He was born in La Coyotada, San Juan del Río, Durango, Mexico, and the early tale of his life is confused by several divergent accounts as well as by Villa's own desire, later in life, to be perceived as a people's champion. It is known that he was born to a poor family and quickly took up the life of a bandit in the state of Chihuahua. He was caught several times for crimes ranging from banditry to cattle rustling, but through influential connections was able to secure his release.
Villa underwent a transformation after meeting Abraham González, the political representative of Francisco I. Madero in Chihuahua. González gave Villa a basic education which opened his eyes to the political world and changed the way in which he thought about his own life and his relation to those in power (in the state of Chihuahua, the powerful Creel/Terrazas family). From this point until near the end of his life, Villa considered himself a revolutionary fighting for the people.
In 1911, Villa helped defeat the federal army of Porfirio Díaz in favour of Francisco I. Madero. After that, Villa again rebelled against former allies, first against Victoriano Huerta, later against Venustiano Carranza.
On March 9, 1916, Villa led 1,500 Mexican raiders in an attack against Columbus, New Mexico. They burned the town and killed 17 of its residents. President Woodrow Wilson responded by sending 12,000 United States troops, led by General John Pershing, over the border into Mexico on March 15 to pursue Villa. During the search, the United States launched its first air combat mission when eight American planes lifted off on March 19. The expedition to capture Villa ended in failure on January 28, 1917.
In 1920, Villa ended his revolutionary actions, and was assassinated three years later in Parral, Chihuahua. As a rebel against injustice and abuse, Villa is still remembered in Mexico as a folk hero.
Villa has been represented in films by himself (1912, 1913, 1914), Raoul Walsh (1912, 1914), George Humbert (1918), Phillip Cooper (1934), Wallace Beery (1934), Juan F. Triana (1935), Domingo Soler (1936), Maurice Black (1937), Leo Carillo (1949), Pedro Armendáriz (1950, 1957, 1960 twice), Alan Reed (1952), Rodolfo Hoyos, Jr (1958), José Elías Moreno (1967), Ricardo Palacios (1967), Yul Brynner (1968), Telly Savalas (1971), Hector Elizondo (1976), Freddy Fender (1977), Gaithor Brownne (1985), Pedro Armendáriz, Jr (1989), Antonio Aguilar (1993), Jesús Ochoa (1995), Carlos Roberto Majul (1999), Mike Moroff (1999), Peter Butler (2000), Antonio Banderas (2003)
He died from blood poisoning after a dental surgery.
He is a member of the International Boxing Hall Of Fame.