Alexis Vila earned by far the biggest victory of his mixed martial arts career when he knocked out Bellator
featherweight champion Joe Warren
in the first round of the promotion's bantamweight tournament. For Vila, it was an achievement that had special meaning because of everything he's been through on his way to making his mark in MMA
, at the age of 40.
Vila was a bronze medalist in wrestling at the 1996 Olympics
, when he represented his native Cuba. A year later he defected to the United States and began exploring the possibility of becoming a professional fighter -- but that process was nearly derailed when he was sent to prison for three years after what he says was an accident, but the authorities labeled a terrorist act.
In an appearance on The MMA Hour
, Vila described how his prison experience motivated him to make something of himself in MMA.
"I was in prison for three years," Vila said. "It's no good. I'm a little guy so people who don't know me try things all the time. So I fought a lot. They didn't believe that I could fight. I said when I get out and I fight I'm going to be the champ."
In 2004 Vila crashed his SUV into a crowded terminal
at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. No one was hurt, and Vila has always maintained that it was simply an accident. But authorities initially believed Vila had committed a terrorist act, and charged Vila with committing airport violence
, a felony that could have put him in prison for 20 years. He eventually pleaded guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence.
Even before that incident, Vila had been through a lot. He still struggles with his decision to leave his family and his country behind in 1997.
"My dad is really sick over there but there's nothing I can do. I can only send money, not visit," Vila said. "I tell my mom, I send money so you guys can have a better life."
If Vila wins his next two fights and is crowned the Bellator tournament champion, he'll have a lot more money to send back home. After all he's been through, that's what motivates Vila.