Smokin' Joe Burns for Return

By Chris Cozzone Jun 19, 2009
His smokin’ guns holstered for over a year, Joey Villasenor has been at the mercy of belly-up organizations throughout a long, zigzag career climb. But he’s reasonably sure he’s finally going to get the chance to fight Friday night.

“Here we are, four days out,” Villasenor said Monday, following a wind-down workout at Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts in Albuquerque. “I think it’s finally going to happen.”

On Friday, Villasenor (26-6) headlines the Strikeforce Challengers event against Evangelista "Cyborg" Santos (16-12) in Kent, Wash. The bout, and four others, will be televised live on Showtime.

There’s no reason to think that Villasenor’s fight won’t happen -- but after multiple letdowns over the last 12 months, a bit of skepticism is a reasonable, if not healthy, response.

After Pride Fighting Championships went dormant, Villasenor signed up with EliteXC. Villasenor had a strong start, than a bad stumble against Murilo "Ninja" Rua, who stopped Villasenor with a second-round TKO in the promotion’s first middleweight title championship. The New Mexican veteran racked up three big wins afterward and was on the verge of another title shot when the organization folded.

With Villasenor’s contract caught in the crossfire, months of legalities tied up the Jackson-trained fighter, until Strikeforce resurrected the sport on Showtime this spring.

“The time off stunk,” said Villasenor. “I know it’s the nature of the business, but I lost a lot of time.”

At 33, and with a decade invested in a game that has seen its veterans, of late, become cage- and shopworn, Villasenor’s clock could be ticking.

Chris Cozzone/Sherdog.com

Villasenor has reflected on
his career in the past year.
“Am I a dinosaur?” asked Villasenor with a laugh. “I don’t think so, no sir. I feel I’ve only gotten better. It took a while for my career, and for MMA in general, to develop. The young guys are redefining it and training has become so specialized. But, for me, it’s been learning on the job.”

Villasenor was born in East L.A., but moved to Albuquerque when he was in fourth grade. Years later, Villasenor got his start in martial arts when his family moved to Farmington, in the northwest corner of New Mexico. After turning pro in 1999, Villasenor eventually found his way back to Albuquerque where he hooked up with Greg Jackson.

“I had a lot of opportunity to fight early on,” said Villasenor, who fought frequently for King of the Cage. “But, for the most part, I was sent out to lose. I realized I was just a feeder.”

Villasenor went from feeder to beater, as his nicknames evolved from “The Dream Smasher” to “The Mexican Hitman” to “Smokin’.” Eventually, he earned the choice to fight in the UFC or Pride.

Villasenor, whose teammates were UFC fighters, chose Pride.

“I have no regrets not taking the route of the UFC,” said Villasenor. “Everything’s a gamble in this sport. When the opportunity came for the UFC, I wanted to be paid accordingly.”

Villasenor lost his opening Pride bout –- a split decision to Ryo Chonan -- and was knocked out by a 22-second flying knee courtesy of Robbie Lawler in his second bout with the organization. Ironically, if EliteXC had continued, Villasenor would’ve rematched Lawler for the middleweight belt.

“It’s been a bit like fighting in the shadows,” said Villasenor. “And I don’t mind fighting in the shadows at all. I’ve never been big on stardom -- that just means more pressure. On the other hand, of course I want the chance to be the champ.”

Friday is another first step in that direction.

“The time off has taught me to savor every precious moment of ring time,” said Villasenor. “I’ve been training for a fight, on and off for a year now, for something that never happened. Now that’s it’s going to happen, the pressure is there to perform. It’s huge. No one wants to see a boring win. But if you forget all that, and just go out there and fight, and take over… that’s all there is.”

Against Santos, Villasenor believes he has preparation on his side.

“We’re gonna be better prepared than Cyborg,” said Villasenor. “He’s a Wanderlei Silva type, but he’s slowed down after hard losses. We’re prepared for his ankle and leglock attacks. We’ll stay clear of his big shots and we’ll go to work. I got the right team behind me.”

That team, for the past three years, has included girlfriend Holly Holm, who is a six-time world champion boxer.

“She’s been the biggest blessing in my life,” said Villasenor. “She understands the game, what it is we do. We eat right together, run together, watch films… She’s been a big impact in my life.”
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