EliteXC fighter faces toughest test yet: unemployment


The past few weeks were exciting for middleweight Joey Villasenor. He had prepared vigorously for his rematch with Robbie Lawler.

Though Villasenor was stopped in 22 seconds the first time they met, he was confident things would end differently Nov. 8 in Reno, Nev. Villasenor, who turned 33 on Friday, was feeling good.

In a little more than two weeks, he planned to enter the cage and exact revenge on one of mixed martial arts' top middleweights. Plus, he could earn a much-needed $60,000 -- $30,000 for the fight and $30,000 to win.

Just two more weeks and Villasenor would put a few bucks into his savings account that serves as a retirement fund. But two weeks is a long time when the event's promoter is struggling to make ends meet.

And as luck would have it, time ran out on ProElite. The promotional company, and its subsidiary EliteXC, went out of business Monday. There are reports the company has also filed for bankruptcy protection.

Villasenor got word of ProElite's closure Monday afternoon. The news hit him hard. He is not only out of a possible $60,000 payday, but also finds himself without work.

"It really hurts," Villasenor told ESPN.com. "It bothers me that I won't get this fight. I have bills to pay.

"They basically had no backup plan."

Villasenor (26-6) likes to stay busy. He prefers to fight at least three times a year.

The bout with Lawler would have been his third this year. And it could not have come at a better time.

Villasenor needs the money. The $60,000 would have allowed him to pay bills, add to his savings and put some cash aside for a rainy day. ProElite's closure dashed those plans.

"To a lot of MMA athletes that's a lot of money," Villasenor said. "To the rest of the sports world that's peanuts. But I have to do the best I can to get that kind of payday.

"I was really counting on that money. Most of the money I make goes into my savings for my next life. This isn't like world-class boxing, where I'm getting $500K or $1 million."

Despite the difficult situation he finds himself in, Villasenor continues to hold his head high. He is very talented and trains with some of MMA's top fighters at Jackson's Submission Fighting in Albuquerque, N.M. -- Georges St. Pierre, Rashad Evans, Keith Jardine, Nate Marquardt and Karo Parisyan.

His solid jiu-jitsu and boxing skills have helped him win three in a row, including a first-round TKO of Phil Baroni in May. With the skills Villasenor brings into the cage, another top-level promoter will likely come calling soon.

But Villasenor isn't free from worry. ProElite may no longer be in the MMA picture, but Villasenor is concerned about is contract status with the company.

"Now I find myself unemployed," Villasenor said. "I don't know what happened with my contract.

"I don't know if they sold my contract; I don't know if it becomes void. But my biggest concern now is going back to work."

Just when Villasenor will return to the cage isn't clear. While he might be sought by the likes of UFC, Affliction and Strikeforce, his contractual situation could keep promoters away.

Villasenor isn't alone. The contractual status of all ProElite fighters -- Gina Carano, Cristiane "Cyborg" Santos, Jake Shields and Lawler to name a few -- must be resolved before other promoters can begin actively pursuing them.

"There are a lot of fighters I would be interested in at the moment," Affliction vice president Tom Atencio told ESPN.com. "But we have to make sure they are available.

"I don't know what kind of contracts they had or how it's working at this point. But I am definitely interested."

Maybe Affliction will find a place on its roster for Villasenor, but for now he is forced to play the waiting game. And in these tough economic times that is a game no fighter wants to participate in.

While ProElite had many critics, it did employ many people. All of those people, including some of MMA's best-known fighters, are out of work.

This is the harsh reality of ProElite's demise. Many fighters like Villasenor, who have worked hard to earn a living, now find themselves wondering where will their next paycheck come from and when?

"I was hoping to get this paycheck, winning [EliteXC's] belt and, with one fight left on my contract, having a strong bargaining chip," Villasenor said. "But luck just ran out on me."

Franklin McNeil covers boxing and mixed martial arts for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.