Ruben Villa, the Pride of Salinas, Returns to the Ring on Friday


By Arne K. Lang

Top Rank Boxing will be in Corpus Christi, Texas, this coming Friday with a show headlined by an IBF world featherweight title fight between defending champion Luis Alberto Lopez and former world title challenger Joet Gonzalez. Mexicali’s Lopez brings an 11-fight winning streak punctuated by a career-best win in his last start, a five-round demolition of Michael Conlan in hostile Belfast.

Ruben Villa IV, the last man to defeat Lopez, appears on the undercard. Villa (20-1, 7 KOs) won a comprehensive 10-round decision over Luis Alberto Lopez in May of 2019 on a Ken Thompson card in Corona, California.

In his amateur days, Villa, 26, defeated such notables as Devin Haney and Gary Antonio Russell and split four fights with Shakur Stevenson. He turned pro after his second loss to Shakur at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials.

Despite his strong amateur pedigree, none of the sport’s top promoters were interested in signing him. The aforementioned Thompson, a Southern California promoter with a knack for finding diamonds in the rough, gave Villa his start and was affiliated with him until early this year when Top Rank negotiated a buy-out and brought Villa into the Top Rank fold with a multi-fight contract.

Villa, however, had previously fought on a Top Rank show. In his nineteenth pro fight, he was thrust against Emanuel Navarrete at the MGM Grand Bubble with the WBO world featherweight title on the line.

Villa came out second-best, but there was no shame in losing to Navarette, a sure-shot Future Hall of Famer currently riding a 33-fight winning streak, and Ruben acquitted himself well in defeat. Knocked down in the opening frame and again in round four, Villa came on strong in the late rounds, losing by only 2 points on two of the scorecards and by 4 points on the other.

We caught up with Villa last Friday as he was wrapping up a four-week training camp In Las Vegas and asked him what he took away from that experience. “It was my first 12-rounder,” he said, “and I learned I belonged with the top guys in the division. Even though I was knocked down twice, I was able to come back and keep pressuring him.”

An affable, well-spoken young man, Ruben Villa hails from Salinas, a city of about 170,000 in California’s sprawling Monterey County. In the County of Monterey, there are pockets of great wealth, notably along the coastline in communities like Pebble Beach. Salinas, which builds itself as the “Salad Bowl of the World,” is a world apart.

Eighty percent of the inhabitants of Salinas are Hispanic, the highest percentage of any city in California. Per Wikipedia, more than a third of the students at the high school from which Ruben graduated live below the poverty line.

Ruben IV is the second-oldest of five children and the only boy in the family. When he was five years old, his father, a big boxing fan, took him to a local boxing gym and young Ruben took to the sport like a duck to water. When he’s not working up a sweat, he likes to watch tapes of fighters he admires. Asked to name his favorites, he rattles off the names of Manny Pacquiao, Vasyl Lomachenko, and Juan Manuel Marquez. Before heading off to the gym on this particular morning, he watched a tape of Marquez’s 2010 battle with Michael Katsidis.

Akin to former 140-pound title-holder Jose Carlos Ramirez, who put the California agricultural town of Avenal on the boxing map while calling attention to the plight of farm workers, Villa, whose grandparents both worked in the strawberry fields, has become a local hero, celebrated not only for his ring exploits but for his good deeds. On July 24, 2020, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors held a day in his honor at which the boxer was recognized for his ring achievements and his community work. During the 2019 Christmas holiday season, he helped organize a food drive for the homeless and he has volunteered his time to assist farmworkers impacted by the Covid epidemic and by wildfires that turned the sky brown, making their jobs more hazardous to their health.

Even before receiving this honor, it was Villa’s custom to show his pride in his community by sporting a reference to Salinas on his boxing shorts.

Villa took his loss to Emanuel Navarrete in stride. “It wasn’t our time,” he says. He is 2-0 since that setback, winning both bouts by stoppage, and looks upon Friday’s match against Colombia native Brandon Valdes (15-3) as an opportunity to build more momentum toward a second title shot, perhaps a rematch with red-hot Luis Alberto Lopez.

The Villa-Valdes fight on Friday will air on ESPN+. The main card on the ESPN platform is slated to start at 10 pm ET/7 pm PT.