Undercard Stories: Marlon Vera’s steady progress

Now is the era of the UFC superfight. Daniel Cormier versus Stipe Miocic. Amanda Nunes versus Cyborg Justino. TJ Dillashaw versus Demetrious Johnson. None…

By: Connor Ruebusch | 5 years ago
Undercard Stories: Marlon Vera’s steady progress
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

Now is the era of the UFC superfight. Daniel Cormier versus Stipe Miocic. Amanda Nunes versus Cyborg Justino. TJ Dillashaw versus Demetrious Johnson.

None of these is the first time two champions have squared off in the Octagon. It was nearly a decade ago that Georges St-Pierre defended his welterweight strap against lightweight king BJ Penn. If you want to stretch the rules a little, you could go back another year to Anderson Silva vs Dan Henderson, in which the UFC middleweight champ defended his belt against the last man to hold the PRIDE welterweight title.

Still, the sudden frequency of these fights is unprecedented, and its cause perfectly transparent. Having sunk an incredible four billion dollars into the UFC franchise, new owners WME-IMG are busily looking for some way to recoup their investment. With last year’s superstars presently out of the picture, the only conceivable way to quickly make up the difference is to make lots and lots of SUPERFIGHTS.

The fault of this strategy lies in its short-sightedness. With more and more eyes focused on the champions at the tops of their divisions, the lowly undercard fighter is receding into shadow. This is a critical problem, indeed, because eventually, some of these unsung fighters are supposed to fight the big draws. And “champion versus well-groomed prospect” will always be more compelling than “champion defends his belt between superfights.”

As an entity that exists to promote fights, the UFC has never been particularly adept at telling the stories of its fighters. The home of the world’s best fighters sometimes seems all too eager to hide those fighters’ faces behind slick graphics packages and corporate branding. The production has a tendency to overshadow the product.

Frequently, good fighters don’t get the attention they deserve. Fighters like Marlon “Chito” Vera, a win-some-lose-some young prospect who is quietly but significantly improving with each new fight. Agile, long-limbed, and teak tough, Vera is a dedicated student of the game with an abundance of time yet to prove himself as a contender. Now, coming off an unexpectedly competitive loss to sixth-ranked John Lineker, Vera is set to face Douglas Silva de Andrade on February 3rd’s Machida vs Anders undercard.

But that chapter has yet to be written. As for his story so far…

Fight like you’re two rounds behind

Chito Vera’s UFC career began in November of 2014, just a month shy of his 22nd birthday. As a contestant on the ill-fated Ultimate Fighter Latin America, Vera had proven to be dynamic and dangerous in transitions, stopping Enrique Briones with an opportunistic upkick from his back. A skin infection kept Vera from continuing on in the tournament. When the doctor gave him the news, he confessed through a rueful smile: “I already cried in the hotel, so I’m not going to do it here.”

Despite the setback, Vera made his UFC debut later that year, matched against fellow TUF contestant Marco Beltran, a bombastic, long-limbed Mexican fighter whose unstructured style was all but indistinguishable from Vera’s own.

The difference turned out to be Beltran’s aggressive pace, or rather, Chito’s lack thereof. A habitual slow-starter, Vera stayed too long on his back, and gave away an early lead. After grappling throughout the second round (and landing only one of his four attempted strikes), Vera desperately needed to catch up. In the words of Joe Rogan, he needed to fight like he was two rounds behind—which he was—and he did. Marlon rallied to take the third, walking down a slowing Beltran and landing 19 of 36 significant strikes. It was enough to make an impression, but not enough to earn him the win.

His second UFC bout came nine months later, and this matchup was more forgiving. Arizona’s Roman Salazar had never beaten a fighter of note, and unlike Marco Beltran, he could not match Vera’s considerable reach.

Greg Jackson made an appearance in the corner back in November, but by necessity the Chito camp had since returned home, to Ecuador. Speaking of his preparation there, UFC commentator Dan Hardy later said that it was inconstant, at best. Most of Vera’s grappling was done in the gi, because he had few training partners who trained without it. Other work was found piecemeal—a few rounds here, a half-decent sparring partner there. Between training sessions, such as they were, Vera spent time with his wife and children, sources of endless inspiration for a young man who grew up dreaming of the fight game. His eldest daughter, Ana Paula, suffers from a rare nerve condition which renders her incapable of making facial expressions.

It was with Ana Paula in mind that Vera fell to his knees and wept after submitting Roman Salazar in August 2015. Hist first UFC win meant his first UFC win bonus, and that meant money for his daughter. Soon, he had started a crowdfunding campaign to pay for surgery. And in hopes of adding another win bonus to his earnings, he accepted his third UFC fight later that year.

As they develop, most talented young fighters experience what I would call “prospect losses,” but which you might as well call “rude awakenings.” More than a typical coin-flip defeat, these early setbacks are a key component of fighter progress. Each unexpected challenge serves to underline the faults in a fighter’s game, thus pointing him in the right direction for future bouts.

For Chito Vera, the first such setback came in the form of Davey Grant, an Englishman with a grimy yet highly focused game, and the athletic ability to punish a more lackadaisical fighter for three rounds straight. The two squared off in February of 2016, and within two minutes of the starting horn, Grant had already set the pattern for the rest of the bout. On the feet, he simply walked through Vera’s kicks and flicks, favoring pace and pressure over grace and skill. On the ground, Grant kept the pressure on, and it wasn’t long before Marlon’s emotions overpowered his judgment. Whether improperly prepared or merely frustrated by his lack of success (or both), Vera proceeded to foul his way through the final two-thirds of the fight. The result: a third-round point deduction, and a second UFC defeat, far more lopsided than the first.

No More Goodbyes

Chito took his wakeup call seriously. Less than two months after losing to Grant, he moved to San Diego to join Team Oyama. One of the US’s most established MMA trainers, Colin Oyama offered steely experience to complement Chito’s passion and work ethic. He also offered a world class training facility, and access to top-flight training partners, ranging from fellow prospects like Alex Perez, to crusty vets like Joe Soto and Ian McCall.

Vera was willing to put in the work, though it would still take a little time before he would see the results he wanted.

Nine months after Grant, Chito traveled to Melbourne, Australia to fight Ning Guangyou, a crude powerhouse of a kickboxer who had dropped his last bout to our old friend Marco Beltran. It would turn out to be a close scrape, but the changes in Chito’s mindset and approach were evident from the start of the very first round. In fact, he seemed to overcorrect, replacing the aimless aggression with exaggerated caution.

It took some persuasive cornering, but eventually, Oyama worked some of that old aggression out of this new Chito. True to form, he came alive in round three. Suddenly, instead of leaping away from Guangyou’s wild swings, Vera started stepping into them, smothering the Chinese fighter’s power. He began smashing Guangyou’s body with kicks. At one point, having grown used to countering those kicks, Guangyou absorbed the blow and then lingered in the pocket. He looked to be considering his potential targets when Vera simply stepped forward and cracked him clean on the chin with a very stiff jab. Guangyou collapsed to the canvas, and though he managed to recover, he could do little but defend and survive till the end of the fight.

“I will keep training in California with my new team,” Vera said with a smile after receiving the decision. “And I will bring my family home. No more goodbyes, baby. No more goodbyes for my little kids. No more goodbyes!”

The honor of being the heel

Since beating Guangyou, Chito Vera has continued to add new dimensions to his game. At the same time, he has proven to be a remarkably effective underdog, seemingly impervious to hostile crowds and heavily favored foes.

After Guangyou, Vera fought Brad Pickett in London at +120 odds. Then Brian Kelleher in New York at +180. Last October, it was John Lineker in Sao Paolo, against +350 odds. Each time, Vera stepped into enemy territory and exceeded expectations. As a short-notice replacement, Vera was supposed to be a winnable fight for Pickett. Instead, he spoiled the Englishman’s retirement fight with a third-round knockout. It took just over two minutes to secure the armbar on Brian Kelleher in front of his hometown crowd. And while Lineker did prove too much overall, Chito had the infamous slugger hesitating and retreating by the time he hit his third-round stride. Most fans had expected Lineker to knock him out.

Marlon’s progress can be seen at a glance. A young man from a country with no fight scene to speak of, he was practically formless in his first UFC fight, a submission artist whose striking consisted of standing very, very far away and occasionally sprinting across ten feet of open space to attempt a strike.

By way of contrast, the Marlon Vera who played chicken with John Lineker has the form of a real, professional fighter. His guard is better, his stance is tighter, and he takes smaller, more efficient steps. Yes, his fights still tend to be very close. Yes, he remains a slow starter, and he maintains a crawling pace for a 135-pound fighter. And yet—slowly, surely—Chito Vera is growing into his style, gaining an ever deeper understanding of the subtleties of mixed martial arts.

Take another look at the images above, and let their meaning sink in. Marlon Vera stood twice as close to John Lineker, owner of 13 knockouts (and many more savage beatings besides), than he did to Marco Beltran, whose only claim to fame is having beaten Chito Vera before he was any good.

This might look suspiciously like overconfidence, but Vera’s results speak for themselves. A mere three years after struggling to find his range against Beltran, Vera stood in front of John Lineker and made him miss. He stepped into the clinch and punished him for coming forward. And in the third round, when Lineker saw glimpses of Chito at his best, the noted knockout artist visibly faltered.

Marlon Vera has yet to prove himself as a contender. In point of fact, he hasn’t even clearly demonstrated that he belongs among the elite of the division, and may not for a while yet. What he has shown, however, is personality, tenacity, toughness, and the ability to study hard and make steady strides, despite underdog odds, unfriendly crowds, and no shortage of personal struggles.

UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby, the man responsible for signing Vera, once called him “somewhat of an overachiever.” Considering where he started, it now feels safe to call Shelby’s assessment an understatement. When you make a habit of defying the expectations of fans, analysts, and professional matchmakers alike, yours is a story worth telling, undercard or not.

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