When he chose the legendary No. 2 as his number in 2008, many wondered whether Ryan Villopoto would be able to live up to the legacy Jeremy McGrath gave it during his illustrious career.
Since then, Villopoto has done much more than simply keep that number’s legacy alive. He has racked up a pair of 450 national championships in motocross and has amassed an even more dominant résumé in supercross, capped off by a fourth consecutive title one week ago to equal the record mark set by his predecessor McGrath.
Over the last four years of competition, Villopoto has been the most dominant rider on the planet. He’s looked adversity in the face on more than one occasion, has consistently found a way to overcome it, and has managed to continue to outlast what is widely considered to be the most competitive field of riders in the sport’s 40-year history, spearheaded by four former champions including himself.
It is very unlikely that McGrath’s records of seven championships and 72 wins will be broken anytime soon, if ever, but given the challenges and obstacles presented to Villopoto during his reign, you have to at least consider him to be on a similar scale. He’s amassed 40 wins over the course of six seasons, with 31 of those coming during his four-year title streak, and is fifth on the all-time wins list behind arguably the four most prolific riders in the history of the sport (McGrath, Stewart, Carmichael, and Reed). Villopoto’s average finish during his 450SX Class career is 3.7 (94 races) and has scaled down even lower over the past four years to a slim 3.0 (65 races), making him one of the most consistent riders in history. As I mentioned before, he also has four championships, which is third-most all time, and has won those four titles consecutively, which has only been done by one other rider.
When you put it all on paper, Villopoto is no doubt one of the greatest to ever line up on a gate and it’s those jaw-dropping statistics that vault him into McGrath comparisons. What adds to Villopoto’s case is knowing he’s had to go bar-to-bar against James Stewart and Chad Reed during each season of his 450SX Class career, Ryan Dungey since the 2010 season, and at least one additional emerging star in the following years, whether it be Trey Canard (2011), Justin Barcia (2013), or Ken Roczen (2014). All together, Villopoto had to line up alongside nine other main event winners and three former champions by the time the 2014 Monster Energy Supercross season reached its second round, and still managed to amass his most consistent and impressive championship effort to date. It’s hard to really explain how truly extraordinary that is.
Interestingly enough, Villopoto has only completed three full seasons of competition in six years at the premier level. In addition to waging war alongside his hugely talented rivals in the 450SX Class, Villopoto himself has battled through mononucleosis, a severely broken leg, a torn ACL, a tough bout of food poisoning, and rumors of yet another knee injury to still come out on top more often than not. Even in the face of success Villopoto was still dealt a devastating blow in 2012 after he had wrapped up the title with four rounds remaining, only to tear his ACL two races later.
Through all the heartbreak and what were likely some dark times, Villopoto came back stronger and more mature. He mastered the art of learning from the bad that inevitably happens in this sport, using it to his advantage each and every time. With the 2014 season serving as Villopoto’s showcase towards how far he’s truly come as a rider, he pulled back the reigns on his aggression and let his competitors falter while he continued to get the job done and compile a 2.5 finishing average through 16 races, the best of his career.
Villopoto wasn’t necessarily destined to be a supercross star like many before him, winning just one championship during an up-and-down career in the 250SX Class and taking a solid season-and-a-half to learn the ropes of the 450SX Class before finally rising to the forefront of the division. Once he learned how to win and do so on a regular basis, Villopoto never stopped. He made his program complete by hiring Aldon Baker to put him in the best shape of his life and learned the nuances of what made his main rivals successful, ultimately finding a way to use their own tactics against them.
Villopoto has proven that with 17 races over the course of 18 weeks, supercross is equally as much of a chess match as it is an all-out battle for wins. He’s accustomed to capturing the most victories of any rider in the series, but where he’s truly dangerous is in the late stages of the season where he’s posted at least a three-race winning streak during the stretch run for the past three years to all but extinguish his rivals’ title hopes. Sure it helps that Villopoto’s bulldog approach gives him the ability to attack the track and maintain the bike’s momentum unlike any of his fellow competitors, but his ability to excel in the mental game is what has been the biggest difference maker against riders that boast arguably as much speed and skill on a motorcycle.
While Villopoto and McGrath took drastically different paths to success, they’ve emerged with similar accomplishments and the No. 2 continues to be the sport’s most distinguished number. Although Villopoto has expressed that his career may be nearing its conclusion, he acknowledges that he thoroughly enjoys winning and, as long as he’s racing, his goal will stay the same. Records and the status of his accomplishments don’t necessarily concern the reigning four-time champ, which explains his willingness to walk away, and with that Villopoto has made his own place in history as perhaps a more unconventional dominant figure.