BURBANK, Calif. -- Brandon Vera knows his story is considered a cautionary tale in the mixed martial arts world.
The Chula Vista, Calif. resident can recite the entire litany of events which turned him from an undefeated fighter who boasted of becoming the first-ever simultaneous UFC heavyweight and light heavyweight champion to being cut from the organization.
But Vera doesn't have the time for armchair psychoanalysis these days. Not when he's busy attempting to rebuild his legacy. So rather than rehash all the ups and downs, the 34-year-old veteran pins his rise, fall, and renewal to two clear moments in time.
One was the point at which he stopped caring about his future. The other was when the light switch flipped back on in his head and he re-committed to the sport, starting down a path which has led him to his UFC on Fox 4 main event against Mauricio "Shogun" Rua in Los Angeles on Aug. 4.
"My story is told over and over again in the sport of MMA," Vera said at a recent media luncheon. "But not too many people get a second chance to redeem themselves or make it happen. I don't want to say this is a new Brandon Vera. This is the Brandon Vera who should have always been."
Hitting rock bottom
First, there was the downward turn. Vera and five-time former champion Randy Couture engaged in a tight battle in the main event of UFC 105 in Manchester, England. It was a critical fight in Vera's career. He had dropped from heavyweight to light heavyweight in 2008 and had won three of four bouts at 205 pounds, with the only loss a split decision against Keith Jardine.
When the match was over, Vera, along with many who watched the bout, fully believed he was about to get the nod against the UFC Hall of Famer. A win would have been his third in a row and would have given him a significant boost in the divisional rankings.
"I remember the feeling," said Vera. "I'm remember thinking, if they say ‘Split decision,' you're gonna get [expletive]. If they say ‘Unanimous decision,' it's gonna be mine. So they say ‘Winner by unanimous decision' and I knew I just beat my hero, I knew I beat Captain America."
But Vera didn't get the nod, as he lost a controversial unanimous decision, with 29-28 scores across the board. Vera couldn't shake the feeling he got robbed.
"I beat my hero, and when I didn't get the win, that was part of my tumble," Vera said. "After the Randy fight I stopped caring as much, and I started caring about everything else but fighting. My coaches used to tell me this, my training partners used to yell at me about this, but, I couldn't see it."
In subsequent fights, Vera went through the motions. He was on the wrong end of a one-sided loss to Jon Jones, and had a loss to Thiago Silva changed to a no-contest when the latter failed a drug test. Vera was cut by the UFC after the loss and re-instated after Silva's Nevada commission suspension.
"Brandon went through a lot," said Eric Del Fierro, Vera's head coach at The Alliance MMA gym in Chula Vista. "It was a case of someone having early success and then getting hit with all of the distractions that go with it. It's not the first time it's happened in the fight game and it won't be the last. Brandon had to decide for himself whether he wanted to continue in the sport."
Vera's Alliance campmates even attempted an intervention. "I don't remember which fight it was, but they pulled me outside," Vera said. "All my training partners said ‘Brandon, you don't have it any more, you don't have the fire anymore like you used to.' I was like, ‘What the [expletive] are you talking about, are you serious? I want to fight.' But I know what they meant, now."
Armbarred into epiphany
Vera's turning point arrived in a classic "fight or flight" moment. He was two years removed from his last victory and relegated to the preliminary card at UFC 137 in Las Vegas against Eliot Marshall. Vera dominated the first two rounds, but Marshall came on strong in the third. Late in the round, Marshall went for an armbar.
This is it, Vera thought. Now or never.
"When my arm was deep in Eliot Marshall's armbar, at that last split second it was, either you aren't in the UFC anymore, or you're going to get out of this and keep your job. Or, I don't get out and we're done fighting. My head said, ‘[Expletive] that, I'm not done fighting,' not by a longshot."
Vera got out of the armbar, got to the end of the third round, and took a unanimous decision. It wasn't pretty, but it got the job done.
"That was the start," he said. "Ever since then, my ego's been in check."
The light heavyweight was slated to fight James Te-Huna at UFC on Fuel 4 when the opportunity he was waiting on finally came knocking. Rua was supposed to fight Silva at UFC 149. Meantime, the UFC on Fox 4 bout between Brian Stann and Hector Lombard fell out due to a Stann injury. This confluence of events sent the UFC back to the drawing board on the company's summer fights cards.
Vera's manager called last month to inform him that the UFC asked him to drop the Te-Huna fight and take on another opponent.
"He goes ‘Well how would you feel about fighting Shogun?' and right when he said that I got goose bumps all over my whole body," Vera said. "I was like ‘Are you serious right now?'"
Vera was already in shape, since he was training for Te-Huna. But with the change of opponents -- no disrespect to Te-Huna, but Shogun is a significant step up in competition -- came a renewed sense of urgency.
"I think this fight with Shogun is probably my single most important fight in the UFC," Vera said. "More important than my first fight in the UFC. More important than my fight with Tim Sylvia, more important than my fight with Randy Couture. You know, looking back at the peaks and valleys and ups and downs of my career, this is a blessing in disguise, this is something that can put me back on track. This one fight can correct all my issues. All my indiscretions and me just being a dumbass and not taking the fight game as serious as I should have since day one. This is a huge fight for me."
Del Fierro concurs. "You're seeing a fighter who's matured, who is at the point of his career that he's thinking about his legacy," he said. "We know what Brandon's capable of when he wants it. He knows what type of opportunity he's been given here and he's working to take advantage of it."
Vera has heard all the talk about how he doesn't deserve the main event. He opened on betting lines as a +220 underdog to the former UFC light heavyweight champion. He knows the only answer that will quiet the critics is to go out and perform, and that means doing the hard work now.
"In MMA there's no easy route, but I had been taking the easy route," Vera said. "I stopped training with the hard training partners, I stopped putting myself in bad positions, I stopped going with people for their strengths. If I go with [Mark] Munoz, I wouldn't be doing ground and pound with them. If I went with Phil Davis, I wouldn't be wrestling. But now I'm doing it."
"I'm putting myself in bad situations now that I haven't been in in I don't know how long. Physically, I'm in shape, we're already sparring five rounds. They suck. I don't want to say they're easy, I'm not Dominick Cruz all bouncing around after five rounds. I'm catching my breath, maybe running to the trash can."
Brandon Vera may or may not ultimately live up to the greatness many predicted for him when he got off to a 9-0 career start and knocked out Frank Mir. But he also won't let it be said that he didn't take things seriously when he was given his second chance.
"When I hear the music, and I hear Shogun's name, it's all going to come to a head, right then and there, right on that spot," Vera said. "I read where Shogun said ‘This fight will not disappoint the fans.' When that came from Shogun's mouth, I was like, this means he and I both understand what this fight is about. When I read that I was like, he knows what time it is, he knows what's going on. We're on the same page."