clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Understanding Alexis Vila

New, 24 comments

The story of how Alexis Vila got to the U.S. and what the journey did to him are details that show his journey shares a common thread with many Cubans who defect, one which necessitates as much understanding as it does compassion.

Photo via Bellator MMA

ESPN radio host and columnist - as well as occasional troll - Dan Le Batard made a compelling argument in defense of surging baseball star Yasiel Puig last season. The Cuban phenom was widely celebrated for his remarkable talents, but condemned by members of the press and even the coaching staff on his own team for unprofessional behavior in and out of the clubhouse that sometimes bordered on the reckless.

Le Batard, however, argued while Puig's undesirable behaviors weren't acceptable, they also demanded greater context. Specifically, the context that many Latino baseball players from deeply impoverished or oppressive places struggle with their new found freedom. They don't know how to navigate the world of banking or finance. They've never tasted so many good foods, so diet becomes an issue. Some, as he points out, don't even know how to use a modern sink.

If Le Batard is right, some of those sympathies about the conditions of freedom could have and should still be extended toward WSOF's Alexis Vila. Like Puig, Vila defected to the United States as a peak athlete looking for opportunities that were unthinkable as long as he remained in Cuba. Unlike him, however, there was never any multi-million dollar contracts waiting for him once he arrived.

In fact, there was almost nothing at all save for his athletic accomplishments and a fearsome reputation within the international wrestling community. Suddenly being given wealth and other forms of life assistance after a lifetime of deprivation confers it's own set of challenges that should be taken seriously. Yet, what obstacles to progress are there when said deprivation is then met not with huge sums of money, but other unforeseen forms of want and loneliness?

Vila's story goes something like this. The Cuban national wrestling team made its way to San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1997 to take part in the Pan American Games. Vila, coming off of a controversial third-place finish at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, managed to rebound by winning gold at the tournament in the 48 kg division. After winning and accepting his medal on podium, the team turned their attention towards another Cuban athlete at 60kg ready to wrestle in his gold medal match.

That's when Vila, who arranged for a friend living in Puerto Rico to have a car running and ready outside of the facility, made his move. As the team and its handlers were distracted watching the other gold medal match, he walked out of building, hopped in the car and hid on the island until the Cubans were forced to go home.

"I went to the Pan American Games in Puerto Rico in San Juan. When everybody was looking at my other teammate - he had to wrestle for the gold medal, too, in the finals - I left," Vila told MMA Fighting. "I had a friend, so I stayed with my friend to his house. I stayed over there until everybody left to Cuba. After that, I bought a ticket and flew to Miami."

Cuban defection stories can come more harrowing than that, but all are dangerous and uniquely painful. Vila says he couldn't tell anyone he was leaving or they'd likely face some form of retribution back in Cuba. He left everyone he knew - friends and family alike - including his then-newborn daughter, who he hasn't seen since winning gold in San Juan.

"When I defected from Cuba," he says, "I had my daughter. She was ten months [old]. I had all my family. I had everything. I don't have nobody here in the United States.

"I know people," Vila says as he explains those around him today, "but I don't have family. So, I had to start a new life."

Still, fortune did smile on Vila here. Americans in the wrestling community snatched him up almost immediately once he was granted amnesty and arrived in Miami. He first did a coaching stint at North Carolina State University before ending up on the staff at Michigan State University for a handful of wrestling seasons.

Things were seemingly headed in the right direction until they weren't. In July of 2004, Vila, driving his 1998 Lincoln Navigator, careened into and through a ticket counter at Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. There were no injuries to bystanders. Vila was physically unharmed from the crash, but the incident encapsulated the moment his life post-defection unraveled. It'd had been fraying at the seams for months, but that set in motion it's complete dissolution.

The popular story often repeated about the crash is that Vila, potentially sleepy but in any case negligently, somehow lost control of the vehicle. As it turns out, some of the facts and context, are far more complicated.

At a July hearing this year with the Nevada Athletic Commission, Vila was required to appear (via phone) to obtain a license to compete at Saturday's World Series of Fighting 12 event. For crashing into the airport in 2004, Vila was sent to federal prison for three years, something he was required to disclose to the commission. As they asked about the circumstances of such an unusual event that resulted in jail time, Vila's manager revealed the Cuban wrestler's crash was a suicide attempt. Upon further questioning about the circumstances of the suicide attempt, his manager further stated Vila was reeling from the death of his brother.

Vila doesn't know how to categorize or label what happened at the airport, but says by the time the incident happened, he'd been diagnosed with clinical depression. He was heavily drinking (although not during the day of the accident) to help manage the pain and heartache he was experiencing, which he says stemmed from what happened to his family as well as being alone in a country full of strangers.

"It could be. It could be, but it's not really suicide," he says when asked whether what happened was an attempt to take his own life. "The thing is, a lot of things happened when before I hit the airport. A lot of things happened. I have to say, thank God they gave me one more chance in life."

Vila's side of things is that with his very limited English, he was in a panic, driving around lost. Unsure of what to do, he called 911 for help, but says operators hung up on him multiple times because they couldn't understand him or were unwilling to help him with his troubles on an emergency channel. Like other Cuban athletes before him, his missteps were a function of not knowing what things were, who to turn to or what was expected in a place where simplicity is a scarcity. Eventually, he claims, the phone fell from his hands.

"When I went to pick up my phone off the floor, my tire hit the sidewalk. At that time, I go to put the brake but hit the gas. This is when the car go through the window. I don't even know where I went through."

The process of going to prison wiped out everything he'd accrued on the outside in his new life, Vila claims. The costs of trial to loss of income were burdensome to the point they took everything he had. "I felt alone. I was alone. I don't have nobody to even get advice. I lost my car. I lost my house. I lost everything. Hard time. Hard time there.

"I don't like to remember."

Vila was nearly charged with an act of terrorism, but eventually was given a lighter sentence for airport violence. Prison, Vila says, was predictably horrible. While a world-class athlete, inmates wanted to test him repeatedly because of his relatively smaller size. Much of his early time there was spent away from the rest of the population, he claims, for his own safety. He spent eight months of the three-year sentence not in solitary confinement, but in a solitary cell, something that only exacerbated his feeling of isolation.

Still, he persevered and finished his sentence without much incident, although he says the idea of prison as a place of rehabilitation is more than dubious. "I didn't feel better," Vila says about his state upon release. "Nobody's going to feel better in prison, but I believe everything happens for a reason."

What that reason is, Vila doesn't say, but after being released in 2007, the MMA boom was in full swing. Vila saw another opportunity to ply his wrestling trade and jumped in. Despite being well past his athletic prime, Vila was so far ahead of the curve athletically, he was still able to carve out a respectable career, one which brings him to national television and Las Vegas on Saturday.

Now, 43 years of age, questions naturally arise as to why Vila continues to compete. He suggests the answer is simple: he's a life-long athlete. Retiring from athletic competition is never going to be a routine task. "I can't tell [when I'll retire]. This is part of my life. It's going to be hard the day I decide to stop fighting," he observes.

Yet, for all the talk of moving away from athletics, there's a more basic and important purpose to it all. Vila is from Santa Clara, Cuba, a city with a quarter million people that rests on a hillside plain almost as equidistant from the Caribbean Sea as it is the Atlantic Ocean. The remaining members of his family, including his 18 year-old daughter, all still live there. Vila contends work in the town largely comes in the form of sugar cane or coffee farming. Some jobs are available in beer making, but poverty, Vila says, is common even for those with relatively good occupations.

His choice to keep fighting may be part of his athletic journey, but is also inalienable from his obligation to help ease his family's financial struggles. "I send the money, everything," he says matter of factly. "That's why I'm still here fighting."

Vila's post-defection life in the United States has been anything but stable and consistent. In that respect, his journey mirrors that of many Cubans, super athlete and the utterly ordinary, who've made the difficult trek. Despite all that's happened, and his enduring longing for family or the daughter he never was able to see move through adolescence into adulthood, he doesn't regret leaving Cuba. Desperate people make and live with difficult choices. Whether Vila is happy, only he knows, but in terms of the life choices available to him, he's confident in the path he took.

"Sometimes it's been harder, but everything is an experience, you know?," he asks me in an empathetic tone, although I'm scarcely able to do more than conceive of what he's discussing. "If someone told me, 'You prefer being in Cuba or be over here?' I'd say no matter what happens in here, I made a good choice."

He's also decidedly apolitical. When asked if he wished things were different between the U.S. and Cuba, he's non-committal. Whatever the governments decide, they decide, he tells me. He's just here looking for a new opportunity, which he says is the kept promise of his second country.

"The best part about being in the United States is no matter what, you always have another opportunity," he argues. "The choice to get a better life and feel free from the pressure. A lot of things you can do in America is not allowed in my country, so, I took the risk to come here," he states.

As certain of his decision as he may be, Vila followed his praise of America by telling me, "I miss my family over there." Vila would make the same choices again, but quickly says there's a major caveat to his time here. He never felt like what happened with the airport accident was portrayed properly. He believes edifying details he can share about what transpired have never been shared with the public. He's also adamant his stint in prison, for what he is certain was an accident, has unfairly followed him.

"This is the only thing I have to say about this government," he says, "They put me like a terrorist. They never made clear what really happened there."

Vila now runs an American Top Team-affiliate gym in Miami and has had personal and professional successes since leaving prison, but questions still surround him. People who hear of his past often mistrust him, he believes. He also suggests he lost out on an opportunity to be in the UFC because of the liability the airport accident brings.

Remarkably, though, Vila isn't angry or upset. In his words, he just wants people to know what he regards as the fuller picture. He acknowledges mistakes as well as his full payment for them. At 43, none of us can have a clean slate, but he also hopes eventually a fairer portrayal of who he is and what happened can emerge.

His journey to the United States and through it has been as undulating as it has difficult. It continues Saturday evening when he faces Brandon Hempleman at WSOF 12. His enduring wish, the one which carried him to these shores, was the promise of opportunity. That is something he still leans on today, to not be defined by one representation of his life's low point; to have the chance to set the record straight.

"Don't get me wrong, [the U.S.] gave me opportunity," he tells me, "but in some case people look at me different, like a criminal or something like that. I not."

He won't say it, but what he's looking for is a little understanding. Given what we know of other Cuban athletes who have made a similar journey, granting Vila another opportunity would be as helpful to him as it is to us.