The only clues to his profession are a heavy ridge across his brow and another around his eyes, scar tissue built up from being punched. His nose is also pinched and knotted at the bridge from taking shots to the face. Brandon doesn't have a bodybuilder physique; he's ropy, strong-looking up top but carries most of his weight in his legs. He looks like a furniture mover, someone who grasps heavy boxes around the middle and steps them up flights of stairs all day.
Brandon, aged 29, grew up in a house of seven boys and three girls, born to a Filipino father, Ernesto, and an Italian-American mother, Amelia. He went to Lake Taylor High School in Norfolk, Virginia, where he earned a four-year wrestling scholarship to Old Dominion University. A year and a half into the college life, he knew he had to join the military; college wasn't for him.
He earned a place on the Air Force wrestling team and was invited to train at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In 1999, while preparing for an upcoming match, Brandon shredded the ligaments in his right elbow. He underwent arthroscopic surgery, but the nerves in his right arm were damaged. He couldn't put the cap on a soda bottle or drive a manual transmission car. Brandon's muscles atrophied.
The Air Force released Brandon with a medical discharge, and Brandon moved back to Virginia. For a year and a half, he worked to rehabilitate his injured arm.
In 2001, Brandon returned to the competition he loved, grappling. He attended Grapplers Quest tournaments on the East Coast. In 2002, at a tournament, Lloyd Irvin, a Brazilian jujitsu coach, approached Brandon. Irvin had noticed Brandon's dedication and talent. "He saw how I came to the tournaments alone, warmed up alone, cut weight alone," Brandon says. "And he asked me to train with him in Maryland."
At Lloyd Irvin's Martial Arts Academy in Maryland, Brandon started fighting mixed martial arts, sometimes called "no holds barred," bouts. His first mixed martial arts bout was with a fight league called Excalibur Extreme Fight Challenge, on July 6, 2002. Brandon beat Adam Rivera with a knockout. His professional fight career had begun.
Brandon fought one more time in a minor league on the East Coast, then moved to San Diego on New Year's Eve, 2003. When I ask why San Diego, when his head coach, Lloyd Irvin, still lived in Maryland, Brandon says, "The weather, the girls, the job interview. It's San Diego, bro!" The job interview was for a training position at City Boxing.
The owner of City Boxing, Mark Dion, became Brandon's manager and set up more fights. Through Mark Dion, Brandon got an interview to train kickboxing with Rob Kaman at Legends Gym in Hollywood, California. Rob "the Dutchman" Kaman, with over 100 bouts under his belt, has held every major kickboxing title in his weight class and is often referred to as the greatest kickboxer ever.
Brandon's been honing his skills in and out of the ring -- as a kickboxer, wrestler, and jujitsu fighter -- ever since.
On October 3, 2005, Brandon fought in his first Ultimate Fighting Championship. At 3:22 in the second round, he had his first win in the big leagues, scoring a knockout victory over Fabiano Scherner at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas.
On his merit as a fighter, and his work ethic as head trainer at City Boxing, Mark Dion made Brandon co-owner of the gym. In San Diego, Brandon's career has really taken off. Including his first fight against Scherner, Brandon's won three Ultimate Fighting bouts since moving here. He's also found his current training partner, David "the Crow" Loiseau.
David is 26, a Haitian-Canadian born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. He's a stout black guy who was a gifted athlete as a kid, playing football and competing on a local level in karate. In French, Loiseau means "bird," and David's high school football teammates nicknamed him "the Crow." He still lives in Canada but trains in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and here at City Boxing in downtown San Diego.
David's shorter than Brandon but thicker up top, and he doesn't carry as much weight in the legs. Brandon's a heavyweight fighter, while David's a middleweight, weighing in at 185 pounds.
Like Brandon, he's friendly. He's soft-spoken, with a French-Canadian accent that is almost unnoticeable. To look at David, you'd never guess that he once stood in the Ultimate Fighting Championship ring, "the Octagon," face to face with then-middleweight champ Rich Franklin. In front of thousands of screaming fans in the Mandalay Bay arena in Las Vegas, in front of millions watching on pay-per-view at home, under the sparkling lights and before the flashing bulbs, this quiet kid fought his guts out for a gold belt and bragging rights. He took that fight the distance but lost in a unanimous decision.
Before the loss to Franklin, David had won five bouts in a row. But another loss after the Franklin fight and David's contract with the Ultimate Fighting Championship was cut.
Now "the Crow" is weighing his options for a future. Between rounds of sparring with Brandon, David talks on the phone. He's flying out later in the day to meet with his manager in Las Vegas. When asked about his fight career, David says, "I don't know what I'm going to do yet."
Going into his next fight against Frank Mir, rising star Brandon Vera is undefeated in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, winning all seven of his professional fights in his total mixed martial arts career. But David Loiseau is a reminder that nothing in the world of Ultimate Fighting can be taken for granted.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship is a fight league with a brand name. Mixed martial arts is the style of fighting: there are very few rules. Unlike boxing or kickboxing, mixed martial arts is fought both standing up and on the ground. And unlike wrestling or jujitsu, striking an opponent with punches or kicks is allowed.