Smokin’ Joe in the Big Show

By Tommy Messano May 27, 2008
From his first fight nearly 10 years ago in Durango, Colo., to a slot on the main card in MMA's first foray on CBS, "Smokin'" Joey Villasenor (Pictures) has come a long way.

Now he's prepping for his 32nd bout as if it were his debut. His matchup Saturday against fellow MMA veteran Phil Baroni (Pictures) in EliteXC offers Villasenor the chance to add a signature victory to an already impressive resume.

Booked for their willingness to stand and trade, Baroni-Villasenor is a fight that could also have larger implications. A subplot lurking far behind the Kimbo Slice media feeding frenzy and the camera friendly Gina Carano (Pictures) is the potential for a breakout star in the Spanish-speaking market. As a million or so eyeballs gaze at their TV sets, the 32-year-old Villasenor could make a lasting impression on Mexican fight fans across the United States.

The Hispanic community has traditionally ranked boxing behind only soccer in popularity. Villasenor grew up with a passion for all types of hand-to-hand combat.

"I loved boxing," he said. "Mexicans basically dominate that sport. They dominate that sport with their gritty toughness, their chins and their endurance. For me to be one of the first Mexican-Americans in MMA, it brings a lot of pride."

Villasenor joins other Mexican-Americans like lightweights Roger Huerta (Pictures) and Gilbert Melendez (Pictures) as first-generation Hispanic fighters who chose MMA over boxing. He points to his work ethic as his way of leading by example for future Latino MMA athletes.

"We can cross over to boxing into mixed martial arts and still be successful," Villasenor said. "I think it's all about heart and determination. I think the Hispanic community knows all about hard work, and I'm just one of those individuals who have gone through it."

Born in East Los Angeles, Villasenor moved to Albuquerque, N.M., when he was 9 years old. After dabbling briefly in football and baseball, Villasenor saw an early UFC and took up martial arts for self-defense purposes. The classes turned into a hobby that turned into a martial arts addiction until he turned pro in April 1999.

Raised in the notorious combat sports hot bed of Albuquerque, Villasenor was surrounded by boxing influences.

"Albuquerque, New Mexico, has always been a fighting city. New Mexico has always been a fighting state," he said. "I think we still have that little brother syndrome. When I tell people where I'm from, a lot of Americans still believe that it is a part of Mexico. We have just always been overlooked and we have that fighting mentality."

Even the optimistic Villasenor is taken aback by how big MMA has become in Albuquerque.

"The sport out here caught on like boxing," he said. "It's huge. Anybody out here could see Georges St. Pierre (Pictures), Rashad (Evans), Keith (Jardine) and (Nate) Marquardt. On any given day, you can spot one of those athletes in Albuquerque. It's unreal to some fans that we are so common out here. Almost every other weekend there is a MMA show going on."

Villasenor joined coach Greg Jackson and his submission fighting team in 2001. The camp has gone from obscure dojo to the Mecca of MMA gyms in the American Southwest.

"Me, Jardine and Floyd Sword, we earned the ranks," Villasenor said. "We didn't get that free shot because we trained with the Lion's Den or from Gracie's. We had to work to this point, and I think that's just part of the tradition here in Albuquerque of a hard work ethic."

At 25-6, Villasenor has certainly built a successful career. Yet he still cringes when reflecting on his last two setbacks. A flying knee from Robbie Lawler (Pictures) and a right hand from Murilo Rua (Pictures) made the most recent blemishes on his record. Now that he is ranked behind EliteXC's other top two 185-pound fighters, Villasenor is fighting with his back against the wall even though he has won two straight. A loss to Baroni would severely limit his options against prominent EliteXC middleweights. A win would mean that Villasenor is once again on the cusp of a title shot.

He has a championship history. Villasenor had a lengthy reign as King of the Cage middleweight champion, which was part of a 15-fight winning streak. At times during that run he simply used his physical tools to overwhelm less skilled opponents. As he enters the latter stages of his career, though, Villasenor is turning to the mental edge he has accumulated during his near decade-long stretch in MMA.

"With each fight I feel mentally stronger," he said. "Experience in this sport goes a long way, and I think we have been doing all the right things, capitalizing as a team on all the right concepts. We were one of the first teams to actually adjust with the sport. A lot of teams stayed with their own style and don't move forward -- they get stuck."

Following his first-round knockout of Ryan Jensen (Pictures) in late March, Villasenor barely had time to take a breather before he was asked to replace an injured Murilo Rua on Saturday's card in Newark, N.J. He is relishing the quick turnaround instead of complaining about it.

On a fight card filled with potential standup fireworks, Villasenor, who holds a 16-0 amateur boxing record, is not shy about his game plan against Baroni.

"We have been working a lot of wrestling and hard conditioning. We really want to jump up the pace in this fight and expose what we might think are some weaknesses," Villasenor said. "I've got some great coaches I have been working with -- Mike Van Arsdale (Pictures) on my wrestling and Greg Jackson on my finishing moves."

With tentative estimates of three million to four million viewers for EliteXC's Saturday night showcase on CBS, Villasenor and the nine other fighters on the televised card have the unique opportunity to perform before a new set of fans and potential sponsors.

You can't beat free advertising.

"It's a huge fight businesswise," Villasenor said. "The cameras are going to be in my face like they always have been, but they're going to say CBS on them rather than Showtime or Dream Stage. I'm just blocking it out mentally because to me it's just another fight. I've been here 30-plus times. I'm excited to be on the card. I'm excited to be fighting on free national television, but for me it's just another bout."

Another Saturday night at the fights for Joey Villasenor, but it will also be another chance to represent his city, his heritage and his name to the next generation of fight fans.
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