Gian Villante has found comfort in an uncomfortable setting.
The UFC’s Octagon isn’t exactly a peaceful place, what with an opponent looking for ways to inflict physical damage.
But after seven such experiences inside his chosen sport’s biggest stage, Villante feels at home.
“I feel a lot more comfortable in the cage,” said Villante, 30, from Levittown. “Everything is just starting to feel that much better while I’m in there. It took a little while to get comfortable in there, I don’t know why, it was just different to me. My last three fights, I definitely felt like a different fighter in there.”
Villante won two of those fights — a knockout of Anthony Perosh last November at UFC 193 and a TKO of Corey Anderson last April at UFC on Fox 15. Even the middle bout, a second-round knockout loss to Tom Lawlor, Villante (14-6, 4-3 UFC) looked crisp and in control in the first round until getting caught with a clean shot.
Such comfort for Villante will get tested Saturday when he battles Ilir Latifi of Sweden in a light heavyweight fight at UFC 196 in Las Vegas.
Villante is 6-foot-3, and Latifi is 5-foot-10. Villante also has a three-inch reach advantage over Latifi (12-4, 4-2), who is coming off two straight first-round knockout victories. Neither of those fights lasted more than 56 seconds. Latifi’s last five fights all ended in the first round, with Latifi winning four.
“He’s got all the tools,” said Brian Stann, a UFC analyst for Fox Sports. “Range is going to be really key with Latifi. Understanding range, understanding how to hit and not be hit.”
Villante, ranked No. 13 in the UFC’s 205-pound division, is on the main card on pay-per-view, just before Holly Holm defends her bantamweight title against Miesha Tate in the co-main event. It’s his first time on a UFC pay-per-view card, and it’s one that likely will surpass 1 million buys thanks to headliner Conor McGregor. The UFC featherweight champion fights Nate Diaz in the main event in a nontitle welterweight bout.
“Yeah, I guess that’s pretty cool,” Villante said. “Not a big difference for me. It’ll be a lot more people who haven’t seen me fight before will see me this time just because how big the card is.”
Here, amid an intense game of Mario Kart on Nintendo 64, former middleweight champion and Villante’s training partner Chris Weidman interjected.
“Villante’s gonna get famous, he doesn’t even know it,” Weidman said. “He’s finally gonna have people know who he is.”
The two fighters also are best of friends, and their competitive spirit and friendly barbs reach new levels when playing video games.
“This is my interview,” Villante shot back.
Villante’s last fight was in front of more than 50,000 people at Eithad Stadium in Australia on the undercard of Ronda Rousey vs. Holm. Now he’s on the main card of a McGregor fight. Two fights, two of the sport’s biggest stars on the cards.
“I’m getting some good opportunities to make a name for myself,” Villante said. “Everything is starting to fall into place a lot better now.”