He seemed too good to be true.
With his first four UFC bouts totaling just more than eight and a half minutes combined, Brandon Vera emergence as a top heavyweight in 2005-06 made fans take notice. He could punch and kick with wicked effect, and he was a top-notch technician in all phases of the grappling game. A technical gem of sorts, with an engaging smile and easygoing charisma to boot. He had pedigrees galore extensive training with world class wrestlers, sublime submissions and explosive athleticism that left fans double taking when he stopped foes. Like the savage head kick that dispatched Justin Eilers or the wicked quick guillotine he used to tap out Assuerio Silva.
But facing former heavyweight champ Tim Sylvia last October, "The Truth" had a dose of hard luck that mushroomed, both in and out of the cage, sending him away with his first loss and managerial problems that sidelined him for several months. Sylvia was supposed to be the acid test to see if Vera was ready for a title shot. Instead, Vera broke his thumb with the first punch of the bout, then struggled en route to a three-round decision loss. "I broke my left thumb with the first punch I threw, got three screws in two places," Vera said. "I thought it was dislocated at first, and I was trying to put it back in, but that didn't work."
The two spent much of the fight clinched on the cage, with Vera giving up 6 inches and 40 pounds to the 6-foot-8, 265-pound Sylvia. With his injured hand, he was unable implement his game plan, and like many of Sylvia's opponents, found himself smothered by the gargantuan ex-champ. "I only had one arm to push him forward with, instead of two, which you need," Vera said. "He was the biggest guy in the division. I'm definitely not nervous about fighting anybody ever again."
It wasn't a blowout by any means, but the fireworks he'd shown in previous efforts were absent. "I've seen the tape a few times. Maybe I could strike more. We did get off the jab and combos, but it hurt to jab," he said. "I don't know what I could've done more. I look at it and say, ‘Kick more, you retard!'" Suddenly, Vera looked human injured thumb and all. Then he had a fallout with his manager at the time, with both parties settling in arbitration. He didn't get fights due to his legal entanglements, and, with the lackluster showing against Sylvia, was one step away from appearing on the back of a milk carton, as far as fans were concerned.
The exile ends Saturday. Facing Fabricio Werdum at UFC 85 in London, Vera has the chance to get back on track and revitalize a career that was stuck in limbo. Werdum, a world-champion submission grappler, is one of the few MMA heavyweights who might be able to best Vera on the ground. "It's a little different," Vera said. "Trying to do jiu-jitsu, that would be a stupid choice. I will do MMA jiu-jitsu and punch him. No pretty, technical setups. I won't go heads up with Werdum. I don't know if my jiu-jitsu is superior or worse, but obviously, it's his strong point."
Eric Del Fierro, Vera's standup coach, said that while they haven't been tweaking too much of his charge's training regimen -- which consists of flying back and forth between Chula Vista, Calif., and Virginia to train with ground instructor Lloyd Irvin -- there are some minor changes for Werdum. "Brandon's assets are the same. He's a strong kicker and moves like a light heavyweight, real good footwork," Del Fierro said. "We worked on his power and speed for this fight. He's aggressive and comes in to finish. The only thing we've [changed] is working on different stances, lowering his center of gravity."
Keeping the bout on the feet would definitely be to Vera's advantage. Werdum has beaten Gabriel Gonzaga twice, looking impressive on both occasions, but he found himself befuddled and stymied in a decision loss to Andrei Arlovski whose takedown defense and striking left the Brazilian largely unable to engage. Arlovski didn't press the issue, content to take a snoozer decision. Given the same circumstances, history indicates Vera will try and close the show. Yet with a record of 10-3-1, Werdum has faced impressive competition and has never been stopped. It's the kind of challenge Vera relishes. With five fights left on his UFC contract, he is back in the mix and a big win could make up for the lost time he spent dealing with his legal issues and the loss to Sylvia.
Heavyweight champ Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira will take on ex-champ Frank Mir in December Vera dispatched Mir in 69 seconds in November 2006 so there's no reason to think a strong showing against Werdum wouldn't put his name on the short list of potential challengers. But he wants to earn it, to get back to the delicious position of being the guy on everybody's lips -- the heir apparent to the heavyweight belt.
"It all depends on how I look," Vera said of a possible title shot should he win. "Werdum is ranked five or six in the world. He's for sure the best fighter I've fought in my career to date. I'm sure I'm the most well-rounded heavyweight. If I squeak out a decision, I won't ask for one; but if I beat him soundly, [maybe]." And a showdown with Nogueira a living legend among hardcore fans for his gutsy battles in Pride before he joined the UFC would be the ultimate gut check. Nogueira is as tough as any fighter in the game, with the kind of blood-soaked resilience and heart you can't teach. You can spike him on his head (Bob Sapp) batter him with relentless ground and pound (Fedor Emelianenko) or send him staggering with crushing blows (Tim Sylvia) but he recovers and keeps battling.
Nogueira took the vacant UFC belt from Sylvia after Randy Couture (Pictures)'s split with the organization earlier this year. The bout was a roughneck encounter that saw Sylvia put heavy leather on the Brazilian for two taxing rounds, before he was taken down and submitted in a dramatic reversal of fortunes. "Honestly, Tim Sylvia summed it up best. He was whipping Nog's ass the first 10 minutes, then all of a sudden Nogueira wins. Nog's a soldier," Vera said. "He's the guy that would jump on a grenade in war and then put his guts back together and go shoot them up. You really have to fight Nog, fight to finish him, but fight smart. His MMA jiu-jitsu is so well rounded and so good. It's hard to do."
Vera/Werdum offers up some stylistic similarities, as Vera will be facing a world-class submission stylist. The fight could offer up a preview of how he might fare against the champion, or it could be a tough setback should Vera have another night like the loss against Sylvia.
"The Truth" will out.