Ruben Villa, right, lands a stiff jab against Enrique Vivas in a recent fight | Photo by Dennis Taylor
By Dennis Taylor
It might be a hard sell in this era of Marvel superhero worship to convince the Salinas kids who flock every day to Team Villa Gym that their ever-smiling host is only flesh and blood.
“Those kids look at him like he’s Spiderman,” observed Jessica Villa, mother of 22-year-old Ruben Villa IV, an undefeated professional boxer, Salinas born and bred, who currently is ranked as the seventh-best featherweight (126 pounds) in the world by the World Boxing Organization.
How could Ruben Villa stand 5-foot-6, but look 10 feet tall, the kids wonder? How could he be lightning and thunder on their television screens (his last three fights were on Showtime), but so friendly, playful and affectionate during their daily workouts?
Villa is the big brother they’ve always dreamed of having, a person they aspire to emulate. In fact, he’s a superb choice as a role model, for reasons far more important than his blazing-fast hands, his technically perfect footwork, his impeccable work ethic.
Villa also is somebody who believes deeply in random acts of kindness, particularly toward people in need, especially when nobody’s looking.
Salinas has a rich boxing history, developing multiple world-ranked fighters, but has never produced a world champion. If Villa becomes the city’s first, he’ll consider it a victory for the community as much as for himself.
And, by the way, odds are very good that he’ll reach that pinnacle.
Villa began boxing at age 4, and was 166-17 as an amateur. He won 15 national tournaments, including the U.S. Golden Gloves championship twice. In 2016, he went 2-2 against Shakur Stevenson, the American who won the 123-pound silver medal the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Villa’s ring nickname in those days — “Dracula” — was no doubt intimidating to his young opponents, but its origin was innocent enough: When Villa was 8, a dentist pulled two of his front teeth, then sent him on to boxing practice. The moniker was born when Ruben smiled at coach Rudy Puga, the man who trained him through his amateur years.
In July 2016 Villa, just 19, made his professional debut with a knockout victory, and three years later he is 17-0, with five knockouts. Now that he’s world-ranked, Villa’s opponents become more accomplished with each fight, but if he keeps winning, he’s on track to fight for a 126-pound world championship sometime in 2020 or 2021.
It’s not a pipe dream. Max Garcia, Villa’s head trainer, has come close with two other fighters.
Salinas native Jose Celaya, another national amateur champion, was the No. 1-ranked contender in the world at 147 pounds in 2004 before another management team lured him away from Garcia Boxing with a six-figure signing bonus. But Celaya was knocked out by a journeyman opponent in his first fight under his new handlers, (which included hall-of-fame trainer Emanuel Steward), and never fought for a world title.
And Eloy Perez moved to Salinas from Rainier, Wash., to train with Team Garcia, became a No. 1 contender, and fought undefeated Adrien Broner for the WBO’s super featherweight (130-pound) world championship in 2012. He lost the fight by technical knockout and never fought again, retiring with a 23-1 record.
"I was probably in my teens when I really started noticing the problems we had in our city ... I don’t think those things really represent what Salinas is, and I don’t want outsiders thinking that this is a bad place."
— Ruben Villa, featherweight boxer
“We need a world champion in Salinas — that would be important for this town,” Garcia said. Villa, a graduate of Everett Alvarez High School, looks at it the same way.
“I was probably in my teens when I really started noticing the problems we had in our city: homeless people … people addicted to drugs … kids my age who were in gangs,” he said of a city that, as recently as 2017, ranked No. 1 per capita in California for gang-related homicides. “I don’t think those things really represent what Salinas is, and I don’t want outsiders thinking that this is a bad place.”
“At some point I started to see my success in boxing as a platform to help promote the good things about our community,” Villa said. “To me, it just felt like common sense.”
It also aligns with the philosophy his mother has preached to her five children, Ruben and four sisters, since they were small.
“She’s been through a lot in her own life and she’s a really strong person,” Villa said. “She’s somebody who will see a stranger in distress, or in need, and she’ll stop and ask what’s wrong. Salinas needs more people like my mom — people who will stop and ask if they can help.”
The fighter has grown into a person with the same compassion. On a spontaneous whim, he recently convinced 10 of his friends to help him assemble dozens of lunches, which they handed out to people on the streets of Chinatown, an area of Salinas where the homeless congregate.
He often repacks the free boxing apparel and gear he regularly receives from the Everlast Company, a sponsor, and sends it on to a random needy kid (always a complete stranger) he noticed on social media.
He’ll help a friend with a toy drive late this month.
He volunteers his time to speak to children and teens at local schools, Boys and Girls Clubs, and juvenile detention centers.
“He brought me with him when he spoke to the kids at the Monterey County Youth Center (a correctional facility) and it was awesome,” Jessica Villa said.
She was exceedingly proud of her son that day, but no less impressed than Ruben was with his mother.
Villa’s mom told the kids her own relatable tale of growing up in a dysfunctional family where alcohol abuse and domestic violence was commonplace. She was 16 years old when she gave birth to her first child, Destiny, now 24. The father, Ruben Villa III, Ruben’s dad, was only 14.
“I was out of the house by the time I was 16, and I had my own place when I was 18,” she said. “Ruben came along when I was 19, so I was working at restaurants, or whatever job I could find, to support two kids.”
When she was 23, Jessica’s troubled brother, Carlos, called and told her he was planning to hang himself.
“No you’re not … stop being dumb,’” Jessica scolded him.
The following day, Carlos was found dead. Jessica says her parents blamed her for the suicide and didn’t speak to her again for nine years.
“I pretty much thought my own life was over — it really sent me into an ugly depression, but I kept looking at my kids and saying, ‘No, you’ve got to keep going. If you don’t want them to have a life like you’ve had, you need to make a better life for them.”
Daughter Irene, born third, is 21. Sylvia came along three years later, afflicted with cerebral palsy. Jazlyn, 12, is currently a seventh grader. All five of her children are exemplary people today, Jessica boasts.
“It took this crazy life of mine to understand how important it is to help, not hurt … do good things, not bad,’ she said. “That’s what I teach my kids every day.
“Now, they come up to me and say, ‘Here, Mom, can you take this over to the women’s shelter? Can you drop this off at Dorothy’s Kitchen?’ You give what you get, and you get what you give in this life.”
Max Garcia, his wife Kathy (who managed Garcia Boxing fighters for nearly two decades), their son Sam (Max’s co-trainer), and daughter Melissa also are famous in Salinas for their selflessness and philanthropy.
For the past 20 years, they’ve encouraged their fighters to participate in community events and charity fundraisers.
They’ve sponsored multiple youth sports teams in the county.
They produced three separate “Celebrity Boxing” events in Monterey, importing world-famous boxers to fight playful exhibitions in front of full-house dinner crowds in the Grand Ballroom of the Monterey Hyatt Regency and the Monterey Convention Center. All proceeds from the shows were donated to the Kinship Center, a nonprofit agency that supports permanent families for children through adoption, relative caregiving, or other guardianship.
The Villas and the Garcias also make charitable gestures through their gym. Every Saturday of November, 10 a.m. to noon, they offer free training to all comers in exchange for a donation of non-perishable foods, warm clothing, toiletries, toys, or anything else that can be donated to women’s and children’s shelters, or other centers supporting the needy.
They also held a summer youth camp in July, filling the facility with kids who smacked the punching bags, played games and participated in energetic drills, and shadowboxed in the official-sized boxing ring — all under the direction of multiple veteran boxing coaches, each of whom volunteered their time. Children whose families couldn’t afford the meager registration fee were allowed to participate free.
“We had 30-some kids in the gym for that camp, and probably half of them were on scholarship,” said Sam Garcia. “My mom (Kathy) sponsored three or four kids, herself.”
Jessica Villa credits boxing for keeping her son off the mean streets and away from the gang culture that has permeated Salinas, way back to the days when Ruben’s father was a 14-year-old dad.
“I always say Ruben saved my husband, and my husband saved Ruben,” she said. “My son could have been a hardcore gang member, but his life, from the age of 4, has been boxing, boxing, boxing. He never had time to hang out on the streets.”
“Opening our gym to the public, especially kids, is a lot of fun,” Ruben said. “It reminds me of when I was their age when I watch them doing all the things I used to do. I get in there and do it with them, and it makes me feel like a kid again.”
The comment brings a smile to Jessica Villa’s face.
“Ruben is still a little kid at heart,” she said. “I mean, he’s and mature, but he’s also in no hurry to grow up. Hey, he still watches SpongeBob.”
Dennis Taylor is a freelance writer in Monterey County. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter.