The official word will be that Marlon Vera took a fight with Brad Pickett on a little over a week’s notice. But the Ecuador native won’t necessarily agree with that timeline.
“This is not a full training camp, this is not a short notice fight,” he said. “This is my whole life. I’ve been working my whole life for a big opportunity like this and I will go and prove that I’m ready to take risks like this in the UFC.”
A lot of fighters say that. Vera lives it, laughing as he says, “When it’s about fights, I don’t know how to say no. Just give me a contract. Anywhere, anytime.”
In January, Vera, fresh from a late-November win over Ning Guangyou, was ready to jump in on less than a week’s notice to face top five bantamweight contender Jimmie Rivera. The bout was made, then it was unmade when Rivera opted out of a match he felt he had an unfair advantage in against his unranked and unheralded foe.
Vera wasn’t happy. But he’s happy now.
“That wasn’t anybody’s fault, that was Rivera’s thing,” Vera said of the aborted January match. “He backed out. He was the one saying that he didn’t want to hurt me. He can’t hurt me. We fight for money. All the things he said don’t make sense at all. But right now, I’m fighting a real fighter, a real man, so we will see in the center of the Octagon. This is my time. Pickett is on his way out and I’m on my way in, so this is my time to make a big statement for the UFC.”
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When Vera talks about the UFC, it’s almost a mythical thing, a mountain that was once too high for him to even see the summit. He’s here though, just where he said he would be when he was a teenage jiu-jitsu student back home in Ecuador watching Georges St-Pierre fight for the first time.
“I saw GSP when I was 15 years old,” he said. “I was like, ‘Okay, I want to be in the UFC. I don’t care what I have to do. I will be in the UFC someday.’”
For a young man in the United States, Europe, Brazil, Asia or Canada, that was a readily attainable dream. In Ecuador, he might as well have been saying he wanted to be a middle linebacker in the NFL. There just wasn’t the infrastructure there for MMA, and his friends let him know it.
“I said, ‘I want to fight in the same promotion as GSP.’ They said, ‘What? This is Ecuador. There are no Ecuadorians in the UFC.’ But I said, ‘That’s in your head. I will be the first Ecuadorian in the UFC.’”
They told him he was crazy. He disagreed.
“I’m not crazy,” Vera said. “I’m paying the bills to get whatever I want.”
After eight pro fights, he got his shot through the first season of The Ultimate Fighter Latin America. In his first fight on the show, he knocked out Henry Briones (ironically the man he is replacing against Pickett). A skin infection forced him out of the competition, but he got an opportunity to compete in the Octagon. Four fights later, he’s still here and about to walk into a lion’s den in London to face a local hero fighting for the final time.
“I know how that works,” he said. “I fought Davey Grant in London and everybody booed, but the fans boo because that’s what they should do. They’re loyal to their people and I like that, but when the gate is locked, there’s nothing. It’s only you and another man trying to fight and trained to win.”
Vera has a healthy dose of respect for Pickett and what he’s accomplished in his career. He recalls watching “One Punch” fight and beat Demetrious Johnson in the WEC and wishing to be on the same level some day. That day has come, and while it wasn’t an easy decision to make, he’s glad that his game is catching up to his ambition thanks to his work in California with renowned coach Colin Oyama and his Team Oyama squad.
“It’s really good because I came from Ecuador, so the training over there wasn’t on the same level,” Vera said. “I had really good training partners, but coaching over there is hard because the sport is not big enough over there. We have good soccer and other things, but MMA, we don’t have much. I have a nice jiu-jitsu team over there, but you can’t just fight with jiu-jitsu. You need structure, an MMA team, a lot of partners, and now that I moved to California, Team Oyama is really good for me.”
The 24-year-old Vera, who conducted this interview on Monday as he was preparing to leave for London, may be the calmest fighter ever to take a short-notice fight, but he is experiencing the best time of his life. After beating Guangyou, he was able to fly his wife and two children to live with him in California, and with the family back together, it’s on to the next goal.
“Life is like that,” he said. “You’ve got to work hard and you gotta win, because if you don’t win, you’re not getting much in life. So I won my last fight and I bring my family. The next step is my daughter’s surgery, the next step is to have a house someday. I’m not asking for things I can’t have. I’m asking for things I should have.
His five-year-old daughter Ana Paula is the light of his life. And nothing pushes Vera more than the opportunity to get her the surgery that will allow her to smile, something she can’t do because of the rare moebius syndrome she was born with.
“I have some really hard moments because I see my other kid smiling a lot, so I’m always thinking of how much I have to do to get it,” said Vera, who started a GoFundMe page to help raise money for the surgery. “But I believe in God and that if I do the right things, the good things will come.”
Vera is grasping every good thing that comes his way, including this fight. For him, it’s not about the negatives of a short prep time, a long flight, and some boos on fight night. It’s about the opportunity to continue making a great life for his family.
“Life is not about me complaining,” he said. “It’s about working hard and winning in your sport. I’m happy, I’m living the dream. I wake up, teach some classes, train hard, and I don’t get tired. I don’t remember the last time I was tired.”