Marlon Vera has never missed an interview. At least not with me. Always on time, always answering the phone as if this is something he wants to do and isn’t required to.
This goes back to the early days of Vera’s UFC career, when English didn’t come as easy to him as it does now, when the phone number originated in his native Ecuador, not his current home in the United States.
Then, like today, “Chito” was a professional.
“You've gotta treat this like the office,” Vera said. “A lot of fighters treat this like, 'Oh, I'm a fighter, I can do whatever I want.' No, you treat this like you're in the office every day. That's how you win a world title, that's how you become successful.”
Vera, who returns to the Octagon this Saturday to face Sean O’Malley in the UFC 252 co-main event, doesn’t have a world title yet. A win over the surging O’Malley would get him closer to that goal, but some would say he’s already made it.
Top Finishes: Marlon Vera
Top Finishes: Marlon Vera
A star at home in Ecuador, Vera came to the United States shortly after his stint on The Ultimate Fighter Latin America and has been living the American Dream ever since. He brought his family here, he and his wife added more members to the Vera clan, they bought a home and he got the surgery for his daughter that allowed her to finally smile.
Add in nine UFC wins, and that’s success any way you cut it. But Vera isn’t done yet.
“I keep setting goals for myself and I just don't stop,” he said. “To me, it's continuing to put something in front of you. I wake up every day with my heart beating and I need to get it done. You have to be worried about everything, you have to be willing to keep going, you need to keep going forward, you need to keep pushing yourself.
“In the beginning,” Vera continues, “it was to bring my family here. Then it was to keep them here. Then it was my daughter's surgery, and I got it done. A lot of people thought after the surgery I was going to settle down because that was the biggest thing in my life. No matter what I do in my life, that will always be the biggest thing ever because that was for my daughter, that was for my wife, that was for my other kids. Just to see that smile on her face, there's no price for that. If that kid smiles, I can die tomorrow, my life is set. But I wouldn't die because I need to keep working for them. Then it was the house. Now it's to pay the house off, and after that, when the house is paid off, it's my kids' future, their college, what they want to do, what they want to be. I will put all the time on them. I have plans. There's more after here, that's why I'm so hungry. And I'm blessed to be hungry. That's why cutting weight, I don't break. I enjoy starving because I'm gonna enjoy when I get it. Some people are too spoiled.”
That work ethic, that ambition, that hunger at a time where most would be satisfied comes from one source for the 27-year-old: his father, Marlon Sr. The patriarch of the Vera family didn’t give long-winded speeches without action behind them. He didn’t give speeches to his son at all. He just did what he needed to do to provide for his family and set an example while young Marlon watched.
“You know what the crazy thing is,” asks Vera. “My dad never sat down and said, 'Look son, this is how life goes. This is what I need from you, this is what I expect from you.' My dad never did that. He just lived his life the way he wanted, by working hard. And from the outside, I was smart enough to shut up and listen and look at him.”
Vera says to this day, he’s never seen his father cry, making sure to say that he’s just saying that as an observation, not as a sign of his dad’s toughness. The toughness came in other forms.
“He never showed us weakness, so we could grow up strong,” said Vera. “If you go home and you're like, 'Oh, my day sucked,' and your kids see you weak, you're gonna raise weak kids. If you have a problem and you have a bad day, if you don't have money for the family at the moment, you just keep working hard. You stay hungry and keep grinding. I never saw my dad complaining. And when I grew up and had a bad day, I never sat down and cried. I was like, 'F**k it, if I can't go through this thing in my way, I'll go around it, I'll jump over it, I'll go sideways, but I get it done.'”
Marlon Sr. never saw his son cry, either, even though the younger Vera did break down on a special day for the family.
“We rented all the time,” Vera said of life in his hometown of Chone. “We lived for four years in my uncle's house. It was my mom and dad in one room, my uncle and my aunt in one room. Me, my brother and my cousin in one room. In the other room, luckily it was big enough for my sister and my baby cousin. We lived together all those years, and those were the best days of my life.”
They would get even better when Marlon Sr. bought them their first home.
“I'm 27,” said Vera. “I bought my house in California, a beautiful place with a nice yard big enough for all my kids and my wife, and I can only imagine what my dad is feeling. What I felt, the day my dad bought a house, I never let my dad know, but I started crying. This was beautiful. My dad is the baddest mother**ker in the world. We have a home; he bought a house for us.”
Vera pauses, the lessons of life bleeding into his career as a prizefighter, where he has a different edge than most. As affable as he is outside the Octagon, when the gate closes on fight night, it’s a battle for more than a paycheck.
“People don't appreciate life,” he said. “When you grow up not having things and your dad's finding it for you, you grow up different. You're a different kind of animal. Just like Jorge Masvidal's nickname, you're born 'Gamebred' because how your dad raised you and how he became who he is. I feel like other fighters don't have what I have inside. It's hard to explain that, but you just know you have it. You have that, 'I'm willing to die' attitude and you mean it and you're for real about it.”
Knowing that heart is beating in his chest means he doesn’t have to trash talk his opponents. If they throw the first jab, he is more than willing to counter, but he understands that for all the talk, they will still fight, and the talk will have to be answered for. So, O’Malley isn’t the enemy; he’s next. And to get to win, Vera’s focus has to be on the man in the mirror.
“I see many things,” Vera said of O’Malley. “I'm sure he sees many things too. But look, you never finish everybody. There's always somebody that will figure it out. It might be me, it might not be me. I keep it very real. But the only thing I know I can control is the daily grind, my habits, my discipline, my diet, my recovery, my rest. Good habits create success. I know the guy's good, but I can't focus on that. If you focus on that, then you buy the hype and you're eating all his hype. I focus on myself. I make sure I'm ready. I know he's good, I know he's dangerous, I know he can finish me, but guess what, everything I said about him, It’s also about me.”