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.