Before Manny Pacquiao was Manny Pacquiao, boxing superstar, congressman, and Filipino icon, he was just another struggling prizefighter – talented, gutsy, but with two knockout losses that placed question marks over his future potential for greatness.
As we all know now, the “Pac Man” bounced back from those rough outings and now sits atop boxing’s pound for pound list. It’s a journey that UFC light heavyweight Brandon Vera, a popular figure in the Philippines himself, hopes to emulate.
“If you watch Pacquiao’s early fights, when he lost some and won some and when he got dropped, and then look at him now, its two totally different people and that didn’t happen overnight,” said Vera. “It took years. I look at him with awe and I wonder all the time how can I aspire to be like that. Pacquiao is a big influence in my career, and when times are hard, I think about everything – I think about family, I think about Pacquiao’s road through hardship in his career, everything.”
Vera has had a lot of time to think, and a lot of hard times to deal with. 3-5 following a nearly year long layoff from 2006 to 2007 due to a contractual dispute with his then-manager, the Virginia native has only shown precious glimpses of the form that had him dubbed mixed martial arts’ Next Big Thing after he finished off four consecutive opponents in four UFC bouts. The topper was Vera’s 69 second destruction of former heavyweight champ Frank Mir in 2006, but since then, it’s been a series of ups and downs – from controversial stoppage losses and pedestrian wins to razor-thin decision defeats and one spectacular TKO victory.
But rock bottom came in March of 2010, when Vera faced MMA’s latest Next Big Thing – Jon Jones.
Early on, the action was fairly uneventful, with Vera calmly playing defense from his back on the mat after losing a point for an illegal upkick. There was no indication that things were about to change, and Vera was of that same mindset.
“I was somewhere off in my own world when he was on top of me, just moving him around, just chilling like everything was gonna be all right,” recalled Vera. “I was thinking, ‘This is all the hype, this is what all the people were hyping you up about?’ No disrespect to Mr. Jones, especially not now, but I was thinking ‘man, really, this is all the hype? You f**king suck.’ Before I finished the word ‘suck’, that’s when the elbow smashed my face.”
The single left elbow from Jones left Vera with three facial fractures that required two surgeries and three metal plates in his face (one has been removed). Yet as his bones were reset, so was his outlook on fighting.
“Mr. Jones is a great fighter and I didn’t give him the respect that he deserved during that fight,” said Vera. “It was a good lesson learned and I thank him for it and I hate him for it at the same time.”
It would take six months before Vera was allowed near a gym to work out and prepare for a mixed martial arts fight. Yet not once did he ever think that he had put on the gloves for the last time.
“Hell no,” he said. “The whole time I was just thinking ‘I want my face to stop hurting so I could start training again, I want my face to stop swelling so I can start doing pad work again. At no point did I ever think about quitting. There’s no way.”
But the six months away were no picnic. Between the two surgeries (one for the reconstruction, the other to remove one of the plates), Vera admits that he would try to see if he could train again, but these tests would usually end in frustration.
“We kept testing the waters in between (the surgeries), doing padwork, but every time I would do something, my face would swell up on the right side,” said Vera. “It would swell up to the point where it would give me headaches. I’d have to stop for another two weeks and just relax and not do anything – I couldn’t run, I couldn’t jog, I couldn’t do anything. And after my second surgery, I had to go through that process again. So it was maybe six months before I could actually start doing anything. The only thing I could do was lift weights, super slow. I would do a set, wait, let my partner go, and then I would go. It was way different from training MMA in the gym.”
The time off didn’t even allow him to indulge in one of his favorites pastimes – video games.
“Staring at the TV set would make my head hurt.”
Eventually though, Vera healed and he was finally given the green light to train again. He eagerly made his way to the gym, and soon it was sparring day. In the Alliance Training Center that day were UFC standouts Junior dos Santos, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, and Phil Davis. Vera got his gear together and got ready to test himself for the first time since the Jones fight.
There was just one problem.
“I had all my gear and then I was like ‘s**t, I don’t have my mouthpiece,’” he laughs. “I looked around the gym and I said, I can’t bitch out now. Dos Santos is here, Lil’ Nog’s here, Phil’s here, I can’t just say ‘I can’t spar, guys, I don’t have a mouthpiece.’”
You can probably guess what happened next.
“So I went and sparred and made sure I didn’t get hit in the face that day. (Laughs) That was a rough one. It was my most nervous day sparring, especially with Dos Santos throwing uppercuts. But we’re all pretty close and everybody’s really cool, so it was a really good time.”
Brandon Vera was a fighter again, but there was one missing piece left to this puzzle, one that was about to be inserted.
“My team sat me down when I first started training again and they told me that everybody was pissed at me,” he recalls. “They said ‘You’re one of the most talented guys in the world and you could have the world at your feet and you’re not doing the things you’re supposed to be doing and you don’t believe in yourself like you used to. Why? And what can we do to help?’ And they’ve been kicking me in the ass and making me train, and putting it on me and making sure I’m doing the things I’m doing. I’m blessed to have a great team and great coaches that stay on me about that stuff. So after that meeting, I started thinking ‘I am the best 205-er in the world, I’ve just been bulls**tting. Let’s get back to it.”
Yet this proclamation comes with a disclaimer, one that wasn’t present over the last couple years. As Vera says it, it’s with the knowledge that he’s not invincible, not Superman, and not above getting humbled in the Octagon. That knowledge has taken him back to where he needs to be to make a serious run at becoming the fighter we all thought he could be back in 2006.
“I forgot who I was for a while and I forgot what I was fighting for,” he said. “I got lost and I took the easy path. I went and jumped on the path that was paved already with lights and direction signals instead of staying on the hard road and forging my own way.”
The road is definitely going to get rocky this weekend when he faces Brazilian banger Thiago Silva. It’s a dream matchup of two highly-proficient Muay Thai fighters, and when presented with the bout, Vera jumped at the opportunity.
“When they asked me to fight Silva, all I could think of was ‘Hell yes.’ Let’s get back in there and get back to how it’s supposed to be.”
For Vera, getting back to how it’s supposed to be means leaving his ego at the door and just letting his fists and feet do the talking. This isn’t about proving people wrong or showing that he can fight his opponent’s fight; it’s about winning and showing off his own tool set. In the last couple years, that wasn’t always the case.
“Randy Couture, I lost because of my ego,” said Vera, referring to his controversial decision loss to the UFC Hall of Famer in November of 2009. “We can argue all day and say the judges gave it to him, whatever. If I hadn’t tried to wrestle Randy as much as I did and just stuck to the gameplan that my coaches set forth, I would have been able to whup Randy’s ass. If I wasn’t as arrogant as I was when I fought Jon Jones and started to go for my submissions – my kimuras, my triangles, the armbars – he wouldn’t have broke my face.”
That’s all water under the bridge now though, and strangely enough, Vera has no regrets about how his journey has progressed.
“It’s been a blessing in disguise,” he said. “I’ve grown so much as a person growing up in the public eye. Fans have been able to see me at my highs and at my lows, and they’re about to see me back on my highs again and they’ll be able to understand that I’m a real person and not this super phenom that seems inhuman. I’m just like everybody else and I’ve had to go through my trials and tribulations to overcome my own demons and make this happen. I think that the fans will be able to appreciate me as a fighter and as a human being more because of this.”
And if Vera’s excitement level is any indications, those fans will definitely appreciate the opportunity to see ‘The Truth’ back in 2006 form.
“There’s a fire back inside of me,” he said. “I’m super anxious to fight Thiago Silva and just get back there and bang with him. I want to see if he can check my kicks, I want to see if he can take my punches, I want to see if he can hit me. I want to find out how good I can become. I’m a plant that’s just starting to flower now and I’m super excited to see what happens.”
Brandon Vera and The Wake-Up Call
“I’ve grown so much as a person growing up in the public eye. Fans have been able to see me at my highs and at my lows, and they’re about to see me back on my highs again."