By BOB EMANUEL JR. | Scripps Howard News Service
Brandon Vera’s career in mixed martial arts almost never happened.
Vera, one of 10 siblings, joined the Air Force and represented the military branch’s wrestling team. A severe elbow injury required surgery, and Vera was given a medical discharge with the assumption the elbow would never allow him to be physically active again.
“I thought it was the end,” Vera says. “I had to sell my Camaro. I couldn’t even drive a stick-shift anymore.”
Undeterred by the injury, Vera rehabilitated the injury and soon rejoined the wrestling community. He was introduced to MMA and began to practice a new sport.
Vera, who will headline Saturday night’s “UFC on FOX 4” event at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, quickly took to MMA. He won his first four professional fights and signed with the Ultimate Fighting Championship. After four more fights in the UFC, Vera stood 8-0 with a victory over former champion Frank Mir and was poised for a title shot against heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia.
Unfortunately for Vera, his manager engaged the UFC in contentious contract negotiations, and Vera would remain sidelined for nearly a year. When he returned, Vera fought Sylvia, who had lost his title to Randy Couture in the interim.
“I was still training, but my heart wasn’t in it,” says Vera of the layoff. “You’re in the UFC, then all of a sudden you’re in a forced timeout. You’re still training, but it’s more BS training so you don’t get fat instead of more concentrated fighter training. It kind of became a routine.”
Vera lost to both Sylvia and Fabricio Werdum before he agreed with the UFC and dropped to light heavyweight. Vera defeated Reese Andy in his light heavyweight debut and was back on his path when he was dealt a life-altering event just two weeks before his next fight against Keith Jardine. Vera was at the home of his trainer, Lloyd Irvin, in Maryland when two armed gunmen broke in.
Irvin eventually disarmed one of the intruders, and both fled the scene, leaving the occupants safely behind. Nearly four years later, Vera still vividly remembers the lessons learned from the experience.
“I don’t have nightmares about it, but sometimes I’ll hear a noise and I’ll send the dogs down,” Vera says. “I sleep with a gun by my bed all the time. My wife has one on her side all the time. We’re just better prepared now.”
With the thoughts of the ordeal still fresh in his mind, Vera lost to Jardine. But Vera won his next two fights — against Mike Pratt and Krzysztof Soszynski — and was rewarded with a pair of high-profile bouts. Vera was unable to capitalize and lost to UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture and current light heavyweight champion Jon Jones. A third consecutive loss was changed to a no contest when Thiago Silva tested positive for a banned substance.
Vera embarked on a soul-cleansing, 30-day, 8,500-mile cross-country road trip in a 40-foot RV with his wife, a friend and his three dogs. When he returned, Vera (12-5 with a no contest) was a new person. He defeated Eliot Marshall last October and will fight Rua in the main event Saturday night. The card, which will be held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, can be seen live on FOX at 5 p.m. PDT.
Vera’s new outlook will be thoroughly tested by Rua, the former UFC light heavyweight champion, who is 20-6, although he lost four of his last eight fights. His last fight, a five-round loss to Dan Henderson via decision, showed off Rua’s nonstop effort and was one of the best fights of 2011. The winner of the fight will become the top contender.
“I’ve watched all his fights,” Vera said. “Any lesser fighter would have been put away a long time ago in most of those fights. The reason Shogun keeps getting back up is because his pride will not let him quit. When you’re in there fighting with Shogun, it’s not just fighting technique. You’re not just fighting his cardio. You’re not just fighting any regular fighter.
“You’re fighting a guy whose pride will walk him through hell, being burned up, to get back up, so he can try to beat you. That’s my biggest challenge fighting Shogun — his pride. I have to break him to beat him.”