Originally from Palmdale and now living in Northridge, Villanueva hasn’t had to travel too far during his early career, one of the luxuries of hailing from an area with no shortage of opponents in the lower weight divisions. This upcoming bout in Carson’s Home Depot Center will be no different.
“Having a home field advantage has been great so everyone can come watch me,” said Villanueva, who trains at Ten Goose Gym in Van Nuys, only a 15–minute drive from home. “I don’t get any issues with jet lag either.”
Oddly enough, all five of Villanueva’s wins have ended in the second round. Despite his impressive ledger so far, it’s easy for a fighter to fall in love with his power and forsake the other bits and pieces and that make up a complete champion. The mild-mannered Matt assured Maxboxing that he wouldn’t succumb to such a vice.
“I love to get inside and fight but I do have an amateur background where I developed my boxing skills,” he said. “Really, the only thing that matters to me is getting the win. It’s kind of crazy that all five wins have ended in the same round but the knockouts have just happened that way.”
Villanueva’s road to the ring began watching fights on television as a teenager with his father, Joaquin.
“I remember watching the 2000 Olympics with my dad and thinking that’s what I wanted to do,” remembered the younger Villanueva. “Then I saw some Erik Morales fights and that really made me want to take up boxing, especially the fact that he was in an exciting division and he was an exciting fighter that the people loved.”
As a result, the 15-year-old found himself at the Estrada Boxing Club in Palmdale with matchmaker Hervi Estrada, who trained fighters on the side, at the time.
“I’ve always had confidence in myself to do my best,” said Villanueva, “but honestly, I wasn’t sure how good I could really be until I really started competing.”
“Matt’s always been mellow and I didn’t think he would go very far because he’s so quiet,” said Estrada, “but he has tremendous power with both hands. In fact, after one of his pro fights, one of his opponents came up to me and asked me to check the inside of his gloves. He couldn’t believe he could hit that hard.”
By the time he turned 21, the 119-pounder had moved on to working with Mike Booton at Old School Boxing in nearby Quartz Hill and the pair built on the lessons the young fighter had learned from Estrada. When 2009 came to a close, Villanueva sported a 34-6 amateur record, two California PAL titles, and a Desert Showdown championship.
“I was ready to turn pro after that,” said Villanueva. “When I did make it to the Olympics, I was going to turn pro anyway, so it was an easy decision.”
Switching trainers a second time was a seamless transition.
“Mike and Joe [Goossen] know each other real well,” said Villanueva. “In fact, Mike took me to Ten Goose Gym to train with Joe toward the end of my amateur career, so it’s been an easy move. Joe knows what he’s doing and he knows how to handle me.”
After his pro debut, where opponent Ludwin Mondragon left on a stretcher, Russian manager Alex Vaysfeld saw enough to sign Villanueva on the spot and take him under his wing—literally.
“Alex has a house in Northridge and I live there with all of his Russian fighters like Sasha [Podrezov],” shared Villanueva.
Despite his inability to learn the Cyrillic alphabet, Villanueva has found the place to be just like home. It just took a special someone to do it.
“Alex hired my mom, Maria, to do the cooking and cleaning in the house,” he shared. “It feels like a home away from home, especially for dinner.”
Simply content to be one of the guys outside the ring is what has endeared him to the regulars inside of it. Villanueva made no complaints about training at Ten Goose on Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve as a testament to his dedication.
“I love coming to the gym,” added Villanueva. “The biggest thing I’ve been working on with Joe and Ricky and Jorge [Diaz] is continuing to improve my boxing skills.”
Controlled aggression seems to be the best way to describe Villanueva’s style. While he has no problem letting his hands go in bunches, his ability to keep his feet moving in the pocket has enabled him to always be in position to strike. And, boy, can he connect. But the kid sees things differently.
“People see 5-0 and think I’m a face-first brawler but I can do a lot more than that,” said Villanueva. “For this camp, my opponent is a southpaw, so I’ve been working on adjusting to a southpaw moving to his right and using my lead right hand.”
Of course, any time a fighter can get his foe out of there as quickly as possible is always a plus, especially when upon first glance, his power isn’t evident from looking at him.
“Matt is very relaxed in everything he does,” said assistant trainer Ricky Funez. “He hits like a heavyweight. He’s one of those sneaky fighters when you don’t think he hits that hard and then when he does, it’s all downhill for you.”
“Joe likes to joke that if anyone could pick anybody in the gym to fight, it would be me,” he said. “That’s motivating for me when I get in the ring with them.”
Villanueva will take that mentality with him in the squared circle against Gutierrez, who has lost his last three heading into Saturday, including a second-round knockout at the hands of Golden Boy prospect Manuel Avila in March. To prepare, he has employed the sparring services of a pair of local amateurs, Jack Chuldzhyan and Juan Funez, Ricky’s nephew.
“[Gutierrez] seems pretty tall from what I’ve seen and I just got to be first,” said Villanueva. “I’m quicker; I’m going to get him inside and work him.”
“He kind of reminds me of Rafael Ruelas,” added Funez. “He’s deadly with a hook and the uppercuts that he throws. He throws punches very precise and takes his time. On his last fight that was on ESPN, he used all those tools to knock out his opponent in two rounds. We’ll see what happens after this fight.”
Saturday will also mark his first fight under the Goossen Tutor promotional banner. While Villanueva is excited about his new five-year contract, he knows that nothing will be handed to him, especially when he hasn’t cracked double-digit fights yet.
“It feels good to be able to get that out of the way and just focus on this Saturday,” said Villanueva. “This is the biggest fight so far. There will always be that pressure, whether it’s in a small town like Reseda or Las Vegas. Every fight is a championship fight to me right now. It’s all about being prepared 100 percent.”
Ryan is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. You can contact him through email at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Facebook at facebook.com/rmaq28 or on Twitter: @rmaq28.