House of Dracula

By Dennis Taylor on April 20, 2018
House of Dracula
Ruben Villa IV has an exquisite amateur pedigree and a sky-high ring IQ. (Brett Ostrowski)

He’s polite, respectful, smart, relentlessly ambitious, and perpetually smiling, even when his stomach is growling as he’s trying to make weight…

You might already be learning about him as a fighter. Ruben Villa IV (11-0, with 4 KOs) won the WBO Youth Featherweight Championship belt Saturday night , two days before his 21st birthday. It was a trinket he added to a trophy case that already included 15 national championships during an amateur career in which he won 140-plus times and lost 12. In 2015, he beat Shakur Stevenson twice before losing to him in the finals of the U.S. Olympic Trials.

Villa is the kind of kid for which you might happily trade a couple of your own. He’s polite, respectful, smart, relentlessly ambitious, and perpetually smiling, even when his stomach is growling as he’s trying to make weight.

He’s fiercely proud of his community, Salinas, California (an agricultural city of 157,000 people, located one hour south of San Jose), a place with big problems: In 2017, the city of 157,000 people ranked No. 1 in California for homicides, most committed by organized street gangs.

Ruben deftly avoided all of that. On his fifth birthday, his father, Ruben Villa III, gave him the present he wanted and took him to a local boxing gym, which, by the way, was his mom’s idea. She wanted to keep her son safe, busy, and away from the gang culture.

“I bought Ruben some shorts and Nike shoes, and the coach there, Danny Lujan, said, ‘Hey, don’t go to extremes with your spending because he’s going to quit. He’s not going to take it serious,’” Jessica Villa said.

But he kept showing up, and then he met Rudy Puga Sr., founder of the aptly named “Backyard Boxing Club,” a makeshift gym behind his Salinas home where, between the ages of 7 and 18, he groomed Villa into the No. 1 U.S. amateur in his weight class.

And Ruben was just 7 when he was hung with a fabulous ring nickname that, oddly, had nothing to do with the sport.

“I took him to the dentist, who discovered his two front teeth were loose and pulled them out,” his mom remembers. “Ruben was pretty mad. He wanted to know where his teeth were. And when Rudy Puga saw him, he laughed and started calling him ‘Dracula.’ The nickname just stuck.”

Villa adores his tightknit family—so much so that, when he turned pro, he abandoned that perfectly-great ring moniker in favor of “RV4,” which is clearly meant to honor his father, Ruben III, his grandfather, Ruben II, and the original Ruben Villa, RV4’s great grandfather.

No matter. Dracula lives.

On Saturday night, Villa fought in his hometown for the first time in his professional career, a show that sold out nearly a month early. A big chunk of the audience wore RV4 tee shirts to the venue, but a significant portion were exhorting him as “Drac” throughout his fight with Marlon Olea, a 24-year-old Colombian who arrived with a 13-2 record, and 12 knockouts.

Olea, who went the distance with future world champion Daniel Roman in 2016, was imported as a “step up” for Villa, who had won 41 of 42 rounds against his previous 10 opponents.

To the delight of RV4’s explosive hometown audience, it didn’t work. Villa came forward throughout the eight-round fight, attacking with aggressive intelligence, and, quite incredibly, was never once tagged in return.

Olea, a quick opponent with good hand speed, was perpetually perplexed by Villa’s uncanny ability to step into the pocket without sustaining damage. The Colombian flailed like a minor-league slugger trying to hit a big-league knuckleball—every foul ball was a moral victory, and he whiffed often.

Villa’s unmarked face came as no surprise to his trainers, Max and Sam Garcia (father and son), and ring strategist Dean Familton, who teach the hit-but-don’t-get-hit style that was the trademark of the late Don Familton (Dean’s father), a revered Southern California boxing guru who died in 2009.

“That was very, very close to being a perfect example of the style of boxing my dad taught. What Ruben did tonight was exactly what I was looking for,” said Dean Familton, who devises fight-night strategy for Garcia Boxing fighters. “It pretty much unfolded, round-by-round, how we wanted it to go. We wanted to dictate the pace right from the get-go, and Ruben did it.”

The Familtons and Garcias taught the same style to Jose Celaya and Eloy Perez, both of whom reached No. 1 world rankings at welterweight before blowing up their careers outside the ring. (Celaya left Garcia Boxing to accept a six-digit offer from San Jose businessmen who knew little about boxing and was KO’d in his next fight. Perez was cut loose by Garcia Boxing when he tested positive for cocaine immediately after suffering the only loss of his career in a world title fight against then-unbeaten Adrien Broner.)

Those were heart-wrenching disappointments to the Garcias, who pay all expenses for their fighters without taking a percentage, and have always worked on a handshake basis.

But this could be different. RV4, who is lightning-fast, with a sky-high ring IQ, an exquisite amateur pedigree, and a work ethic and attitude that is a trainer’s dream, appears to be the real thing.

“Masterful … absolutely masterful,” said Sam Garcia after the win over Olea. “There’s nobody who can beat Ruben if he fights like this, and keeps improving at this rate, with this style, and with this mentality. We go to sleep every night thinking about the rest of his weight division. We have a hit list, from 126 pounds to 135, that we recite every night, like Arya Stark from ‘Game of Thrones.’”

Villa’s team believes “Dracula” is perhaps a year removed from stalking a 126-pound murderer’s row that currently includes Leo Santa Cruz, Carl Frampton, Gary Russell Jr., Abner Mares, Oscar Valdez, Lee Selby, Joseph Diaz Jr., Josh Warrington, Scott Quigg, Nonito Donaire, and Oscar Escandon, among others.

Dennis Taylor is editor/publisher of www.ringsideboxingshow.com, host of The Ringside Boxing Show, and co-author (with John J. Raspanti) of “Intimate Warfare: The True Story of the Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward Boxing Trilogy,” currently on Amazon’s Bestseller list.

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  1. Balaamsass 07:39am, 04/20/2018

    Great write up….great back story….great amateur career…..great start to his pro career….great win over Olea…still…. the KO percentage is a tad low when you consider that not unlike so many other prospects early on he’s been matched with a debutante and other newbies that he should eat for breakfast. No KOs in his last five since he has moved up.

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