A year ago, Joey Villasenor was feeling really good about his MMA career. He had just defeated Phil Baroni on the first-ever MMA event broadcast on network television and was primed to make a run at the EliteXC middleweight title. He was then three weeks away from receiving that shot and an opportunity to avenge an October 2006 loss to Robbie Lawler, until the organization suddenly ceased operations and cancelled the event in November.
Since then, Villasenor has been anxiously awaiting his chance to get back in the cage. "I just can't wait to be under the lights, man," he said. "That's what I have done over frickin' 30 times professionally. I just can't wait to feel that numbness in my stomach. I've kind of grown addicted to it."
On Friday night, Villasenor will feel that numbness again when he faces Evangelista "Cyborg" Santos in the main event of "Strikeforce: Challengers" on Showtime (watch their weigh-in scuffle from Thursday). FanHouse spoke to the native of Albquerque, N.M., about resuming his career and his place in Strikeforce's middleweight division. The full interview is below.
Ariel Helwani: How frustrating has this past year been for you?
Joey Villasenor: Well, you know, this last year has been frustrating as far as I was on a roll, and I was three weeks away from a title fight with Robbie Lawler and everything was going great in camp. I felt really strong and focused for that fight, and then the roof came off. Elite went down and it was very frustrating. The most frustrating part of the whole ordeal was them holding our contracts as assets and nobody really wanted to put us to work. So, we had to just wait around. At least I stayed busy in the gym and helped out some of my teammates get ready for their fights, and I feel like I've gotten better. But financially, it was frustrating. Your career only goes on for so long, and I was really banking on saving that money I spent this past year for my retirement ... The most frustrating thing about it was that it was a healthy year -- it wasn't due to any injury or anything.
Did you have any inclination that the organization could cease operations at any point?
Yeah, of course. When you're around the company and you see all the blogs and the rumors and this and that ... I knew the company might be in trouble. Of course, they never disclose that stuff with the athletes, but I felt like there might be a little bit of trouble there. With all the cutbacks; the fact that they were set to have a fight here in Albuquerque and then they scratched that and another event; I was just really hoping that that fight would go and it would air and that I would be the new champion. But as things played out, it didn't happen, and I was just put in an unfortunate situation.
Were you upset to see Lawler lose a couple of weeks ago to Jake Shields since that may have ruined your chances of facing him again soon?
Of course. To take nothing away from Jake Shields – I thought he was going to be a tough test because Robbie hasn't been placed on the mat in a while and shown his grappling skills. He caught me by surprise that he caught him with a standing guillotine. I was banking on Shields taking him to the ground at least once, and that he would give Robbie a run for his money, but I really wanted Robbie to win that fight. To take nothing away from Diaz or Shields, but Robbie is a true middleweight and I'm a true middleweight, and I was really pulling for Robbie because I wanted that fight. I wanted to be the one to end his streak. It was unfortunate it wasn't me.
Do you have any knowledge as to what Strikeforce is planning on doing with their middleweight title because it doesn't look like Cung Le will be defending his title anytime soon?
Well, I think right now with the losses of Scott Smith and Robbie, it puts me right up in there. But I definitely have to get by this test in Santos. I think that they really just want to see what I have to offer, and I feel really comfortable about the position I'm in. But this whole Cung Le situation it's ... You know, as a fighter, and somebody who is pursuing greatness, you know, when you have a champion that doesn't fight consistently ... I don't blame the guy for going out and making a living outside of fighting, but you are the champ of the world and you gotta prove to people that you are. I think that's why he's not talked about amongst the higher ranked guys. He's just real inconsistent. He had a good fight with Frank [Shamrock], but I think that Diaz, Robbie, myself, Shields, anyone of those four guys can put him away. He's just staying real smart and making his living outside of the sport, but I wish that something would get resolved real quick. ... I just want to see Cung Le get back in there, whether I'm last in line to get my shot, so be it. Eventually, I will work for it. But if I win this next fight, I am definitely going to push that topic.
Have you lost respect for him for deciding not to defend the belt for this long?
You know, this is a tough game and this is a tough sport. I can respect him being a businessman on the one hand, but as far as the fighting goes, you want to see somebody stay consistent. I know that Cung Le has been a businessman outside of a fighter with that style of kickboxing that he did up there and building his name up there by getting the big win against Frank. But that's about: Frank. He beat Frank, and Diaz pretty much dominated Frank. So, we want to see what Cung Le has to offer, and to be honest with you, I think he is hurting himself by staying away from the game this long. Either he is going to have to retire, or he is going to have to face a very hungry middleweight.
Let's talk about your opponent, Evangelista "Cyborg" Santos. Which part of his game do you consider to be most dangerous?
Of course, everybody knows what's the most dangerous part. Santos -- that guy's no joke; he's got power. He's aggressive and he's got power. His last few fights, he showed some patience, and I'm banking on him coming out with some patience and looking to pick his shots. I think that this is his first time making middleweight, so we'll see how much power he loses ... We'll see how strong he is coming into this fight, but we definitely know that he's got a powerful punch.
Is he the most intimidating fighter that you've ever faced? He's definitely up there on my list of most intimidating looking fighters in MMA.
Well, I've watched his videos, and I've seen him in his woman's corner all the time, and of course, he is intimidating to a lot of people, but he's not intimidating to me. I've got some intimidating guys that I train with, you know, so I'm actually real comfortable with his demeanor. Actually, one of my tricks that I do, because you never know what to expect from a person by looking at a picture, on my cell phones about six weeks ago, I went and picked up the most intimidating picture I could find of Santos, and I put it as my screen saver. So, every time that I look at my phone, he's staring right at me. That way, whenever I see him in person, it's not such a shock. You know, I'll be used to that look. I'm kind of grooming myself for him trying to be a bully and intimidating.
Very clever. I was surprised to see you headlining a "Challengers" card because you are a veteran of the sport and someone who was scheduled to fight for the EliteXC middleweight title. Does that bother you?
Bothered me? Nah. It's not going to bother me. Maybe Strikeforce has something up their sleeve? The way I look at it is that they are trying to put some names on there so people can watch. I think they are just trying to get people interested. Of course it's a source of motivation. I'm like, 'Hey, why aren't I good enough to be on the main Strikeforce card like we were supposed to be?' But I'm just glad to be performing again and doing what God put me on this planet to do ... I'm just glad that this ride ain't over. Like one of my good friends, Brian Stann, told me, 'This is the 'Respect Tour '09' for 'Smokin'' Joe Villasenor.' So, that's the way I'm looking at it. You know, a lot of people are non-believers. I just want to go out there and perform at my best, and just show people that I am a contender. And if I have to do it on this stage, then so be it. It doesn't bother me.
Do you still feel as though the MMA community doesn't give you the respect that you deserve?
Always. I think most fighters will always tell you that. You know, I really don't care so much what the fans say. The thing that I care about the most is my employers. I want them to know that they are writing a paycheck to somebody who is going to put it on the line all the time, and somebody who has earned that money. And of course, my peers: my teammates and rival coaches and rival opponents; I want to earn their respect. I respect every athlete that gets in there with me, and I want the same back.