At 41 years old, Alexis Vila is far past what most consider the prime years for a professional athlete, but he feels that his mixed martial arts journey is just beginning.

The American Top Team representative made a splash in his Bellator debut last year, defeating then-featherweight champion Joe Warren by knockout in the opening round of the promotion’s Season 5 135-pound tournament. The cocky Warren had earned most of the attention for his bid to become a two-division champion in the days leading up to the bout, but the brutal left hook that sent the former Greco-Roman wrestling world champion’s head bouncing off the canvas made Vila an immediate person of interest.

Vila followed his breakout performance with a split decision triumph against Marcos Galvao but fell to Eduardo Dantas in the tournament finals, leaving him one fight short of a title shot against bantamweight champion Zach Makovsky. Though the ending was disappointing, it still proved an impressive run for the 1996 Olympic freestyle wrestling bronze medalist.

“Last year was the first time I ever fought at 135 pounds, and now I feel a lot more comfortable at this weight,” Vila, a former world-ranked flyweight, recently told “I’m in great condition now, and I know what everyone brings to the table.”

Tonight, Vila will attempt to pick up where he left off in 2011 when he faces off with Luis Alberto Nogueira in a bantamweight tournament quarterfinal at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J. Also on the Bellator 65 card is the title bout between Dantas and Makovsky. Playing the role of spectator for the championship matchup only serves as motivation for Vila.

“This time, it’s personal for me. I don’t like to lose, so it’s very important for me to come back from my recent defeat to Eduardo Dantas and win this tournament,” Vila said. “I don’t like to be second to nobody. I came to Bellator to be the best, and I’m going to be the best.

“I hope to get a rematch with Eduardo Dantas one day, but in order to get my rematch, I’m going to have to win this tournament,” he continued. “That’s what I’m here to do.”

That starts with defeating Nogueira, who fell to Ed West in the Season 5 tournament quarterfinals. “Betao” rebounded to defeat Zak Laird at Bellator 53, however, giving the 26-year-old Brazilian eight victories in his last nine appearances.

“Luis Nogueira is a good fighter, but I’m better. He’s a wrestler, but he likes to stand up, so I think he’s going to be a really good matchup for me,” Vila said. “I have good hands, and he’s going to feel them when we fight.”

While “The Exorcist” won’t hesitate to put his numbing knockout power on display against Nogueira, he is also becoming more well-rounded in the cage.

“I’m always working to evolve and get better in the gym. In MMA, everyone is constantly improving,” he said. “I’m going to be keeping my strengths in this tournament but also showing how much I’ve improved since my last fight.”

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