(Photos courtesy of Zuffa, LLC)
by FIGHT! contributor Chuck Mindenhall
There was a time when Brandon Vera was telling anybody who’d listen that he was going to win both the heavyweight and light heavyweight belts in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. At the time he was undefeated, having cruised through Fabiano Scherner, the late Justin Eilers, Assuerio Silva and then Frank Mir in his first four heavyweight UFC fights with the promotion. Just like that, people were chanting Fedor, hypothesizing about what he could do to Couture, making hot-button topics of his knees.
And why not? His kickboxing was considered by some to be the best in the world. His jiu-jitsu a smuggled weapon that he dared you to discover. He had eleven years of Greco-Roman wrestling in his scaffolding, and he was a four-time All-American wrestler. There was a $7 million dollar deal on the table for him before he was 30 years old, which seemed low at the time—this guy was a comet with a long fiery tail, and his value was still incalculable.
“I compared those early UFC days like the housing boom,” he says reflecting back. “My stock was rising by 45% every single day.”
At his pinnacle of those early days, Dana White didn’t see a housing boom, but he did call Vera a “bastard.” He meant it as a compliment, a right-fitting antagonym for a guy who walked alone. It made plenty of sense, too. Vera was a mean bastard who showed up looking to finish guys, which is like catnip to the UFC. His style was poised, skilled, violent, and—maybe most importantly—exciting. He was a legit showcase, and the fans loved him. That was less than two years ago, in 2007.
What a difference a couple of years can make.
Today Vera is barely mentioned in the top ten of the light heavyweight division and he’s vanished from all conversation in the heavies. After he dropped down for his first fight at 205 for Reese Andy, White openly asked where the bastard had gone off to. Vera, sitting right next to him at the post-fight conference, had won the fight via unanimous decision, but knew that it was milquetoast by his own lofty standards. Where had the bastard gone? The bastard had gone through it. That dreaded complacency that comes with new money, sudden fame, instant success, distraction. A couple of losses and one ugly win, a drawn-out battle with his former manager that forced an extended hiatus from fighting, and humility in increasingly larger doses, and just like that, he was all-too-vincible.
Vera had become just another fighter. But that ain’t “The Truth.”
At his gym, Alliance Training Center in Chula Vista, California, just below San Diego and eight miles from the Mexican border, Brandon walks in the way Master Lloyd Irvin remembers seeing him the first time at a grappling tournament: Alone. Nobody acknowledges him. Not the WEC’s Ed “9MM” Ratcliff, who is jumping rope, not Dominick Cruz, who is taping a glove, not the DJ spinning tunes, not the 20 or so guys on the mats. Nobody. It’s not that they don’t like him. They do. It’s just that he’s as ubiquitous there as the heavy bags that form a right angle along the far walls.
Vera looks thin, unimposing. It is difficult to imagine him fighting Brock Lesnar or Shane Carwin, much less Frank Mir, whom he destroyed in their meeting. He looks like the everyman; no cauliflower on the ears, no scar tissue on the brow. Neither Keith Jardine nor Assuerio Silva could send him home with any permanent souvenirs. People can talk about his cockiness or eating disorders, but nobody will ever question Vera’s sense of self-preservation in the cage. He has never been knocked out.
“I was a fat son of a bitch,” he says after a three-round sparring session and 20 minutes of jumping rope. He is referring to the Vera with the soft middle who fence-waltzed for three rounds with Tim Sylvia—two-and-a-half of those rounds with a broken right hand—back in October 2007 at UFC 77. “I was around 240. I’m walking around at 212 now, man. At this weight I’m always in shape and I feel better.”
There’s a lightness of being to today’s Vera that wasn’t there after he lost to Fabricio Werdum in his last bout at heavyweight in June of 2008. That referee Dan Miragliotta stopped the fight when he was well within his wits and weathering an early storm with “intelligent defense” really galled him. He said at the time, “I sleep with Werdum on my pillow every night.” He wanted to get back in there as soon as possible, to avenge not the losses as much as the sting—and bam, a month later, he cut weight to fight Reese Andy on a makeshift card that the UFC put together to counter-program an Affliction show.
Even though he won a dull three-round decision that evening, the next morning he emerged from the fog that had shrouded him since the last fist that crashed into Mir in 2006. All the hoopla that he had basked in from before . . . he let it go. He let Werdum go, Miragliotta, Sylvia, Andy, his former manager Mark Dion, all the gray areas and all the associations.
“What happened to me is I made too much money and I started listening to the hype and started fucking around man,” he says. “It was all a part of growing. I was talking to [Antonio Rodrigo] Noguiera and he was like, Brandon, I went through that shit twice—in Pride, and just last year in the UFC. I wasn’t training for shit. He told me, ‘if you hit the top then one day, one way or another, you’re going to hit rock bottom before you head north again.’ It’s crazy when you see that check, and you start counting . . . one, two, three, four, five, six . . . ”
Looking around Vera’s gym is to see his success. It’s a spacious facility, painted ominously in shades of red and black. There’s a mini-Octagon like the one Tito Ortiz has at his Big Bear Lake compound. There’s a boxing ring. Guys like Jason Lambert and Mark Muñoz are hanging around. Big Nog has been training here, too. Rock bottom for Vera is not like rock bottom for you and me. Rock bottom here has a fucking DJ booth.
But, then again, Vera comes from a resilient family. His father, Ernesto, came to the United States from The Philippines at 20 years old. He couldn’t speak a lick of English when he settled in Virginia. When I ask Vera about where he sources his drive, he points to the things his father had to overcome, things that make the fight game seem comparatively insignificant.
“We grew up in the Southeast, and there was racism,” he says. “Nigger this, wop, spic, yellow—it was horrible. My dad came here with nothing but he grew his restaurant business, grew it from one to seven restaurants. I saw my dad go through all those trials and tribulations, the IRS, the family problems, the racism. He and my mom raised seven kids, and he did us solid. If we said, dad, I want piano lessons, he’d say cool, let’s go get you a piano. He always said, we came from nothing and we made something. Make it happen.”
Vera describes his father as “very Asian” – he wanted his kids to be dentists or lawyers. But Vera went his own way, ditching a gig selling insurance for Geico in favor of combat sports. Though he’s a Christian, he talks in slangs and cusses jovially, and he does it in three languages—English, Tagalog, which is the official language of the Philippines, and American Sign Language (ASL). Why would he need to sign, I wanted to know—was it because for a minute there it looked like he’d be fighting Matt Hamill?
No, no, he says. It was youthful loinfire.
“When I was a freshman in college I dated a girl, Josephine, a hot-ass Puerto Rican girl, and she’s deaf. I didn’t realize it until I called her name and she didn’t respond, and her cousin told me ‘she’s deaf, stupid.’ So I learned how to converse in sign language in two weeks.”
A friend tabbed Vera “The Truth” because he won’t bullshit you. So, when I broach the topic of Brock Lesnar, a completely obsolete topic for a guy who no longer fights heavyweight, he doesn’t care and he doesn’t flinch.
“I’d fight Brock Lesnar at my weight right now,” he deadpans. “Brock’s a beast, he’s a fucking manbeast, but he told on himself that last fight against Mir. He whupped Mir’s ass, but when he got hit his arms went straight out, he closed his eyes and put his face towards the mat.” He demonstrates this, like a child pretending to be an airplane. “He likes to be the hammer, he doesn’t like to be the nail. If you can touch Brock in the face, it’s all wrapped son. He’ll pick you up and throw you through the cage, cheese-grate you, pull you back through by your brain and punch you in the eye, but if you can touch him, it’s over. He told on himself, man, he showed his true colors that night.”
Putting it crassly, and as crazy as it sounds, Vera was only fighting heavyweight just so he could eat ice cream. His coach and mentor, Lloyd Irvin, says that Vera could fight middleweight if he wanted, with his lank 6-foot-3 frame beaning opponents from other zip codes. After losing to Sylvia and Werdum in consecutive fights, though, there was a long road back for Vera going the heavyweight route. So, he made good on a promise to infiltrate the 205 pound division. He shed 30 pounds and beat Andy on four weeks notice. He kept the weight off. His ribs jut out meanly in his new frame, his abs are finally in evidence. The new-era Vera worked the TRX machine— a sort of swinging strap apparatus —and jump-roped and fed spiritual hunger rather than physical hunger, and then he prepped to unveil it against his next opponent, Keith Jardine. But before he could board a flight to London for that clash, he had another hurdle to overcome.
In Accokeek, Maryland where he was training this past October, while staying at Lloyd Irvin’s house, they were held up by two gunmen in a home invasion. The perpetrators were after cash and jewelry, but they couldn’t have known they were breaking into a beehive of Sambo technique.
“It was good,” Vera says, picking skin off the thick green tattoos that run up his thighs. “We got out and nobody was hurt. The only way it could have turned out better is if we could have kept those motherfuckers at the house. If we could have kept them there and not called the cops? That would have been a perfect world. But those guys were good—staggered formation, about two feet apart, and they kept about five feet apart from us. It wasn’t their first rodeo, but we got out of it thanks to Master Lloyd. He fucking disarmed one of the guys. You know, when people talk about all the karate and shit and wanting to be ninjas? Master Lloyd is my ninja.”
The robbers scrambled and ran, but it wasn’t the first time that Irvin got Vera out of a scrape.
“He’s the reason I am in MMA,” Vera says. “I remember back in the day at a grappling tournament, Master Lloyd came up to me. I didn’t know who he was at the time, and he said ‘hey man, I see you cutting weight and doing all these things by yourself. You’re doing a good job, keep it up.’ The day that he told me that was the last tournament I was ever going to do. I was winning, but I wasn’t making any money in it. I was done. Then he came up to me, and it changed my mind.”
While the rest of the MMA world began to treat Vera the way gold prospectors treat pyrite, Irvin, who cautioned Vera through thick, reinforced focus through thin.
“You know, Brandon had a phenomenal rise in the UFC,” Irvin says from 2,500 miles away, in Maryland. “He was knocking people out, finishing people, and they were talking about him as the next biggest thing. And that’s why I was trying to talk to him to get his head level. You start getting money, you start getting fame, and things happen. And it did. His manager put him in a situation where he wasn’t able to fight for quite a while and then we came back and lost to Sylvia. Then the thing with Dan Miragliotta and Werdum, and the reality of losing starts hitting home.”
Irvin would prefer to have Vera back on the East Coast so he can stay on top of him full-time. But Vera is smart enough to know the obscurity that comes rushing back over a fighter with every loss. He says he knows. It took a few hard knocks, but it’s a lesson he swears to have learned.
“When I look back on it now, I can’t blame nobody but myself,” he says. “It was all my fault. I wasn’t doing what I needed to be doing back then anyway, so regardless of the outcome for whatever reason, it was my fault. Can’t cry over spilled milk.”
Dominick Cruz turns up the volume to a rap song, and the gym thumps, drowning out Vera’s voice. For a moment, this seems like a metaphor.
Vera is more than a dark horse in the light heavyweight division; he is a lone wolf. Many would say he was robbed a second time when Jardine took a razor-thin split decision after three back and forth rounds. Had he won, people would inevitably be talking about Vera, peripherally at least, in the title picture. He finished Mike Patt with leg-kicks next, then scored a unanimous decision Krzysztof Soszynski and people began talking a little bit, began remembering that, as Irvin says, “Brandon has all the tools to be the greatest in the world.”
The only question now is if the bastard can come back to put those tools to use.