There’s a post on Marlon Vera’s Instagram account with a photo of his pro MMA debut in 2012. The bantamweight contender, then still a teenager, is unrecognizable, no beard, no tattoos, just a kid from Chone with a dream.
“I was a kid that had one goal in life, one mission in life, and that was to become a world champion and fight for the UFC one day,” Vera muses. “That was a kid who would give his life to be part of the UFC back then.”
Today, ten years later, Vera isn’t just a part of the UFC. At 29, he is the fifth-ranked bantamweight in the world and about to headline a Saturday event in San Diego against perhaps the greatest 135-pounder of all-time, Dominick Cruz.
It’s Vera’s second consecutive headliner and his 20th walk to the Octagon, so it’s no surprise that when he visited his native Ecuador earlier this year, it was a pretty big deal.
“It was pretty crazy,” Vera smiles, dragging out the word “crazy” for emphasis. “And it's only getting bigger and crazier and busier. It's awesome to be overwhelmed by love and you don't know it until you actually see it and feel it and are in the moment. It's like living a movie and being a superhero. But it's a good movie to be at, and the most important thing is how you perform, so you've got to perform well in those moments.”
Marlon Vera | Top Finishes
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Marlon Vera | Top Finishes
Vera has done his part, both in the Octagon and among the people, making him the perfect ambassador for the sport in his home country. Right now, there are fighters following in his footsteps, young people wanting to do the same, and even folks tattooing his name and likeness on themselves. And through it all, he hasn’t changed his humble attitude since his first UFC fight against Marco Beltran in 2014. Is that a testament to the presence of his wife, Maria Paulina?
“She's happy to see the fruits of our labor and how things are coming together and being accomplished,” said Vera. “She's very excited about everything that is happening and will continue to happen to us.”
“It’s still up to the person that is living that type of moment,” he explains. “I think people around you help you and she does everything to help me and be there, but I feel like if I don't want to be grounded and I just let my head go to the noise, I think that's how careers are ended, and that's why I focus on keep being myself. I think that's the most important thing that people don't get. Everybody wants to put on this persona, everybody wants to put on a mask, but if I keep being me, there's nothing I can do better than that. And that helps me stay grounded, that helps me to live in the moment, to actually enjoy everything that's happening, and little by little, you keep getting better at being yourself. It's a good life to live.”
Makes sense, but does he still have to take out the garbage at home?
“Of course,” he said. “That happens. Just because I'm cool, that doesn't mean I do the real grind.”
Vera laughs, able to find smiles in the midst of the grind of training camp. Whether it’s his wife and three kids, his training partners or friends, he’s finding joy while still being the hardest worker in the room. And though you would assume he’d be working even harder to face a future hall of famer like Cruz, that name isn’t what motivates Vera.
“I can fight a legend, I can fight a newcomer, I can fight a tough guy, I can fight a guy that is on his way to be a world champion, and it doesn't really matter to me,” he said. “I'm honestly just making sure I'm doing everything possible to be better than I was before, to be stronger than I was before, and I just know for a matter of fact, it doesn't matter if it's a huge name or the smallest name on planet Earth, it's gonna be a hard fight. It doesn't matter. This is the UFC. The lights can't get brighter, the stage can't get bigger. Only you can make yourself fall short. So I believe one thing - be better than I was before, and once I'm in there, be prepared to die and accept that anything can happen. It's a fight. Just by knowing that, I'm the most dangerous guy in there because I'm grounded. I know it's a fight. I don't let my head make me think I'm better than I am. And it's a huge fight. If I get in there and I go through this guy and take his soul away, big things will come to me, so I'm preparing better and harder than ever. And I will keep doing this because it's only getting bigger and only getting harder. I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing, and that's being a full-time killer.”
So not an ounce more motivation to fight opponents like Cruz, Frankie Edgar or Jose Aldo, all icons in the sport?
“Talking from the bottom of my heart, I just want to get in there and make these guys pay and finish them and make it so ugly for them that they don't even want to fight ever again. I don't really care who's in front of me. I just know how big this will be and I'll be prepared for that.”
In other words, nothing has changed from 2012. Marlon Vera is still working, still that kid with a dream. Only now, his dream is inspiring others, and he doesn’t lose sight of that.
“I always told myself to keep going,” he said. “It's getting hard, it's getting difficult, maybe you start feeling you're not gonna make it. F**k all that. Keep on going.”
Here he is.
UFC Fight Night: Vera vs Cruz took place live from Pechanga Arena in San Diego, California on August 13, 2022. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive all the action on UFC Fight Pass!