Vera saying, doing right things this time
Brandon Vera swears he's finally taking his career seriously. He's pushing himself to new limits during workouts and he's no longer the arrogant kid he once was. This next fight on Jan. 1 will mark a new chapter for "The Truth." Just wait.
That would all sound really good if it were coming for the first time. But Vera promised he was a changed fighter in the weeks leading up to his fight with Randy Couture in November 2009 and said it again before fighting Jon Jones last March. Then he lost to both.
So what's different this time?
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"What's different is this is it. There is no next time," said Vera's boxing coach, Adrian Melendrez. "This is the first time I've sensed a true sense of urgency from Brandon. If you can't get up for this, a loser-goes-home kind of fight, maybe this is not for you and you won't make it anyways. If he wants to be the exciting Brandon all the fans wanted him to be, it's pure and simple -- there is no tomorrow for this one."
Following an eight-year career in which Vera, 33, has shown equal flashes of brilliance and mediocrity, his future as a UFC fighter likely comes down to what happens against Thiago Silva at UFC 125 in Las Vegas on Saturday. Since Vera has lost his past two and won just three fights in the past three years, he's in jeopardy of being cut from the always-crowded UFC roster.
The pressure of fighting for his job doesn't seem to have had a negative impact on Vera (11-5) and his confidence remains high, according to those close to him. But in his own way, he definitely acknowledges the situation he's in.
"It's Thiago or me," Vera said. "If I don't beat Thiago, I'll be in the unemployment line with the rest of the folks in the recession. It's funny but it's not. This is my back against the wall."
Vera's career has been a frustrating one to watch, particularly during the past four years as he slowly fell from the top of the heavyweight division. His refusal to live up to his potential has been particularly frustrating for his teammates, guys like Dominick Cruz and Phil Davis, who spent a good portion of their careers looking up to him.
During his recent training camp, Vera says things finally got to the point that someone had to say something. So someone did. Then someone else. And it went from there.
"At a team meeting one day, everybody sat down and was kind of touching around the subject," Vera said. "Finally [wrestling coach] Lew Polley said something. Then Eric Del Fierro jumped in. Dominick said something, Phil said something, Travis Browne, Joey Beltran, everybody did. It was almost like an intervention."
Vera wouldn't go into specifics, but he admitted the talk touched on a lot more than simply failing to work hard in the gym. It was brutal honesty from his closest friends -- and something he needed.
"The team will smile about it when they read it," Vera said. "But it was enough to get me going again. I'm that kind of guy. You can't sugarcoat things for me to get it. It was good."
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Evidence of a rise in Vera's intensity could be found in his preparation for Silva, which consisted of a 13-week camp. It happened to work out that his teammate, Cruz, was scheduled to defend the WEC bantamweight title on Dec. 16. Rather than wait to officially start his own camp, Vera jumped into Cruz's.
Stylistically, Vera has worked to bring the fight to his opponent more. As a striker, Vera and his coaches acknowledge he's always been a natural counter-striker. Countering can be effective, but it can also make it difficult to win rounds, making him appear less active as he waits to capitalize on his opponent's mistakes.
Vera says the greatest evidence of his maturity, though, happened every day inside his own head during training. The exercises he's doing are the same but his approach is different. He feels like the kid with the most to prove again; something he hasn't felt since being introduced to the sport. When the training gets difficult, he wills himself to increase the pace or go another round.
"Honestly, I feel like I did in the beginning of my career," Vera said. "It's hard to explain, but for awhile, if my coach told me I had to do nine rounds, by the fifth round I was looking at the clock and just waiting for it to be over so I could go home. I'm not looking at the clock anymore. I'm trying to go longer so that my coach wants to stop before I do."
The actual intervention and improved training regimen couldn't have come at a better time, since things don't get any easier for Vera in this next fight. Silva (14-2) is hungry to bounce back from his own skid, as he's lost two of three. He had been scheduled to fight at UFC 117 in August but pulled out due to a serious back injury.
Multiple surgeons advised Silva to undergo surgery, which would have kept him out of action for at least a year. Instead, Silva chose a rigorous physical therapy program that basically had him rebuild his strength from scratch. After having his ability to compete almost taken away from him, Silva says he feels reinvigorated heading into the new year.
"The worst part was just the pain and not being able to train," Silva said. "I hurt myself a few weeks before fighting Rashad Evans, and when I reinjured it in April, I couldn't even get out of bed. The pain and the uncertainty of when I could get back to training was hard. Right now, my back is 100 percent and I'm just very excited."
While Silva was working to return from back injury, Vera was facing a similar recovery from damage to his right eye caused by an elbow he took during the fight with Jones. That one strike fractured Vera's face in three places, severed a nerve and lodged a chip of bone behind his right eyeball. The injury required two surgeries, three metal plates and six screws.
For months, Vera woke up with pain on the right side of his face. It hurt to put any pressure on it and the area swelled whenever his heart rate rose, preventing him from taking a simple jog. That experience, coupled with an honest conversation with teammates, is what makes Vera feel he has grown up for real this time.
"In that one fight, I could have lost my eye," Vera said. "Having that time off and then getting that kick in the nuts from my team, I've grown up a lot through that process. This is a new beginning for me. It's a hell of a way to start off the new year and I'm just going to roll with it. I'm not done yet. I'm not done."
Brett Okamoto covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at bokamotoESPN.
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