Correction to This Article
A box with a June 1 Sports article about the Ultimate Fighting Championship incorrectly said that the Staples Center in Los Angeles sold out for the May 27 event.

The Ultimate Blood Test

Assuerio Silva of Brazil gets a kick out of Brandon
Assuerio Silva of Brazil gets a kick out of Brandon "The Truth" Vera in an Ultimate Fighting Championship bout won by Vera last week in Los Angeles. (Jonathan Newton - The Washington Post)

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By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 1, 2006

LOS ANGELES -- Fifteen minutes remained before he stepped into a locked cage to fight a 260-pound Brazilian man with black belts in kickboxing and combat karate, but Brandon Vera's suffering had already begun.

His mind raced and his stomach flipped as he paced across a small locker room tucked in the entrails of Staples Center. He bounced across a wrestling mat that covered the floor and stopped a few steps away from the door, pausing to hear the steady rumble of a nearly filled arena. "It sounds crowded out there," Vera said. The color drained from his face.

No matter how much pain Vera, 28, endured last Saturday night, this nervousness tormented him most. As a budding star of the fast-growing sport of mixed martial arts, Vera faced an extreme double dose of anxiety. The Ultimate Fighting Championship bout would almost certainly leave him injured or unconscious. It would unfold before almost 15,000 fans, the latest large crowd for a sport that, in four years, has doubled its attendance and pay-per-view numbers to rival boxing's popularity.

An Air Force veteran, a jujitsu champion and an undefeated mixed martial arts fighter, Vera had rarely felt so feeble and intimidated. As his manager and two trainers changed into their ringside clothes, Vera made his own final preparations. He excused himself to the bathroom, bent over the toilet and vomited.

"Sometimes before I go fight," Vera said, "I almost have to wonder, 'Okay. Am I crazy?' "

Different Disciplines

He's sane.

No lunatic could have trained with such singular focus and exhausting precision. Vera vowed to become a heavyweight champion when he first saw the UFC on television in 2001, and his determination rarely wavered. Once something of a floater -- a year as a wrestler at Old Dominion University, a job installing cable, a stint at the U.S. Olympic Training Center as a Greco-Roman wrestler -- Vera transformed into a compulsive trainer.

In its struggle to gain attention, UFC had advertised itself as the scale that weighed one fighting discipline against another. In three, five-minute rounds, who would win between a boxer and a wrestler? Between a kick-boxer and a jujitsu master?

Vera believed he had the ability to take a different approach: become proficient in each discipline instead of masterful in only one.

For two years, Vera traveled each weekend from his hometown of Norfolk to mixed martial arts events across the East Coast. He trained often in Camp Springs with Lloyd Irvin, a renowned wrestler who specializes in submission moves. Then he moved to San Diego and worked with Rob Kaman, widely regarded as the greatest kick-boxer ever.

The result of this expert training: A fighter so revolutionary he's nicknamed The Truth. Vera's long, 6-foot-3 body makes him flexible and cunning as a grappler. His kicks -- often aimed at an opponent's head -- land with force similar to that of a swinging baseball bat. Vera estimates that at least a dozen times an opponent has stuck out a forearm to block Vera's kick only to have the forearm snapped and splintered like wood.

"Even when I'm blocking [his kicks] with huge pads, it's like torture," training partner Mike Easton said. "Just one of those could kill you."

In little more than two years as a professional fighter, Vera has earned a reputation as one of the sport's most intimidating threats. He came into last Saturday's bout with a 6-0 professional record and won his first two UFC fights with violent knockouts. The UFC marketed his fight at Staples Center as the featured bout of eight undercard fights. A victory would likely leave Vera just a win or two from a title shot, but a daunting obstacle blocked his path.

Assuerio Silva outweighed Vera by 20 pounds, and he had won 25 more professional fights. In early May, Vera tried to narrow the imbalance with a weeklong training camp at Irvin's martial arts academy. He launched a video blog -- http://brandonveratraining.com/ -- so fans could follow his progress. Then he watched film of Silva and trained for three sessions each day.

"This is all business," Vera said. "I've never been this focused on a fight."

Body on the Line

He's crazy.

In a silent Staples Center locker room, Vera slowly dressed in his protective gear. A protective cup, boxing shorts, two small weightlifting gloves that left his fingers exposed and . . . wait. Nothing else? UFC rules force fighters to enter the ring practically naked, as it has since it held its first event in Denver in 1993. "Once you're in the cage," Irvin said, "there's nothing but you for protection."

Brandon Vera
"I do what it takes," says Brandon Vera. "I'm willing to wreck my body." Vera hurt his eye and may have fractured his shin in the win over Assuerio Silva.
Usually, that defense falls short. UFC brawls can end three ways: a fighter falls unconscious and a referee stops the fight; a fighter "taps out" and concedes to avoid more pain; or officials make a decision at the end of the third five-minute round. Of the nine UFC bouts Saturday night at Staples Center, only one ended with a decision.

Vera watched the preliminary fights unfold on the television in his locker room and gleefully celebrated bloody results. In the first fight, a man took a hard right hand to the face and fell unconscious -- even before his head violently bounced off the ground. In the third fight, a flying knee to the face knocked a fighter motionless. When he finally limped out of the cage, he walked into a waiting ambulance inside Staples Center.

"Ouch!" Vera said. "That fight was awesome."

Vera grew up the son of a Filipino mother and Italian father in a house crowded with 10 siblings, and he learned to stand out with cocksure assertiveness. "Nothing can stop me but me," Vera said. "I don't care what other people think."

He scheduled his wedding for the day after a UFC fight in Las Vegas last year, bruises and black eyes be damned. He tattooed profanity on his wallet. He disobeyed all conventional wisdom the night before his fight at Staples Center, stuffing his body like a garbage disposal. He ate cheeseburger soup and a chicken quesadilla at his hotel before proceeding to The Palm for chicken curry and a strawberry smoothie. After midnight he ordered and devoured a full meat lover's pizza. He finally went to bed at about 4 a.m.

Thirty minutes before his fight, Vera sweated through his T-shirt while grappling on the floor with Irvin. Then Vera huddled with Irvin, Kaman and Manager Mark Dion, and the fighter's hardened eyes said what he had already told this entourage many times: If necessary to win this fight, Vera would willingly endure deep gashes, concussions and broken bones.

"I do what it takes," Vera said. "I'm willing to wreck my body."

Growing Popularity

He's sane.

This, after all, is no backyard brawl he sacrifices for; it's a legitimate, lucrative business that has made him a niche celebrity. As a public address announcer revved up the crowd at Staples Center, Vera walked down the hall leading to the arena and landed smack in the middle of a cultural phenomenon. A spotlight hit his face and thousands of fans -- some wearing Vera shirts that read "Truth Hurts" -- hollered his name. In the first few rows, Paris Hilton, Cindy Crawford and Nicholas Cage stood applauding.

In five years since Dana White became UFC's president, the organization has morphed from a renegade sideshow to a corporate juggernaut. In the late 1990s, Senator John McCain launched a campaign against the UFC after watching a tape of a fight. He wrote a letter to each governor suggesting all states ban the sport, and the UFC survived only in small venues and with niche audiences until White took over in 2001.

White, 36, helped establish 31 rules to govern the sport and give it legitimacy; he campaigned and won sanctioning in more than 22 states, including California in February. "We had a pretty optimistic five-year plan when we took over," White said, "and we accomplished everything in four years."

The UFC holds about one event each month with anywhere from seven to 10 bouts on the card, and it has sold out 12,000-plus-seat venues in Las Vegas and Anaheim, Calif. The season debut of an ultimate fighting reality show on Spike television in April attracted 2.4 million households -- more than competing broadcasts of the Masters and an NBA doubleheader. The cheapest tickets at Staples Center last Saturday sold for $100; second-level tickets cost $400. The potential gate receipts neared $10 million.

At the center of this whirlwind, Vera enjoyed financial rewards he never imagined fighting could provide. The UFC paid him $16,000 to show up for his fight last Saturday night, and another $16,000 if he won. Sponsorship deals doubled that package to a potential net worth of almost $70,000. Vera believed even that figure would amount to UFC pocket change in a few years. Already, titleholders receive as much as $250,000 per fight. A major deal with HBO and domestic beer sponsorship are "coming soon," White said. More than 60 countries televise the UFC, and it plans to open an office in Europe later this year.

Brandon Vera
Brandon Vera grew up the son of a Filipino mother and Italian father in a house crowded with 10 siblings, and he learned to stand out with cocksure assertiveness.(Jonathan Newton)
On pay-per-view, UFC events have doubled in popularity during the last three years and now draw as many as 400,000 buys -- a number comparable to major boxing events. In a move UFC executives heralded as foretelling, former Nevada Athletic Commission president Marc Ratner, long one of the most respected figures in boxing, took a job with UFC earlier this month.

"If things keep going like this, it's going to be crazy in a few years," ultimate fighter Forrest Griffin said. "We're all going to be millionaires."

And for such enticement, Vera willingly made a calculated sacrifice. He had always walked away from his fights with what he called "minor injuries": broken bones, dislocations, and muscle tears. In 12 years of sanctioned UFC fights, no competitor had ever died. Referee John McCarthy, the UFC's longest-tenured official, stepped into the cage a moment before Vera, and he prided himself on breaking fights up quickly.

"If I see a guy who is vulnerable, I'm going to jump in there and end it," McCarthy said. "All contact sports have some risks, but this one isn't any more dangerous. I'm in there to stop somebody from taking a savage beating."

A Stand-Up Guy

He's crazy.

By the time Vera's fight began, Staples Center was a cauldron of raging testosterone, a fraternity party on steroids. Fans had already been drinking for three hours and were ogling scantily dressed, UFC-employed women who paraded around the cage between rounds.

Now they wanted to see a fight. And blood.

Vera immediately asserted himself as the aggressor, throwing three leg kicks that Silva deftly defended. Vera tried shoving Silva and accidentally poked him in the eye with a finger. The Brazilian glared, then responded with a clean punch that smacked Vera in his left eye. Less than a minute into his fight, Vera had already suffered the most direct hit of his UFC career.

From the edge of the cage, Irvin and Kaman implored Vera to rely on his kicks, and Vera whirled his right leg at Silva's knee. This time, though, the impact hurt Vera most. He hit Silva so hard it aggravated Vera's already-tender shin, so Vera fell back to the ground and Silva jumped on top of him.

Fans reacted as they usually did when UFC fights turn into wrestling battles fought on the ground: They booed resoundingly. While fighters regard grappling as artful and technical, it typically bores UFC fans. They prefer stand-up fights with definitive blows. "That's all they understand," said Dion, Vera's manager. "Most of the time, the fans have no clue what's actually going on."

Vera quickly confused the crowd further. A little more than two minutes into his fight, Vera slid up against the side of the cage, and Silva bent down to try to pick him up. Vera locked his forearm around Silva's neck to secure what wrestlers call the guillotine hold. Even as Silva picked Vera up on his back, Vera maintained dominance. He twisted the Brazilian to the ground and tightened his grip on the fighter's neck, turning it violently and limiting his air supply.

After about eight seconds, Silva tapped Vera on his side and conceded. Vera danced in the cage, then waded back through the outstretched arms of fans to get back to his locker room. A UFC official greeted him there and suggested he go to the hospital for treatment.

"I don't think I need to go," Vera said. "Really. I'm fine."

Once the official walked out of the room, Vera made a second diagnosis. His left eye had probably suffered some sort of muscle damage, he said. And his right shin?

"I'm hoping that it's just something little," Vera said, "like maybe a hairline fracture. "


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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