Time to bust out some bracketology, UFC style.
Brandon Vera and Mauricio Rua stand one side of the bracket. Ryan Bader and Lyoto Machida face off on the other line.
But the winners won’t fight each other.
In a UFC twist worthy of a reality show, the winning fighter with the most impressive performance — yes, he’ll have to wow the judges — advances to the championship round and becomes the No. 1 contender for the light heavyweight belt.
This fearsome foursome of a Final Four have more than just another victory at stake Saturday at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The best of the best earns a shot at the winner of the Jon Jones vs. Dan Henderson 205-pound title bout on Sept. 1.
“Basically, I’m in a huge semifinal,” Vera said.
Vera and Rua were originally the only pair set to fight for the top spot on the promotion’s fourth primetime Fox special. UFC president Dana White’s decision to grant the winner a title shot was met with immediate howls of protest from fans. Even Jones posted on Twitter, “scratching my head.”
The reason? Both fighters are slumping and both had been knocked out by Jones over the last two years. Vera is 1-2 with one no contest over his last four fights and Rua has lost three of his last five fights.
White slept on the decision, processed the feedback, and reversed course the next day.
“When the fans speak, we listen,” White said. “So whoever scores the best win, whoever gets the fans excited by going out there on Saturday and looking the most impressive, he will get the winner of Jones vs. Henderson. It is down to what these four guys do Saturday night in the octagon. Winning isn’t enough, they’ve got to win impressively. Any one of these four fighters can take things into their own hands and make a title shot happen.”
Vera, once one of the promotion’s rising superstars, understood White’s decision to listen to the fans and force him to basically have to beat three fighters instead of just Rua.
He says he’ll fight his way into a future main event in either scenario.
“All I have to do is beat Shogun the way I’ve been dreaming and wanting to, I’ll be facing Jones next,” he said. “All I have to do is beat Shogun and I’ll be right where I want to be anyway.”
Vera has regained the mettle he lost after complacency and a hot air balloon-sized ego nearly derailed his career.
He won his first eight MMA fights and openly boasted that he would simultaneously hold the UFC heavyweight and light heavyweight titles. He seemed poised to join the list of UFC’s all-time greats.
But then the losses piled up, including two, two-bout losing streaks. UFC legend Randy Couture beat him via unanimous decision in 2009 and Jones bested him by TKO in March 2010. Vera concedes now he never respected Jones and didn’t take the bout seriously.
“Brandon is a guy who burst onto the scene, was going to be 205-pound champion, a heavyweight champion, was running through guys left and right and then, you know, I don’t know what happened,” White said.
Vera knows why he hasn’t yet reached his potential.
His head swelled and he believed the hype when he was heaped with praise and the wins were almost guaranteed. That led to some of the losing. Once he had “L’s” tagged to his name, Vera lost his drive, and UFC briefly cut him. The will to train to maintain his elite status evaporated, especially after his loss to Couture, whom he truly respected. Throw in a contract holdout that cost him about a year of his career and some nagging injuries and, well, signs where clear Vera was close to flaming out of the sport.
But there was more.
“Life in general,” he said. “Getting married, going through foreclosures and different homes. My focus went away from being one of the best fighters in the world to everything else but that.”
On Oct. 4, 2008, Vera was at trainer Lloyd Irvin’s house when two armed men broke into Irvin’s suburban Maryland home. Irvin lunged at the gunman, and chaos ensued before the attackers fled. Vera, understandably, admits he was traumatized by the incident and now sleeps with a gun in his bed.
“That’s part of life, man. It happens,” he said. “I guess all my focus went somewhere else on other things than just being an awesome UFC fighter.”
He met with a psychiatrist who “said some great things and was pretty motivating,” but Vera said his lukewarm feelings about the sport never changed.
His spirit broken, Vera needed something to snap him out of his fighting malaise.
He found it last year in a fight against Eliot Marshall. Marshall caught him in a vicious armbar that caused considerable ligament damage and nearly forced him to throw in the towel.
“It was when I decided to go ahead and let him break my arm so I could pull it out and punch him in the face with it,” he said, laughing. “I had that moment of clarity. Are you really done, is this really it? Are you finished being a fighter?
“My answer to myself was, ‘Hell, no.'”
He won the bout and the chance to fight another night.
Rejuvenated and refocused, Vera believes the time it right to finally win the championship that almost seemed destined for him years ago.
“You can’t put me away,” he said. “I’m here.”