Marlon Vera has come a long way.
The veteran bantamweight is set to headline his first UFC main event on April 30 when he meets Rob Font in a high-stakes battle of contenders. It’s a moment eight years in the making for “Chito,” whose octagon debut came in 2014 after an appearance on The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America and who struggled to a 4-4 record through his first eight UFC bouts before turning his career around.
For Vera, the nadir of those struggles came in 2018 after consecutive losses to John Lineker and Douglas Silva de Andrade — and at that point, “Chito” knew he’d reached a crossroads that could define his future.
“F***, those back-to-back losses were pretty hard mentality,” Vera admitted on The MMA Hour. “I was a little depressed, and I thought my career was done. I was like, ‘F***, I can’t beat these guys.’ And I get it — back then, Lineker was No. 4, the guy was a big deal. And let’s be honest, I’m not the type of idiot that says, like, ‘Oh, he didn’t even touch me,’ but he really didn’t do much to me, and in the third round I ended it walking him down and winning the third round. But the fight after that [against de Andrade] I got a little beat up, so I was like, ‘F***, looks like I can’t win.’
“And back then I wasn’t the person that I am today. It’s almost like I was reading a little bit of comments, like, ‘Oh f***, you’re done. You suck.’ It’s like, ‘F***, I do suck.’”
Vera, 29, hadn’t lost two consecutive fights in his career prior to that slump, and the self-doubt that came with his downward fortunes admittedly played tricks on his mind.
Reflecting back on that time in his career, Vera said it took a lot of honest talks with himself to be able to recognize his own missteps and take ownership of his own poor decision-making, rather than looking around and pinning the blame on others around him.
“Mentally I wasn’t that sharp,” Vera admitted. “I was strong and I was able to take it and rebuild, I went on a good win streak after that, but that’s what happens when you talk to yourself, and you go, ‘Hey, you’ve got to fix this. You’ve got to take care of yourself. You have to do what’s right.’ Because some things — if you’re there [in that place mentally], it’s because either you’re doing wrong or somebody is not giving you enough, and both are your fault, because you’ve got to detect those things early and fix them. So at the end of the day, I will not give names or point fingers, because it’s me.”
For Vera, two figures played key roles in helping him wade through that darkness and ultimately find success in his UFC career on the other side.
The first was a move to work with Jason Parillo, who today still serves as Vera’s head coach.
“He’s very good at making sure this [mental aspect] is good, so I think that was one of the things that moved my my game up pretty well,” Vera said. “I think he took me to the next level — and you guys will see that soon. I think you guys saw a little bit with Frankie [Edgar], but you guys will see even more now that I have two more rounds to work [against Font].”
While it’s not uncommon for a new coach to help an athlete break through their glass ceiling to reach a new level in their career, the second person who assisted Vera may be a little bit more unexpected of a name: Former UFC bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw.
“When I lost back-to-back, he basically opened the doors of his gym for me to get a different look and just kind of redo myself,” Vera said of Dillashaw.
“So I respect that and I’m grateful for that.”
It’s for that reason that Dillashaw is the one name Vera is uninterested in facing as he makes a renewed climb up the UFC’s bantamweight ladder.
Although Vera may not have a choice if he continues his winning ways.
“Chito” has won eight of his past 10 fights since his career-changing slump, a run highlighted by big finishes of Frankie Edgar and Sean O’Malley. Vera is currently MMA Fighting’s No. 12 ranked bantamweight in the world, and a win over the No. 6 ranked Font would put the Ecuadorian just inches away from title contention. Dillashaw is in that same mix, so a matchup with title implications between the two may not be far off.
But for now, Vera is focused only on the task ahead.
“How MMA works, anything can happen. The No. 1 contender can break a finger, I don’t know, [they] can get COVID,” Vera said.
“But I think I win this [Font] fight and I’m right in line. Anything can happen. I’ve got the next shot or they give me another big one. To be champion, you’ve just got to fight, dude. Eventually you want to fight, I don’t know, No. 2 or No. 1 to see who fights for the belt. Man, cool — but first things first, I go in there, kick this guy’s ass, and we’ll see what’s next. I don’t like to look ahead of nobody.”