The Fall and Rise of the Truth
The fear is upon him again. It begins with doubt, a nagging thought that he shouldn’t be here, that this should not be happening, something quickly brushed away as he engages in warm-ups and gets his hands wrapped and signed by officials.
It comes back almost twice as hard, minutes later. The seed of doubt balloons into a voice, a monologue of refusal speaking with his words: “Am I really going to get hurt again? What the fuck am I doing? This is so stupid. There’s gotta be a better way to make money.”
It’s the night of December 11, 2015 and Brandon Vera can’t shake the jitters on the eve of his title fight against Taiwanese striker Paul “Typhoon” Cheng. His concerns aren’t without merit. There’s been a last-minute change of opponents: British kickboxer Chi Lewis-Parry has been pulled because he’s failed to submit medical records or he’s withdrawn himself or he was unwilling to board the plane to Manila; so Vera is now facing Cheng on 72 hours’ notice. Cheng is 6’3”, compared to Lewis-Parry’s towering 6’9”, but he outweighs Lewis-Parry by about 10 pounds. Cheng has also finished his fights by ground-and-pound, a method where a fighter lays out an opponent on his back and then basically pancakes his face with fists until the referee comes mercifully to his rescue.
For centuries, unarmed combat practitioners have sought to answer the question: which martial style is the best? It’s been a long, hard road to maturity for mixed-martial arts (MMA) as a sport, ever since the term was first used in 1993. But the road has led to this conclusion: a fighter must learn everything-the striking, clinching, and grappling arts-to truly be the best.
That cagefighters should look up to Bruce Lee as the godfather and early pioneer of modern mixed-martial arts is no surprise. While versed in traditional kung-fu styles during the development of his own Jeet Kune Do system, he encouraged students of combat to cross-train, exhorting them to be well-rounded as espoused in his mantra: “Be like water.”
The ONE Fighting Championship is one of many around the world testifying to the popularity of MMA as sport and spectacle. It is also very lucrative business. In Asia, where ONE FC claims control of 90 percent of the market, the organization slings an attractive mission and vision: the development of MMA in Asia, and the search for the new Bruce Lee.
In the prep room at the back of the Mall of Asia (MOA) Arena, the crowd is a beast that fills 20,000 seats and craves the spectacle of a knockout. Vera strikes the pads and practices some grappling with his coaches, activities designed to at once fire up the kinetic memory of months of training and keep away these demons scratching at his door right now. Vera wouldn’t call it fear. “I always, always gets nervous before the walkout,” he says. “All of it stops when I get out to the arena and when the curtains part.”
A cartographer might say the landscape of his fighting record (14-7-1) looks like a mountain range, with high peaks and deep valleys, and an underground river of woe where the current drags down the weak.
Diddy’s version of Skylar Grey’s “Coming Home” blares from the PA system, and Vera walks out to howls of the audience, all doubt gone, the swagger back in his step, just another day at the office for a cagefighter. It’s time.
Later, courtesy of a thunderous head kick, Brandon “The Truth” Vera stands triumphant. The belt he’s been pursuing since the start of his pro fighting career in 2002 is finally around his waist. It took just 26 seconds of the first round.
* * *
Five months later, I’m telling him about how the crowd responded to his win that night at ONE Championship 35: Spirit of Champions. That moment when Cheng collapsed from a left high kick, I was on my feet screaming at the cage along with the thousands watching. The MOA Arena makes for a poor coliseum, but that was what it must’ve felt like in the days of the gladiatorial games. The cries rival that of a Pentecostal church, the sound rises and rises. Elation is an understatement.
Vera laughs with both appreciation and irony. This 38-year-old man who walks around at 245 to 260 pounds, lays down the gold and leather belt and tells me that even with a knockout like that, people still complain. “You know what? I still get irritated because people came up to me afterwards and said: hey, Brandon, next time can you make the fight last at least one minute? Tang ina mo, kayo na lang kaya lumaban,” he tells me in straight vernacular, with just enough California in it.
“Pilipinas, you have a champion now!” he said in that same fight. Not a bad upgrade in career for a fighter who found out he was being released from the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in early 2014.
“You know what? I still get irritated because people came up to me afterwards and said: hey, Brandon, next time can you make the fight last at least one minute? Tang ina mo, kayo na lang kaya lumaban.”
Vera is proof that an exit from the UFC isn’t the end of the world. Currently the premier fighting promotion company, the UFC, is responsible for cagefighting becoming a legitimate sport from something once dubbed human cockfighting. Fights now air on network TV, with MMA terminology and culture bleeding into pop vernacular. The UFC fetes its champs and big-name fighters like rock stars, rewarding them with purse bonuses that might rise in the millions (see: Conor McGregor) and enough celebrity that they can parlay into movie careers (see: Ronda Rousey) beyond the octagon.
Vera started his pro career in 2002, competing in modest leagues until his impressive, successive wins netted him a UFC debut in 2006, where he continued his assault on the heavyweight division until he lost to Fabricio Werdum in 2008. He cut tremendous weight to make it to the Light Heavyweight division, and from there on his fight career became uneven. A cartographer might say the landscape of his fighting record (14-7-1) looks like a mountain range, with high peaks and deep valleys, and an underground river of woe where the current drags down the weak.
With Baybayin tattoos on his back and Polynesian tribal patterns inked across his shins and arms, Vera has always cut the image of the tribal warrior inside the cage. His victory dance in the early days looked like a cross between a headhunter’s jive and some mongrel form of AmBoy hip-hop. At one point, he confidently announced he would claim the heavyweight belt, and then drop down to the next division and claim that title, too.
After a string of four losses, one no contest, and only one win in his last six fights, Vera discovered that UFC’s initial contract extension offer in early 2014 was no longer up for negotiation. He had been released, but nobody from Zuffa, UFC’s parent company, had bothered to call. Vera found out about it through social media.
A few months later, having just signed with ONE Championship as a heavyweight, and on the eve of training camp for his debut fight against Ukraine’s Igor Subora, his wife of eight years called. She wanted a divorce.
* * *
Brandon Michael Vera was born to Ernesto Vera and an Italian-American mother, but raised by his Filipino stepmother, Amelia, in Norfolk, Virginia. His family has roots in Tagkawayan, Quezon, and he visits relatives there and in Metro Manila regularly, on at least one trip to the Philippines a year. In 2007, because he was in the country so much, he was asked to train Richard Gutierrez for the TV show Kamandag. Athletic at an early age, he went to Lake Taylor High School where he eventually got up to 200 pounds and wrestled at that weight, excelling so much that he scored a four-year athletic scholarship to Old Dominion University.
He only spent a bit over a year at Old Dominion, dropping out of college and earning the extreme displeasure of his Pinoy family. Parents and relatives expressed their unhappiness by giving him the silent treatment. Eventually he signed up with the US Air Force, where he joined the wrestling team and trained at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado. A severe injury cut his military wrestling career short in 1999. Most of the ligaments in his right elbow had been torn.
Brandon, the prodigal who wouldn’t go to college, was back home nursing a broken wing.
“When I was growing up, even now and especially now that everybody complains about their job, about school, traffic, the car, the government. Yung Papa ko? Fucking guy never complained.” Brandon’s father owned a group of restaurants in the Hampton Roads metro area and would usually be first in and last out of the kitchen. “Not once, not once did he ever say he was tired. And if he’d ever say he was tired, he’d say, ‘Ha, pagod? Ganito naman talaga ang buhay Pilipino, eh.’ So I don’t complain about anything, life’s trials and tribulations, all the good and all the bad? Kinakain ko na lang.”
Vera, by his definition, still doesn’t have a real job. He still vividly remembers the first time he saw MMA and thought about it as a viable career option. It was after his elbow injury that he had to take the time off, ruminating on what he might do next after he got back up to speed.
“[I remember] I just got out of the Air Force and was sitting at my parent’s house with my little brother Junior-he’s the brainy Asian in our family-we were watching one of the early fights of Randy Couture in 1999 or 2000, and I asked my brother: ‘What d’ya think of that, Junior? He’s like, ‘Those motherfuckers be crazy, fuck that shit. But I’ll watch it all day.’ And I remember after he said that, I thought to myself: yeah, I’m gonna try that shit!’ I wanna see what that’s like!” And he did.
* * *
Now, Vera travels the world training fighters and basically telling people what it’s been like. His moniker “The Truth” has steadily grown into an image of a big brother, soothing, opinionated and brutally frank, a gentle giant role model. Who he is as The Truth is only very subtly different from the real Brandon Vera, and you can spot the difference only through long observation.
“I want to be the standard for the new gentleman. I want that to be my legacy.”
A day before the Global Rivals fight card, we dragged the hefty heavyweight belt from the Nobu Hotel in the upscale City of Dreams in Pasay to the gritty interiors of Safehouse MMA in Quezon Avenue, where the champ would give a short seminar for the benefit of a children’s orphanage. The belt was with us as is, with no case, not even a plastic bag to put it in. Nothing. Then again, with a 250-plus-pound Brandon Vera keeping it safe, I didn’t think anybody was going to mess with us. Still, I prayed our Uber would not break down.
Safehouse MMA had only one open window and it made the place moist as a sauna in the cruel April heat, despite all the running exhaust fans. Vera passed the belt to the gym’s owner for safekeeping and people were quickly lugging it around, taking selfies with it like it was their own trophy. Like Brandon Vera, the Filipino MMA fans considered this championship public property. The belt and Brandon belonged to them-this 6’2”-tall, flip-flop-wearing, chicken adobo-cooking, Divisoria-visiting, cauliflowereared Fil-American who cursed in the vernacular and joked like one of the kanto boys.
The seminar lasted around two hours longer than usual, people who wanted pictures and signatures seemed almost endless. Brandon didn’t complain once. “Ganito talaga. This is the life of a Filipino champ, right?” he told me when everybody had left; the people need their champion.
“I’m a big guy, bald head, tattoos,” Vera shrugs. “If you don’t know me you’ll probably cross the street to avoid me. And then if I come up to you and smile and I shake your hand, you’ll go, ‘What the fuck?’ Immediately your brain switches from ‘Oh my God’ to ‘What is this guy about?’”
He’s quite aware of the cognitive dissonance and revels in it. For some, seeing a cagefight where people try to KO or strangle each other to win still makes them assume it must be a sport made up of brutes and savages (and yet some still perceive boxing, American football, and rugby as less violent, despite the statistical difference in injury and mortality), appealing only to similar brutes and savages.
People who meet Mr. Nice Guy Brandon can’t fathom why he’s kind and accommodating, and then meet other MMA stars of similar disposition; it’s an exclusivity for people who study the combat arts: the more you train in self-defense, the less your desire to hurt. Exactly what, as a corollary, makes Vera a great ambassador for MMA.
* * *
“I want to be the standard for the new gentleman. I want that to be my legacy,” Vera says. We’re inside the MOA arena waiting for the main card to start and he’s been pacing and mouthing two lines of standupper for the last 10 minutes, clearly having difficulty with nonspontaneous speeches. “I really want to set a standard of manhood.”
It’s an exclusivity for people who study the combat arts: the more you train in self-defense, the less your desire to hurt.
He excuses himself and goes up to the middle of the cage to announce the start of the main card. As he steps down, the arena goes dark and pyrotechnics explode, the spectacle of a bygone era in MMA brought back by a fledgling company.
He takes his seat next to me: “My message to the world is: everyone be genuinely nice to each other. Help somebody when you can and make someone smile. I am against any kind of violence on the street. Unless you get paid for it. Be kind.”
Being champ and looking forward to a title defense later in 2016 have given Vera time to meditate, to lay down his swords and enjoy a respite from the constant warfare of fighting life. He’s almost divorced and technically single (the legal term is bifurcation, he explains), he’s setting up a local franchise for his US Alliance MMA gym, working on dual citizenship, and he’s just signed with the Virtual Playground Entertainment group for showbiz projects.
A fan on the standing area waves to him and excitedly calls out his name. He excuses himself again. He takes a selfie and stays and talks to the other fans who also want selfies. The life of a champion. Why complain?
The night before, after the seminar at Safehouse MMA, two women seated outside the Max’s restaurant had spotted Vera trudging to the waiting Uber. He was exhausted and his steps weighed down by the championship belt, easily clocking 40 pounds. The women cried out his name.
He looked back, smiled, and waved. They waved back. “I’ve got to go home,” he said. “Uwi na ko!” They tell him to take care: “Ingat ka, champ!”
This article first appeared in our June 2016 issue.