Brandon Vera stands facing David Loiseau in the center of an Olympic-sized boxing ring. David is turned to the side, holding a blue pad, six inches thick, against his torso. Brandon deals David several swift kicks to the midsection. Brandon's shin snaps against the blocking pad with a loud pop. Even though David is braced for the impact, he's shoved backward with each blow. Brandon's hands stay up, in fists, next to his head. Pop. He snaps another one so quick it looks as though it takes no time, no coordination, no balance, no effort. Pop. Another kick. Pop. Brandon "the Truth" Vera is a heavyweight fighter, representing City Boxing and San Diego in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. He's training for an upcoming fight against former heavyweight champion Frank Mir. When an alarm on the wall signals the end of a three-minute round, Brandon keeps dealing out kicks. His training partner, David Loiseau, says, "These are good. You want to stop? Pop. Brandon lets loose another right leg to the pad strapped to David's forearms and held against David's ribs. "Repetition," Brandon huffs, sweat rolling down his forehead. Another kick. Another three-minute round, and the alarm on the wall sounds.
Brandon stops to sip water and catch his breath. Between rounds of punishing his training partners, he steps to the edge of the ring to talk to his wife, his friends, and the gym members who train at City Boxing.City Boxing is a traditional fight gym. It smells like stale sweat. It's a barn-sized, two-story building. In every location that could possibly hold one, a heavy leather bag -- or a small bladder of air -- hangs and drips from the walls. At each bag stands a hopeful fighter.
The lower floor is 85 by 40 feet. In the center sits an Olympic boxing ring, 20 by 20 feet, where Brandon is practicing with David. Just inside the front door is an open mat, an area covered in black rubber, where kickboxing and jujitsu classes are held, while on the other side of the ring is the weightlifting equipment, leg-press stations, squat racks, pull-up bars, and dumbbells. A second-floor loft holds more punching bags, a smaller ring for sparring, and treadmills.
Taped to the white walls are posters of fighting legends: Ali, Couture, Tyson, Duran, and others. On the lower floor, fighters watch themselves box and correct their technique in a long mirror that covers the western wall. Taped to one corner of the mirror is a May 2006 Washington Post article that chronicles Brandon's last bout in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
On the opposite wall, a red electronic alarm blares every three minutes. When the alarm sounds, David ditches the pads, and he and Brandon start working takedowns and ground attacks. Brandon shoots for David's knees. He pulls them together, lifts David from the canvas, and drops him on his back. They stand again. Brandon catches David's legs, and David sprawls backward to defend the takedown. Brandon grips a single leg. He hoists David off the mat to -- bang -- slam him down on his back.
Brandon wrestles David from up top. He overpowers him and sits on his torso, then grapples with David's wrists, seeking to control them and open David's face to attack. Brandon pins David's arms, holding one wrist and neutralizing David's other arm with an elbow. With his free hand, Brandon smacks David in the face and ear. It's the old sit-on-somebody-and-hit-them-in-the-head maneuver that bullies deal out to nerds on the elementary school playground. In mixed martial arts, this technique is called "ground and pound." Since they're sparring and not full-force fighting, Brandon taps David instead of punching him; Brandon's not hurting David.
The three-minute alarm sounds, but Brandon keeps training. They decide to practice Brandon's ground-fighting technique, called jujitsu. The fighters switch so that Brandon is on his back and David is in the top position. David is in Brandon's "guard," which means that Brandon's legs are wrapped around David's waist. Even though Brandon is on the bottom, he has a number of offensive and defensive options.
Brandon practices one of these techniques: the armbar. Holding David's left wrist, Brandon arches his back, swivels at the hips, and swings his right leg in front of David's face. Brandon pushes with his legs until David is rolled onto his back. Brandon is then sitting beside David, with David's shoulder trapped in a scissor-lock between Brandon's knees. David's elbow is hugged tight against Brandon's chest. Brandon arches his back, wrenching on David's shoulder and elbow. Before the arm snaps, David concedes the match by tapping on the mat with his free hand, and Brandon releases him.
That's one way to finish off an opponent in the Ultimate Fighting Championship: put them in such pain that they "tap out." The other two ways to win are to knock the opponent out or take it to the end of the three rounds and win a judge's decision.
Brandon's been here for half an hour, training kickboxing, wrestling, and jujitsu, and he's only now getting warmed up. The alarm sounds again, and he breaks for water and to talk. Brandon doesn't talk about his upcoming fight with former heavyweight Ultimate Fighting champ Frank Mir. He wants to talk about video games.
Young gym members stop by the ring and climb the ropes to shake Brandon's hand and talk gaming. Even though Brandon has the fight of his life coming up in less than two weeks, he still stops between rounds, smiles, and laughs with anyone willing to talk to him about video games. "Halo III is coming out soon," Brandon says, leaning out and hovering from the top rope. "I've got to get that, bro. I need that game."
Brandon "the Truth" Vera doesn't look like an Ultimate Fighter. Sure, he's six three and 230 pounds, but he looks like a big Latino kid. A lot of fighters in the Ultimate Fighting Championship rock a multicolored mohawk or an ugly beard, but Brandon's hair is shorn close to his scalp and he's clean-shaven. In a T-shirt he has no visible tattoos, and he wears a friendly oval smile instead of a sneer while he's talking with the kids around the ring.
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.
The first Ultimate Fighting Championship, in 1993, had no weight classes. Competitors fought round-robin style and might fight three or four times in a single night. The only rules to early Ultimate Fights were "no biting, no eye-gouging." This loose style of governance drew political pressure, mainly from Arizona senator John McCain, and forced Ultimate Fighting underground.
Working with the Nevada State Athletic Commission, the Ultimate Fighting Championship agreed to institute weight classes and stricter rules: no kicking a downed opponent, no groin attacks, and no head-butting. The latest Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-view events have surpassed World Wrestling Entertainment's Wrestlemania and professional boxing in popularity.
A reality television show on Spike TV, called The Ultimate Fighter, was introduced two years ago, boosting popularity for the sport. On the show, mixed martial artists are pitted against each other. The top fighter from the TV show wins a one-year, six-figure contract to fight in Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts on pay-per-view.
Brand tie-ins. Promotions for sports supplements. Clothing lines. Huge crowds drawn to arenas and Las Vegas casinos have brought the Ultimate Fighting Championship and its "Octagon" fighting cage out of the underground and into mainstream popular culture. It's no longer the blood-match spectacle of the early 1990s, and young mixed martial artists, like Brandon Vera and David Loiseau, are looking for the money, fame, and titles that the Ultimate Fighting Championship offers.
Brandon's last fight, in Ultimate Fighting Championship 60, was against Assuerio Silva, a formidable fighter from Brazil. A first-round defeat of Assuerio earned Brandon the right to fight Frank Mir, former heavyweight champ.
"Assuerio caught me right in the eye, his knuckle just...bop..." Brandon mimics the punch by putting his own knuckle gently into his left eye. "It didn't catch my cheek or anything but pushed my eye in. Whenever I blinked or closed my eye it hurt, but it's healed up now."
When asked if he's ready to fight the former champ, Frank Mir, Brandon replies, "I'm so ready to fight. I've been training forever."
For six weeks, Brandon's training has been three workouts a day, and for the month before that, he hit two workouts a day. "The training is what sucks," he says. "The fight is what I look forward to."
A typical training day starts at 8:00 a.m., when Brandon wakes up and braces for the day with a set of sprints or long-distance running, for up to an hour. In the afternoons, he'll train his kickboxing with Rob Kaman, either in San Diego or Los Angeles. When evening comes, Brandon trains jujitsu, rolling with an opponent for two hours or more.
Brandon has "hard training days" and "sweat days." The day I met him at City Boxing, he sparred with Loiseau for more than two hours. That was a sweat day. A hard day is when "Master Lloyd or Rob Kaman is on my ass," he says. In a heavy day of training, it's not uncommon for Brandon to run for the locker room to vomit from exertion. He washes his mouth out and gets back in the ring.
When Brandon pulls his sweat-soaked shirt off, his tattoos are visible. Centered in a square pattern that runs from his shoulderblades to his lower back are Alibata-Filipino symbols for water, earth, fire, and air. "They keep me grounded," he says. "There's always something out there bigger and badder than you. When I get a big head, I try to remember that." Brandon doesn't fight for any ancient code of ethics or philosophy. In his mother's words, he's a "happy-go-lucky kid."
He's certainly no trash-talking Ali. He's never been angry at an opponent, and he's never badmouthed one. Brandon doesn't fight mad. "Tim Sylvia said something disrespectful to me one time. I can't even remember what. I just shrugged it off. It doesn't mean anything. It's part of the game."
Tim Sylvia is the current heavyweight Ultimate Fighting Champion. If Brandon wins his upcoming match against Frank Mir at Ultimate Fighting Championship 65, he's in line for a title shot, but "I'm not going to take it," he says. And now we learn why Brandon does fight: "I'm going to hold out. To train more. And for more money."
In smaller federations that promote mixed martial arts, fighters demolish their bodies for purses so small they don't even cover the cost of ongoing medical problems; sometimes fighters get less than $500 a match. For his fight with Assuerio, Brandon received $16,000 to fight and an extra $16,000 to win. With sponsorships, Brandon's payday was almost $70,000. Ultimate Fighting Champs can earn up to $250,000 per fight.
"I was kind of scared after my fight with Assuerio," Brandon says. "My eye hurt, and a friend of mine had just cracked his orbital ridge and couldn't see good, and he can't fight now." But Brandon's injured eye has healed, and the money makes up for a lot of pain.
It was at the Olympic Training Center, when Brandon was wrestling for the Air Force, that he met Ultimate Fighting Championship Hall of Famer and former heavyweight champion Randy Couture.
"Randy was straight up getting paid to whup people's ass," Brandon says. "There's no money in wrestling. You can't make a living wrestling."
He fights for money but also for the love of competition. "That's why I wrestled," Brandon says. "I was competitive, but I was terrible at team sports. With wrestling, it's just you and the other guy on the mat. I liked that."
It's the competition that spurs Brandon on while training. "When I don't want to run sprints, I think, What's Frank Mir doing? and I run. When I'm tired and sore and I've been training all day, I think, What's Frank Mir doing?
Frank is in shape.
Brandon received a covert report from Frank Mir's camp that Frank's been training hard. Frank Mir lives and trains at the unofficial hub of Ultimate Fighting, Las Vegas. He was once the heavyweight Ultimate Fighting champion, the belt won by breaking current champion Tim Sylvia's arm in the first minute of the match. Yes. Breaking Tim Sylvia's arm earned Frank the title.
In September of 2004, on his way to work out, Frank's motorcycle was T-boned by a car at an intersection, crushing his thigh and throwing him more than 30 yards, after which he slid across the pavement and crashed into a curb. He had to relinquish his title, then began a year and a half of physical therapy. Tim Sylvia was once again champ.
But Frank wants his title back. And only San Diego's Brandon "the Truth" Vera stands in his way. Brandon and Frank are the top contenders for the title. If Frank Mir beats Brandon, he earns a shot at snapping Tim Sylvia's bones again. If Brandon beats Frank, he could renegotiate his contract for larger purses in upcoming fights, and the Ultimate Fighting Championship might offer Brandon a title fight against Sylvia.
Brandon's manager and the co-owner of City Boxing, Mark Dion, says they'll pass on the title fight. Mark would rather Brandon fight lower-ranked competitors. But it's not Brandon's skills as a fighter that Mark wants to hone. "He can beat Sylvia," Mark says. "He's going to beat Sylvia, eventually. Then he's going to drop his weight down to light heavyweight and take that title."
What Mark is holding out for is more money. Mark wants to hold off Brandon's fight with the champ to build demand with the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The more lower-ranked competitors Brandon beats, the more the fans are going to call for him to fight Sylvia. When the demand is high enough, the fight league will up their purse.
"You gotta be careful," Mark says with a tough-guy accent he earned growing up in Boston. "The UFC offers up title bouts to contenders for almost zero cash. Guys take it because they think it's their last chance, and they walk out of the ring with next to nothing. Why do that?"
Of course, Brandon has to get through former champ Frank Mir first. Brandon treats the fight on November 18 as a business meeting. He's confident. "I know what I'm going to do," he says. "Frank doesn't have the conditioning that I have. The fight lasts three five-minute rounds. I've got it to where I'm sparring for six six-minute rounds right now. Frank's going to try to take it to the ground in the first four minutes, and I'm going to defend the takedowns. But I don't mind if we go to the ground. I'm comfortable either way."
Brandon would like to keep it standing. Frank Mir is a renowned jujitsu specialist but is regarded as a weak striker, with no kickboxing skills.
Brandon has watched videos of Frank's fights. Before his motorcycle wreck, Frank Mir fought in seven Ultimate Fighting Championships, in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and London, England, winning six of them to be champ. After the wreck, he fought two Ultimate Fights at the Mandalay Bay, in front of his hometown crowd in Las Vegas.
"He gasses out quick," Brandon says. He talks about Frank Mir's fighting with mechanical disinterest. "Frank gets tired after four minutes and drops his hands."
Brandon only perks up when he devises a gaming metaphor. "It's a video game, you know. He hits me. I hit him. I don't fight pissed off. It's like a video game."
Then Brandon holds his hands in front of him and wiggles his fingers, as if he's holding a game controller. "It's a video game. A, B, A, B, R, L, Up, Down, A, B," calling out the buttons he's pressing on his imaginary controller. "There are things I have to do in a game to get my character to do a certain maneuver. If something happens, I have to counteract it to move to the next level. Same thing with fighting. He hits me like this" -- Brandon jabs his left arm out and ducks -- "I hit him like this." Brandon steps back and does a boxer's dance. "He blocks this, I hit him with that. A, B, A, B, R, L, Up, Down."
"I love to play online," Brandon says of his favorite game, Halo. "The funny thing is, people talk mad shit when they're online. Guys always get upset when they lose, and they say they're going to drop by my house and kick my ass. I don't get mad. My friends offer to give them my address, but nobody's taken them up on it yet. It's a joke to us, because nobody knows who I am online. I don't use 'Brandon the Truth Vera' as my online name. Nobody knows me." His only frustration with playing Halo online? "Eight-year-olds, man. I don't know what it is, but damn, kids are good, better than me, sometimes."
Brandon has one week of training left before he faces off against Mir in the Octagon. "Monday is a hard training day," he says. "Then I take a couple days to rest and go up Wednesday night, I think. To Sacramento. With Master Lloyd, Rob Kaman, David Loiseau, my manager Mark, and my wife Kerry."
Brandon and manager Mark Dion briefly discuss flight arrangements, Brandon's entrance music (a song written about Brandon), and T-shirts for the crew of trainers in Brandon's corner.
"Then we'll watch Nip/Tuck and Lost for a couple nights," Kerry says. "Until Brandon falls asleep for a couple hours. Then he'll get up, pace around, play video games."
When you think of a fighter's wife you might imagine mousy Adrian Balboa, sitting next to a radio and crying, wishing Rocky would retire. Adrian was a general pain in the ass and naysayer to her husband's fight career. Nothing could be further from a description of Kerry, a professional boxer herself. Kerry, 24, of Chula Vista, met Brandon while working on her boxing moves at the gym.
"He's been training so hard," she says. "He always trains hard."
When asked if she worries about him, she says, "Some. I mean, it's a fight. But, he's dedicated to his training and..." She pauses. "He's really good at this."
"I'll go up to Sacramento a couple days before," Kerry says of her plans for Brandon's fight night. Ultimate Fighting Championship 65 will take place at Arco Arena. "I have to be up there. When he can't sleep. When he wants food. I have to take care of him. He won't sleep for days. If he can't sleep, we'll go watch a movie until he's tired, or hopefully, they'll have video-game hookups on the hotel TV."
"Before a fight," Brandon says, "I'll fall asleep about 3:00 a.m. Then I'll roll over at 6:00, and I'll think, What if he throws a jab? or What if he goes for this armbar or that leg lock? Then I'm up. I'm awake again and thinking about the fight. I do that for a couple nights. Then Saturday I fight."
In Sacramento, Brandon spends the rest of the week sparring jujitsu with Lloyd Irvin, kickboxing with Rob Kaman, and putting it all together with David Loiseau.
The TV at the Sheraton Grand doesn't allow console hookups, and so, after some phone calls, Brandon borrows a TV from a friend in Sacramento, one that'll accept his Xbox 360. The room is small, and he sets the TV on a table at the foot of his bed. He's disappointed that there are no Internet hookups; he can't play Halo online.
On Thursday he weighs in: 230H. Frank weighs in at 254 at the same height, six three.
Frank has come into his last couple of fights battling his motorcycle injuries, heavier, and out of shape. But for this fight he's trimmed down, and reports reach Brandon that Frank looks like "old Frank" -- when he was champ.
It's Friday, with Ultimate Fight Night Saturday closing in, and Brandon's schedule gets filled. Official Ultimate Fighting Championship interviews and promotional spots for television stations are filmed in convention rooms in the hotel. Leaving one of the taped sessions, Brandon sees Frank Mir in the hall.
Frank looks good.
Back in his hotel room, Brandon settles into a marathon session of his role-playing game, Enchanted Arms, until finally he shuts the console off and falls asleep at 1:00 a.m.
Uncharacteristically, he sleeps until 8:00 a.m. and wakes refreshed. He eats some eggs and a bowl of Lucky Charms at the hotel buffet, then walks his wife and trainers to the nearby Downtown Plaza shopping mall.
It's in the mall, between shops, that Brandon gets nervous. His hands and knees sweat and his stomach binds. "You guys stay and shop," he says, "but I've got to go back. I've got to be alone for a minute."
In the brisk Northern California November air, he walks to the hotel, thinking of the fight every step of the way. His legs are tired, and he wonders if he's trained enough.
In his hotel room, the anxiety and month of sleepless nights put him out. He naps until the afternoon. When he wakes up he's starving, but he doesn't want to eat; he doesn't want to throw up in the ring. But the fight is four hours away, and if he doesn't eat he'll never make it. He orders a bowl of chicken noodle soup from room service and eats half of it.
More interviews with the Ultimate Fighting Championship organization. More video games. The hours drag, and tension builds in Brandon's head.
It's almost time.
Just like boxing, Ultimate Fighting assigns fighters to either a red corner or a blue corner. The Arco Arena is set up so the fighters in the red corner have dressing rooms on one side of the stadium. Fighters in the blue corner dress in rooms on the opposite side. The dressing rooms are set up so that rivals, and possible future matchups, are separated.
Brandon's given a dressing room with an undercard fighter, James Irvin from Citrus Heights, California, and an up-and-coming welterweight named Nick Diaz, who fights out of Stockton, California. The three fighters sit and talk to alleviate stress. James, Nick, and Brandon warm up and watch the preliminary bouts on a television placed in the corner.
Each has a small group of trainers. Rob Kaman, David Loiseau, and Lloyd Irvin make preps for Brandon's fight, while manager Mark Dion heads off interview requests and finds Brandon's hand-wrapper.
The fight league provides hand-wrappers from the California State Athletic Commission. Brandon's asked for Don House. He's wrapped Brandon's hands in all of Brandon's Ultimate Fights, and after a short while he arrives for this one. Once Brandon's got his white trunks on, Don tapes his hands, and Brandon slips on his light, fingerless gloves.
A stage manager comes to call James Irvin to the ring, and Brandon shouts after him, "Hey, good luck, James."
Brandon and Nick watch James fight and win. Things are solidifying in Brandon's mind. I'm fighting tonight.
James returns from his fight and celebrates in the locker room with shouts of "YES!" and hugs and high-fives all around. He removes his gear while Brandon and Nick continue warm-ups.
Nick's up next. A stage manager calls him.
When Nick and his entourage leave the dressing room, two Ultimate Fighting Championship camera crews arrive. Brandon has made an impressive start in the mixed martial arts league, and the film teams are there to capture him prefight. He's on his way to becoming a star. The fight organization wants it documented.
In warm-ups, Brandon throws kicks to the pads of Lloyd Irvin and Rob Kaman under bright lights and scrutiny. He gets frustrated with the cameras, and his trainers huddle him into a corner. The camera crew is professional; they get the hint and back off.
Nick returns victorious.
Only Brandon is left to fight. His nerves are getting to him, but he remembers his training and Lloyd encourages him. "You've trained hard," Lloyd tells him over and over.
Nothing has changed since his last fight except his elevating skill level. He's adhered to the training regimen, listened to his coaches, hell, he even got Don House to wrap his hands. Brandon's not superstitious, but he sticks with what works.
"Brandon, you're up. We've got to have you," says a man holding a clipboard and wearing a microphone headset. From the door he waves Brandon over.
James and Nick are now dressed in their street clothes, their duffels packed, and Brandon turns to them in his fight gear and says, "See you guys in a minute."
In his other fights, Brandon's stood behind a curtain until the stage manager cued him. But there's no curtain at Arco Arena, so he stands at the bend in a long corridor that runs from the dressing room to the arena. At his side are David Loiseau, Rob Kaman, Lloyd Irvin, and Mark Dion. In front is a wild pack of fight fans, the Octagon, and Frank Mir.
Brandon gets the cue to enter the arena. The sound system beats with his entrance song, written about Brandon by a musician in the Philippines. Brandon starts his long walk to the ring.
His head is down. He looks only at the gloves on his hands and his bare feet.
The crowd noise is incredible, but Brandon can't hear them.
His nerves are at their height. He's forcing his mind to cope by repeating, I can do this. I'm here for a reason.
Lloyd pulls Brandon close and screams over the cheering fans, "This is why we trained so hard! This is what we do!"
Brandon's anxiety wells into anticipation when he hears the lines from his entrance music. It's about him. The song starts, "From a journey full of trials and tribulations..."
Lloyd Irvin shouts in his ear again, "This is why we've trained three times a day for the last six weeks!"
Fans lean from their seats and reach to touch Brandon's shoulders. They scream, hold banners, and watch as he walks the corridor. Seventeen thousand fans fill the seats, mostly men in their 20s, wearing the T-shirts of their favorite fighters.
Brandon's head is down, thinking only of the fight, hearing only Lloyd's words and the lyrics to his song. "He holds the torch/Given fire by the gods/To help the blind see."
That's me, Brandon repeats to himself beneath the din of the fans. I'm the little guy knocking out heavyweights.
Brandon halts at the steps to the caged ring. He's arrived at the Octagon. A referee in black clothing holds Brandon's arms out and runs a palm over his sides and under his arms, as if he's being swept for weapons at an airport. A "cut man" dots and wipes Vaseline across Brandon's cheeks, brows, nose, and jawline, a precaution to keep the dry leather gloves of Frank Mir from popping Brandon's face open on contact. Brandon can feel the heavy grease on his face. He's warm but not sweating. The cut man looks his face over and certifies that he can enter.
Brandon takes the three stairs up to the cage and steps over the knee-high black fencing. The gate behind him is shut and latched. He's in the Octagon.
In the bright lights Brandon can see spectators but can't hear them. His ears are filled with his racing heartbeat. He turns to his trainers, clasps his hands in prayer, and they return the gesture through the black chain link.
Across the Octagon stands Mir.
They're called to the center of the ring for an official briefing by the ref. Some fighters do a leering stare-down and curse their opponents while the ref is giving final instructions, but not Frank or Brandon. Whatever I say to him now is not going to matter. Whatever he says to me now is not going to matter, Brandon thinks. I can't go back and change the way I trained. I can't go forward to the outcome. I can only fight my hardest.
Brandon is face-to-face with his toughest opponent yet. Brandon looks Frank over. Damn, Frank's 23 or 24 pounds heavier than me, and he's got abs. He took this serious. He's about to bring this.
Brandon and Frank are sent back to their corners. They turn to face each other and, at the ringing of the bell, sprint to the center of the ring.
Brandon is nervous. But he holds his left hand out, high in the air. Frank leans forward, and with his left they touch gloves. At the very second that their gloves touch, Brandon's nerves calm and he's in business mode. He's in trained attack-fighter mode. He's playing a video game.
Pop! Brandon gets the first shot off, a left jab, and Frank returns it. They dance, and Brandon watches Frank for the takedown, since Frank's specialty is fighting on the ground. But Frank doesn't go for the takedown and instead presses the action standing up.
Brandon sees Frank's feet shuffle and notices Frank's been working on his stand-up game, but he's not as accomplished a kickboxer as Brandon. Brandon throws a straight glancing kick to Frank's midsection. Frank answers with a right/left combo that Brandon ducks.
Frank dances back and takes the center of the Octagon.
Brandon leans in. Frank leans in. Brandon throws a left hook that catches Frank on the cheek, and Frank throws a straight left hand that opens a cut up on Brandon's nose. Brandon wipes at his nose and dances back toward Frank.
The next shot from Brandon starts an avalanche of trouble for Frank. It's a right cross that lands on Frank's chin so hard it makes his legs wobble. Brandon sees Frank's Bambi legs and gets excited. Shit, I might have him!
He jumps at Frank. He throws another straight right hand that glances. When Brandon's hand passes Frank's face, he grabs the back of Frank's neck in a Thai kickboxing clinch. With both hands holding Frank by the back of the head, he simultaneously pulls Frank's face down and swings his knee up for -- poom! -- one knee to the face, and -- poom! -- a second knee to the face.
Brandon swings his leg back, setting up for a third knee to Frank's head. He holds Frank's head in position and swings the knee, but it misses. Frank is already falling sideways from the first two hits.
Frank goes down. Brandon is on top of him, coming from the side and wrapping up Frank's arms. Brandon's about to explode with excitement. From the top position, Brandon tries to control Frank's arm and execute his "money move."
To motivate Brandon, Lloyd Irvin gives him a "money move" before each fight. The "money move" for Brandon's fight with Frank Mir is a crucifix hold, using an almost impossible amount of flexibility and cunning.
And Frank is in the perfect position.
Brandon forgets he's fighting in the Ultimate Fighting Championship and only sees dollar signs. He slides his leg around Frank's head to put him in the crucifix lock he and Lloyd devised before the fight. He can almost smell the extra money Lloyd's going to have to cough up. Six thousand dollars, baby! Brandon pulls on Frank's arm to position the hold.
But he can't get it. Frank lies on the arm Brandon needs.
Frank rolls to his back. Brandon kneels over him.
He can't get the money move. He remembers he's in a fight and that finishing the fight is first, Lloyd Irvin's six grand is second. Brandon resets his mind and thinks: A, B, A, B, R, L...
Frank's been rocked. First by the straight right. Then by the knees. He can do nothing except lie there and cover his face with both arms. Brandon holds Frank, kneeling, and starts to send punches through Frank's guard.
One. Two. Three punches through Frank's closed arms. The shots land in the center of Frank's face, and the referee dives between the two fighters.
Sixteen years of training.
Four years of fighting mixed martial arts.
A million practiced knees, kicks, and punches.
Four months since his last fight.
In front of 17,000 screaming fight maniacs in Arco Arena -- and millions at home.
With his trainers in his corner and wife Kerry in the stands.
Brandon told his dressing-roommates he'd be back in a minute. It took a minute and nine seconds. Sixty-nine seconds into his fourth Ultimate Fight, Brandon "the Truth" Vera stands with his arms raised in victory.
"If the title-shot money is right, I might do that," Brandon says, back at his day job, training members of City Boxing. "The president of the UFC was awful eager to talk to me after the fight. We'll see about that.
"If not, you know, if the money's not there, I'll just train and play video games, man."