THAT’S MY JOB: Mixed martial arts instructor Isaac Villela
What started as a tradition passed down from father to son has become a lifelong passion for Isaac Villela. His father was a boxer who showed Villela the ropes while he was still a toddler.
Now, the Marble Falls resident is sharing his decades of experience in mixed martial arts with his students at Caged Boxer Dojo in Marble Falls.
“An art that’s not passed on is an art that dies,” Villela said.
Having trained in boxing, wrestling, karate, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and jeet kune do, Villela is from a generation that created the concept of MMA. Caged Boxer Dojo is his venue to pass on this hard-won knowledge.
MMA, a combination of several martial arts, has gained in popularity over the past 30 years. The first Ultimate Fighting Championship was held in 1993, and since then, MMA has gone from an underground movement to a globally recognized sport. This wave of interest gave rise to MMA gyms around the world, including in the Highland Lakes.
“I try to find out through conversations with my students what they want to get out of it,” Villela said.
Combat sports might look and sound intimidating, but Villela takes an approachable angle with his instruction. An emphasis on confidence building, self-defense, and camaraderie creates an environment that encourages self-improvement. Whether a student wants to pursue competition or just get in shape, Villela works with them to find the best path forward.
However, self-defense is the core focus of his teachings.
“My goal for any of my students, no matter what their goals are, is to teach them to defend themselves,” he said.
Many of Villela’s students fight in martial arts competitions. Student and 9-year-old stepson Max Kolding is undefeated in North American Grappling Association and Texas Catch Wrestling Coalition competitions.
Villela himself has competed in MMA tournaments since 2005 and is still competing in the Texas Catch Wrestling Coalition. His most recent match was on May 28, which he lost by decision. His next match is in August.
Villela grew up in the era of Bruce Lee, kung fu flicks, and the mercurial rise of the Gracie family, among the biggest names in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. These influences had a huge impact on his passion for learning more traditional martial arts. He wrestled in high school, and over the past three decades, he has received a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a black belt in karate, and a black belt in jeet kune do. Each belt represents years of training.
Most of what Villela teaches is based on Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a grappling martial art that focuses on controlling an opponent’s joints in specific grips and holds. It is also known as “the gentle art” because, unlike striking martial arts such as boxing, kickboxing, and muay thai, Brazilian jiu-jitsu can be practiced without suffering significant injury. Children as young as 3 years old and the elderly consistently and safely train in the sport.
“It’s just the love of my life. I’m not ever gonna give it up,” Villela said. “I can be 80 years old and still practice and teach.”
The culture of Caged Boxer Dojo is a familial one. Villela’s undeniable passion and dedication to the martial arts is surpassed by his passion and dedication to his students, who are all close. Villela sees them as more of a family than a team.
“Watching young fighters come up and win, it feels better than any wins I’ve ever had,” he said. “When they lose, I’m feeling that same sorrow, but being a little stronger to help encourage them to not quit and keep going.”
An undeniable confidence comes from learning to defend yourself, obtaining supreme skills, and being physically strong. A typical MMA class will get your blood pumping, engage your mind, and allow you to test yourself in a safe environment. Villela’s No. 1 priority might be self-defense, but a close second is building confidence.
“The knowledge you get from very basic stuff can save your life,” Villela said. “It gives you the confidence and knowledge you need to walk away from a fight.”
Villela was born and raised in Austin. He grew up sparring with his brothers and trained alongside world-class fighters. He pursued his dreams of becoming a great martial artist, moving to Marble Falls about 15 years ago, where he began instructing the next generation.
“It hasn’t made me rich — I don’t know if it ever will — but it made me rich with the love and admiration I have for my students,” he said.
Caged Boxer Dojo is located at 1510 U.S. 281 in Marble Falls. For contact information, check out the gym’s Facebook page.