Vera on the Verge of a Breakthrough
By Thomas Gerbasi
When the September issue of Muscle & Fitness hit newsstands in 2003, Brandon Vera was just another unknown up and coming mixed martial artist, with two wins to his name and dreams of someday making a living in a sport that was starting to take off around the country.
Then again, that day seemed far away as he approached the cash register in a local grocery store. At least until he saw a magazine at the counter with then UFC Golden Boy Frank Mir on the cover.
“Damn,” blurted Vera to himself. “I want to be that guy.”
“I remember saying that,” he laughs, three years and five fights since that day. “I was in a grocery store and it was right there in the front by the register. That’s when you know you made it, and I was trying to be that guy. Now, I’ve got to fight that guy.”
On Saturday night at the Arco Arena in Sacramento, California, it’s the classic crossroads battle when Vera - the up and coming, ‘can’t miss’ heavyweight star - takes on Mir - the former heavyweight champion who is two years removed from a almost career-killing motorcycle accident, and who has not looked impressive in a comeback that has seen him go 1-1 this year. Vera wins and he’s the logical challenger for the winner of UFC 65’s heavyweight title match between Tim Sylvia and Jeff Monson. If Mir loses, his career as a serious heavyweight contender could be over. It’s as big a fight as you can get these days without a title on the line, but for Vera, it’s even more than that.
“Even before I was ever mixed into MMA, Josh Barnett and Frank Mir were my two favorite fighters,” said the unbeaten Vera. “And Frank Mir was the man. He was making $80,000 to show, $80,000 to win, he had all the cars, the women, he was on the cover of Muscle & Fitness, he was real humble and didn’t talk smack – he just went in there and beat everybody down. I used to want to be him.”
What kind of mental tricks can that play on him?
“I’m looking forward to this fight, but it’s kind of unnerving,” he openly admits. “Fighting someone that I looked up to before is what I guess I’m having a hard time dealing with. I talked to my wife and my team about it, and everybody short answers, ‘oh, it’s just another fight.’ I guess they don’t understand where I’m coming from then. It’s like trying to beat up your eldest brother or someone you looked up to before.”
But if Vera wants to continue his meteoric UFC rise, he has to get by Mir to do it. The question on everybody’s mind is – which Mir will show up, the one who submitted Tim Sylvia in 50 seconds in 2004, or the one who huffed and puffed his way to a lackluster three round decision over Dan Christison in July?
“I don’t use the current scouting report,” said Vera. “What everybody’s saying, and all the hype, and everything that you see – even though I’m seeing, I’m not believing. I believe that the best Frank Mir is gonna show up and train every day to show up like that. Everybody’s like ‘oh, you’re gonna smack Frank Mir around’, but man, you can’t count that dude out. He was the champ at one time and had the whole world in his hands. If he knows that this is his last ditch effort, I expect the best Frank Mir to come out.”
So to prepare, Vera has been tortured daily in training camp to get ready for the biggest fight of his career.
“I didn’t know you could train this hard for a fight,” said Vera. “They’re trying to kill me while I’m training.”
Since his UFC debut in 2005, Vera’s been known for his work ethic in the gym while preparing for fights. A little fear never hurts either, as ‘The Truth’ tends to be a glass half-empty guy when it comes to his expectations for particular fights.
“A lot of fighters have different motivational tools – I actually need to think I’m going all three rounds and that way when I’m training and tired and down and out, and they’re like ‘get your ass up’, I can get up because there might be an extra round,” he said. “There’s never been an overtime in UFC history, but there might be. (UFC President) Dana (White) might jump on stage and say, ‘hey, you guys need to go into overtime.’ (Laughs) So I always prepare for the worst case scenario and the pace that I fight at is the pace I’m gonna be fighting at all three rounds, and I get better in the second and third rounds. I get faster, more agile, and more confident in those later rounds. I always expect the worst and I prepare for the worst, so when it does end up ending early, I’m like ‘Thank the Lord, let me go home and get out of here.’”
That candid nature has made Vera a favorite of the media and the fans, and his three UFC performances (TKO2 Fabiano Scherner, KO1 Justin Eilers, WSub1 Assuerio Silva) haven’t hurt his appeal any. How is he dealing with being the most solid ‘can’t miss’ prospect in the game today?
“I’m having a good time with it,” said the 29-year old Vera. “It hasn’t interfered with my personal life. I can only imagine what it would be like to be Tom Cruise or somebody like that. I’m nowhere near that and I hope I never get like that – well, I can’t even say that because if you want to get the big money, you’ve got to be like that. But I’m dealing with it. My head’s still level, my sister jokes about it, and my mom and dad say that if I get a big head they’ll smack me, so it’s cool. I’ve got a lot of people keeping me straight.”
It has been some 12 months though.
“This past year has gone so fast I haven’t even realized what’s going on,” he said. “I paid off a lot of bills this year, I’m almost completely out of debt, got married, and life has been really good to me. I have no complaints. I hope I have another year in 07 that I had from 05 to 06.”
And while things haven’t gotten Cruise-esque for Vera here in the States, in the Philippines (Vera’s mother is Filipino and father is Italian), it’s quite a different matter, as the heavyweight contender found out during a recent visit, where he conducted 30 newspaper interviews, appeared on six TV shows, was photographed for an eight page spread in Maxim’s fashion magazine, and could wind up on the cover of Men’s Health there.
“It’s insane over there,” said Vera, who is also in the process of setting up a charity organization in the Philippines for homeless children. “I love my Filipino roots, they love the fact that I speak Tagalog and that I’m coming back home to represent and that I’m proud to be Filipino. If you go out there, put on a show and show how much heart you have, the Filipino people will back you all the way, no matter what happens.”
Vera even admits that if he wins Saturday’s fight, he may be heading back to the Philippines to meet with President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. He’s got some other plans in store if he secures a victory.
“I think I’m gonna call somebody out after this fight, somebody I’ve been wanting to fight for a while, so we’ll see,” he says cryptically.
Who is it?
“I can’t say.”
What weight class, heavyweight or light heavyweight?
“I can’t say.”
What does he look like?
“I can’t say.”
Is he bigger than a breadbox?
“Yes,” he laughs.
What about Andrei Arlovski? You talked about fighting him in the past.
“See, there you go with the guessing game,” said Vera. “Let me win the fight first and then I’ll call out whoever I want to call out. It’s not even gonna be a callout like everybody thinks. It’s gonna be nice.”
So I guess it’s safe to say that Brandon Vera plans on putting the Frank Mir demons out of his mind and winning on Saturday night, right?
“I expect to finish the fight in the third round and I expect it to go for a while,” he said. “Frank Mir’s losses have come when he had to go the whole fight. He usually wins in the first round or early in the second. I’m preparing for a class five hurricane to come through, and once I’m in the eye of the storm, I’m gonna just let everything go.”