Eros Stock – Brandon Vera talks about being ONE heavyweight champ and guesting on The Apprentice
At five years and counting, heavyweight king Brandon Vera remains the longest reigning titlist in ONE Championship. But ‘The Truth’ is far from invincible, and he understood that some changes needed to be made if he were to stay on top of his division.
With the growing number of capable heavyweight contenders hungrily eyeing Vera’s belt, and after he sustained a setback at the hands of Aung La N Sang when he challenged the light heavyweight star for his belt over a year ago before the coronavirus pandemic struck, the 43-year-old Filipino-American fighter came to an important career decision.
“You have to bet on yourself,” Vera told ESPN5.com last week. “You just have to try as hard as you can, and sometimes you have to believe in yourself, even when everyone tells you that you’re crazy.”
“Corona has been changing everyone’s life in many different ways — for good, bad,” he continued. “The world is a different place today than it was. That being said: what are you going to do? Are you going to stay the same, or are you gonna take a little leap of faith and bet on yourself?”
The gamble: hopping on a plane from Guam to Florida to train at the renowned Sanford MMA gym in Fort Lauderdale. For Vera, who opened The Alliance MMA Gym right smack in the middle of his UFC career in 2007, the decision to train away from his camp in the meantime was no small decision.
“This is this is where I need to be. If I want to stay a world champion, if I want to be representing the Philippines to my best and most capable abilities, I need to be training with the best of the best in the world. These guys are amazing,” Vera said.
There is no shortage of star power in Sanford MMA, which serves as the stomping grounds for former UFC champions Robbie Lawler (welterweight), Luke Rockhold (middleweight), Vitor Belfort and Rashad Evans (light heavyweight). Reigning welterweight titlist Kamaru Usman trained with the gym before departing in 2020.
The stable also houses ONE stars Martin Nguyen, the promotion’s first-ever two-division champion, and Vera’s conqueror N Sang himself.
“I have been getting my ass whipped every day since I’ve shown up here to Fort Lauderdale to go train with these guys. And it’s been a beautiful thing. It’s been amazing. This is definitely something that’s been missing in my life,” said a smiling Vera, who brandished nicks and bruises on his face like a badge of honor. “My face is all scarred up and I’m tired. But it’s okay.”
The story of Vera (16-8, 1 NC) leaving his comfort zone to sharpen himself on a regular basis against the best that MMA has to offer began with a landmark loss to N Sang in ONE: Century II back in October 2019.
Vera dropped down one weight class to challenge ‘The Burmese Python’ in hopes of becoming just the fourth two-division champion in the promotion’s history, but N Sang ended up outclassing the Filipino-American heavyweight, who after finishing his four prior opponents in just one round sustained his first ONE loss via technical knockout.
“After me and Aung La had our bout, we were in the back, both of us hurting,” Vera said with a chuckle. “We had a very nice, private conversation between us two. It was out of love and respect that I felt I could ask him, ‘Hey, man, do you think I come and train with you?’ And Aung La, he didn’t hesitate at all. He video called me and said, ‘Yo, come now.'”
For Vera, the decision to readily humble himself and switch it up at this stage in his career was a necessary adjustment in a bid to remain the undisputed heavyweight champion for the foreseeable future.
“I got to talk to Mr. Aung La Nsang, I got to talk to Mr. Martin Nguyen, I got to talk to (Sanford MMA founder) Mr. Henri Hooft and I asked them if I can come out here and train and become part of their team. This place is something special,” he shared.
“I’m going to use a word that’s frowned upon, but in this world of MMA, I’m in a room full of murderers. These guys can put people to sleep faster than NyQuil. Everyone there’s a world champion. Everyone there is of the same mind,” Vera continued. “And everybody here at Sanford MMA is super family-oriented. Everyone’s with their kids, with their wives, and everyone’s always asking if everyone’s okay. It’s so different here.”
Vera is in good shape to fend off all comers in the heavyweight division, where he plans to live out the rest of his career. “My main takeaway is that I’m never cutting weight again. I like eating whatever I want to eat, whenever I want to eat it,” he says.
Fighting at his most optimal condition means Vera will be very much equipped to deal with a heavyweight class that’s getting more stacked as the days pass. A lot of them have expressed their desire to take a shot at Vera, but none were probably louder than Amir Aliakbari, a Greco-Roman champion wrestler hailing from Iran.
Aliakbari made a bold declaration right before his ONE debut saying he’s ready for a crack at Vera’s belt, but the 33-year-old was subsequently knocked out by Korea’s Kang Ji Won early March in his first fight under the promotion.
“He proved to you on any given night that anyone in the heavyweight division can go and sleep. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got two million followers (on Instagram). If your chin can’t take it, that doesn’t matter,” Vera said. “It’s different here. We’re not trying to be famous. We don’t care about that. That doesn’t make us. We do this because we’re proud of who we are, we’re proud of who we represent.”
Right now, Vera is preparing for a third title defense. This time, he’s going up against Arjan Bhullar (10-1), a champion wrestler in the amateur ranks who has won three of his four fights in the UFC. ONE has yet to announce the schedule of the bout.
Bhullar carved out a unanimous decision win against Mauro Cerilli during his ONE debut in the undercard of that Vera-N Sang clash in 2019.
“Arjan has amazing boxing. That makes it hard for anyone. He uses his head movement, he’ll stay in the pocket, he’ll even fake a shot and pretend to take you down and then throw after. He’s definitely hard to figure out,” said Vera. “But I promise we’ll get ready for him. I promise I’ll figure him out.”
Beyond Bhullar and Aliakbari, Vera says he has a bunch of worthy challengers, with a lot of them yet to be revealed by ONE in the near future.
“Everybody looks amazing. Are you kidding me?” Vera exclaimed. “You haven’t even seen everyone they’ve signed yet. They’re all so good. ONE Championship’s roster is awesome. Nakakaasar nga eh, nakakainis!”
Before fully devoting all his time and energy for his next title defense, Vera said he first had the time of his life as a guest coach on the upcoming reality show The Apprentice: ONE Championship Edition.
“I’m just blessed,” he said. “This is not something that I would have ever even dreamed of. I couldn’t have even thought of this ever occurring in my life.”
In The Apprentice: ONE Championship Edition, 16 contestants from around the world will compete for a $250,000 job offer and the chance to be the protégé of ONE president and CEO Chatri Sityodtong.
The show is based on the American franchise, but ONE added certain twists and changes that will make the whole viewing experience entirely different from its original counterpart.
This version of The Apprentice provides grueling physical challenges. Vera declined to provide any specifics, but he did say that the trials were “brutal” enough to make even the toughest ONE athletes fold.
“Even if you would have put ONE Championship’s top athletes doing those challenges, for sure some of us would have been throwing up. I’m talking about top three world champs, me included,” Vera laughed.
Joining Vera as guest judge are UFC legend Georges St-Pierre, former ONE welterweight champion Ben Askren and ONE Flyweight Grand Prix world champion Demetrious Johnson, among others. Esteemed CEOs like Eric Yuan of Zoom and Anthony Tan of Grab are also featured.
“I really connected with a lot of the contestants. They were all very cool, and they come from all different walks of life. They all have different reasons for doing what they’re trying to do,” said Vera. “It’s good to see the ups and downs, the self-doubt and everything live in front of a camera and for all of you guys to see. It’s gonna be something cool.
“And then they have to do business on top of being broken in the challenges? Oh man,” Vera added. “I have to give a shout out to ONE championship. This is what they do. And the reason why they continue to grow and continue to move forward is because they live by those principles of martial arts from not just inside our Circle, but all the way through business.”
Vera was naturally an impartial judge, but he couldn’t help but root for one of the Filipino contestants in Louie Sangalang, a former URCC champion and cancer survivor who is also one of his closest acquaintances.
“That guy’s a walking living legend, man. If Forrest Gump was a real movie, kuya Louie would be the Pinoy Forrest Gump. He will be like the superhero of every folklore tale to ever come true. He’s like a walking mythological creature,” said Vera.
“And when I saw him there, I was like, ‘Jesus, of course this makes sense that you would be here. You can just check this off your list too.’ And immediately in my head I thought, ‘Wow, he’s here. He’s certainly gonna win this one.’ For sure he’s probably gonna win this too, man.”
The Apprentice: ONE Championship Edition premieres on March 20, 11 p.m. on TV5. The replay of the first episode will air on March 22, 9 p.m. on One Sports.
New episodes are shown also on One Sports every Monday, 9 p.m.
“ONE Championship is its own thing. The Apprentice is another thing. And then you put them together? It’s gonna be something mind-blowing,” said Vera. “Just make sure you don’t miss any episode. This going to blow your socks off.”