This is it for Brandon Vera. This is his last chance to fulfill the goals he set out in front of himself and the world when he debuted in the UFC almost seven years ago. Back then, he looked like a phenom. Back then, anything seemed possible. It's forgotten to history now, but after he beat Frank Mir at UFC 65, Vera was probably on the way to an opportunity to fight for the UFC heavyweight championship. That was until a contract dispute sidetracked him. Vera would go on to sit out nearly one year, and since then, he's been among the UFC's most erratic talents.
It got so bad that little more than one year ago, Vera was on his way out of the promotion, released after a lopsided defeat to Thiago Silva. It was only after Silva flunked a drug test that Vera's release was voided and he returned. Now, only one win later, he has the chance of a lifetime, to vault right back into the title picture after a curious decision by UFC president Dana White to offer a championship fight to UFC on FOX 4's most impressive main card light-heavyweight.
As good fortune goes, it's Christmas Day for Vera.
With a win, he would become the lowest-ranked top contender since The Ultimate Fighter season four gave us Matt Serra and Travis Lutter. And we all know how that turned out for one of them.
The problem for Vera (12-5, 1 no contest) is that he doesn't have to beat Chris Lytle or Patrick Cote to get there; he has to beat Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua, one of the division's all-time greats.
Vera, of course, is saying what you'd expect him to say. That he's a changed man. That he's a new and improved version of himself. That he's learned from his past.
But at this point, you can't be blamed if you think him to be MMA's Boy Who Cried Wolf. It's not as if he's a young fighter who suddenly reached a state of enlightenment. He's two months shy of his 35th birthday. He's 14 fights into his UFC career. He's been through the thick and thin.
On the other hand, it's hard not to be at least a little bit torn about his chances. Vera has always flashed enough bits of brilliance to convince you that he's better than his recent career arc. At UFC 102, he wore out Krzysztof Soszysnki with kicks, particularly during late flurries to finish each round. At UFC 105, many believed he had upset Randy Couture after stuffing nine of 10 takedowns, knocking Couture down and landing more power strikes, only to find himself on the wrong end of the judges' decision.
But since then, he got walloped by Jon Jones, struggled badly against Silva, and looked flat against Eliot Marshall in a win. That inconsistency has been one of Vera's hallmarks and plagues, and it's also what makes him so difficult to predict.
When he's at his best, there isn't much he doesn't do well. He has well above-average striking, landing 54 percent of his strikes, according to FightMetric. How good is that? That number ranks him in the top 10 all-time. His wrestling is also strong, particularly his takedown defense, a factor that will almost certainly come into play against Rua, who loves to get inside and put opponents on their back from the clinch. He also has very good Muay Thai and jiu-jitsu.
The problem isn't his fight skill, it's how he puts it all together. Or rather, how he doesn't. Vera seems to cruise at times. At other times, he's seemed to lose his concentration altogether, and that lack of focus that has cost him.
Shogun (20-6) is much more of a proven commodity. In terms of what he's bringing to the table, you know what you're getting. He will come forward, he will swarm, he will look for the kill. Yet there are still some questions about him.
Namely, how badly is he starting to slow down? At age 30, Rua is the younger fighter of the two, though the wear-and-tear he's absorbed over his career has surely aged him beyond his years.
He's had multiple knee surgeries, fought at an elite level since competing against Renato Sobral in his fifth pro fight back in 2003, and taken part in several wars of attrition. His latest, which came in one of MMA's all-time great battles against Dan Henderson last November, was downright savage.
At various times early in the fight, it looked like Rua was on the verge of being finished by Henderson's crushing power, but by the time the fight was over, Rua had nearly stormed all the way back. He ultimately fell in a close decision, but it made clear that the warrior still had plenty of fight left.
Past any worries of technical superiority in this fight, that has to worry Vera backers the most. Rua has repeatedly shown that he will war until the bitter end. Even in fights where he's been battered and bruised like the Jon Jones' beatdown, Rua has competed fiercely until the referee saved him from more damage.
Each fighter has his own personal breaking point, and Rua's just seems to go far beyond most. In that, he's a one-percenter.
That seems troublesome in this fight. Vera can throw beautiful combinations, but can he push himself further than he ever has before? This is a five-round fight. If he can't finish Rua, will he be able to take what Rua will undoubtedly dish out? Say what you will about Rua slowing down -- and I do believe there is an argument to be made about that -- but only Jones has ever beaten him in one-sided fashion. Everyone else has taken their own pounding along the way. Rua's chin keeps him in fights, and his heart often wins them.
Vera has the opportunity of a career in front of him, but given his inconsistent nature, how can we pick him to outlast one of MMA's great warriors? Shogun via third-round TKO.