Mark La Monica is the deputy sports editor for cross media at Newsday and writes about mixed martial
Can Gian Villante's debut in Strikeforce set up any better than that?
"It was a no-brainer to sign with them and get this deal done," said Villante, a two-time Ring of Combat champion who signed a multifight contract in early January. "It was not something I really needed to negotiate."
Villante, 25, from Levittown, is 7-1 as a mixed martial artist, receiving higher praise with each of his professional fights. Villante brings the reputation of being a first-round stud into the cage Saturday against Chad Griggs on the same night that Fedor and Antonio "Big Foot" Silva kick off the Strikeforce World Grand Prix heavyweight tournament.
Maybe his opponents just weren't very good. Or maybe Villante is just that good. Villante has spent a total of 19 minutes, 43 seconds in the cage during his fights. Only one fight went to the second round, and that was just 85 seconds. His average fight is 2:28, so in the time it takes you to watch a movie trailer at the theater, Villante has knocked out or forced his opponent to submit.
The math may not add up, but Villante preaches a calm approach. When the quality of competition increases, he'll need that patience as fights go into the second and third rounds. More patience, more stamina.
"The way I come in, I'm a calm guy, relaxed," said Villante, a former linebacker and wrestler at MacArthur High School and Hofstra. "Once I get in there, there's a little more to me. When I'm coming out there, I try to be as calm as I can so I can keep to my game plan and fight a smart fight."
Perhaps that explains his listening to country music before fights. Not the traditional genre you'd associate with a 230-pound man who gets paid to punch, kick, twist and maul another 230-pound man.
"I don't think any of my friends respect it the same way I do," Villante said of his choice of music. "When I'm getting my hands taped before, I'm humming a little country and staying calm."
In MMA, with its "two men enter, one man leaves" angle, being the one who leaves victorious requires as much mental strength as physical. If a fighter is on the ground with his opponent working to bend an arm or leg in ways not originally intended by the writers of medical journals, he must stay focused and within himself to get loose and prevent the submission attempt.
It's quite a different mind-set than football, another area in which Villante excelled. "You see me before a game, I was pretty much almost crying I was so angry and ready to go," said Villante, Newsday's 2002 winner of the Thorp Award as Nassau's best player. "But you have to have two different mind-sets. Wrestling, you could catch me right before the state finals, I was napping in the corner."
Villante will be wide awake come Saturday. In part because of the fireworks and loud entrances at Strikeforce events, in part because he's a fighter on his way up. He'll have a vocal cheering section at Izod Center, no doubt. All eight of his previous fights were in New Jersey, and the Villante entourage rolls deep.
"It's New Jersey, and that's the new home for me for fighting until they legalize it in New York," said Villante, who trains at Bellmore Kickboxing Academy. "If Fedor don't sell enough tickets, then hopefully, I will."