds himself competing at a major event. Villante will lock horns Chad Griggs in a heavyweight grand prix reserve bout at Strikeforce/M-1 Global “Fedor vs. Silva” on Saturday at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J. He signed a two-year, six-fight deal with the California-based promotion in January and broached candidly the subject regarding whether or not he was prepared for such a quantum leap.
“I don’t know if I’m necessarily ready,” Villante told Sherdog.com. “Some people do. I’ve won my fights. It’s the same cage as every other cage.”
Villante rose to prominence on the regional circuit, as he excelled in two weight classes and captured the Ring of Combat heavyweight championship in February 2010. His roots, however, can be traced back to a childhood spent in Levittown, a hamlet on Long Island, N.Y. The second of four children born to Josephine and Sal Villante, his parents divorced when he was 5 years old. The split came at an early enough stage in his life that he felt no negative aftershocks.
“It was good,” Villante said. “They kept it civil, and we were able to see both of them. They’re both remarried now and happy.”
He raised typical teen-ager hell as an adolescent and credits his high school wrestling coaches for putting him back on the straight and narrow.
“I wasn’t what you’d call a good kid,” Villante said. “When I was in ninth grade, I was hanging out with all the seniors. I had a senior girlfriend, and I was staying out at all times of the night. They told me if I wanted to make it in sports that I had better straighten up.”
Villante heeded their warnings and threw himself into wrestling and football. He was a star linebacker on the McArthur High School football team and won a state wrestling championship as a senior, earning a scholarship to Hofstra University in 2003. No man had a greater impact on his life than Howie Greenblatt, the longtime wrestling coach at McArthur.
“He’s the man to me,” Villante said. “I coach his kids now. He taught me that nobody’s perfect but that we can work to make ourselves something.”
Villante excelled at both sports in college and was viewed as a prospect by NFL scouts. MMA had not yet entered the picture. He went undrafted in 2007, and though he attended a few mini-camps and tryouts, he became admittedly bitter and decided to give up on football.
“I was definitely close [to making it to the NFL],” Villante said. “I thought I deserved to be drafted, and it upset me that I wasn’t. I made the decision that I wasn’t going to be one of those guys who floated around.”
After seeing a former wrestling coach fight in mixed martial arts, Villante took up training at the Bellmore Kickboxing Academy. There, he developed under the watchful eye of Keith Trimble, one of the top striking coaches on the East Coast. Villante credits Trimble for his rapid development.
“He’s gotten me every one of my fights,” he said. “He’s the guy that comes up with the game plan. I might be doing it in the cage, but he’s the one who taught it to me.”
A natural athlete, he soaked up the direction like a sponge. Villante believes his background in wrestling and football made for an easier transition to MMA. He was coachable and eager to learn. Trimble took out the figurative chisel and went to work.
“I think [my athleticism is] probably the only advantage I have going into a fight,” Villante said. “My technique is not there because I’ve only been doing the sport for two years. I was a linebacker, and I fight that way. When I see an opening, I explode through it.”
He blitzed through his first six foes, posting 35- and 40-second finishes in the process. Villante entered his April bout with Bellator Fighting Championships veteran Demetrius Richards with an eye on becoming a two-division titleholder inside the Ring of Combat promotion. A freak elbow injury wiped out those plans and resulted in his first defeat.
“It’s something that taught me a lot,” Villante said. “If I didn’t lose there, I probably wouldn’t be where I am now. It was a fight I was winning. I went to go for a throw, and my arm dislocated. It’s something I’ve done in practice a million times. It was just a freak thing that happened.”
Villante spent eight months on the sidelines. He did not skip a beat upon his return, as he smashed through Puerto Rican import Joseph Reyes in 63 seconds at Ring of Combat 33 in December. A month later, Villante struck a deal with Strikeforce. He recognizes the magnitude of the opportunity.
“It’s a life-changer, for sure,” Villante said. “A lot of people are starting to notice me.”
In Griggs, he faces an opponent whose stock has never been higher. The once-beaten Arizonan last appeared at Strikeforce “Houston” in August, when he struck former World Wrestling Entertainment superstar Bobby Lashely into retirement after the second round. Griggs will carry a four-fight winning streak into his showdown with Villante.
“He’s a tough guy who comes to fight, who comes to win,” Villante said. “I think you could see that in his last fight. I know I have to be ready to fight for three rounds.”
Though he was entered as a potential alternate in the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix, Villante ultimately sees his MMA career playing out at 205 pounds.
“I can’t complain [about fighting at heavyweight]. I don’t have to cut any weight. I can eat whatever I want,” said Villante, who checked in at 227 pounds at Friday’s official weigh in. “I think light heavyweight is where my future is at, but this is an opportunity I didn’t want to let go by.”
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