Brandon Vera (12-5 MMA, 8-5 UFC) gets goose bumps every time he thinks about fighting Mauricio "Shogun" Rua (20-6 MMA, 4-4 UFC) at UFC on FOX 4.
Just the thought of fighting an MMA icon offsets the knowledge that Rua picked him as perhaps an easier opponent.
"I don't give a damn what his reasons are or what happened or how this came about," Vera told MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com
Rua turned down Glover Teixeira when Thiago Silva re-injured his back and was forced to withdraw from their fight at UFC 149. A pink slip was threatened for the former champ, whose pass on the Teixeira fight was aired to the public. Rua countered that Vera's name was more valuable to his career.
Cynics would translate that to mean Vera is an easier fight for Rua than Teixeira, who blasted Kyle Kingsbury in his recent octagon debut. Vera has been around long enough to make that connection, and he's certainly familiar with the disappointment of fans who saw him go from top heavyweight contender to endangered light heavyweight.
The whys just don't matter to him at this point, he said. He's got the fight, and the fans and Glover Teixeira do not.
Vera said not even the stage – the FOX-televised main event of UFC on FOX 4, which takes place Aug. 4 at Staples Center in Los Angeles – or the stakes of the fight – that could see him released from the promotion with a bad loss – are oppressive forces.
"Everybody keeps reminding me that I'm fighting on FOX in the main event for five rounds," he said. "I don't even care about that, man. I'm fighting 'Shogun,' bro. I've wanted to fight 'Shogun' since I first saw him kicking people in the face with soccer kicks back in the day in PRIDE."
If there's any imminent threat to a good performance, it could be getting starstruck in the octagon. Vera's inner 10-year-old was going crazy – complete with sweaty palms and butterflies in his stomach – when the two recently did a segment with KTLA news in Los Angeles at a UFC gym.
"The last time I felt like this was when they told me I'd be fighting Randy (Couture)," he said, referring to a fight with the UFC Hall of Famer at UFC 105 that ended in a decision loss.
It's perhaps the image of Rua soccer-kicking opponents into oblivion that brings him back to reality. He's glad the two aren't meeting under the ruleset of the now-defunct PRIDE, which allowed such brutal strikes.
"I like elbows more than soccer kicks to the face," Vera said. "'Shogun' is a master of kicking people in the face. That's for sure not cool."
Rua's last appearance in the octagon was considered an instant classic. He and Dan Henderson went five bloody rounds at UFC 139, and though Henderson won the decision, Rua lost none of his stature. Inside the octagon, the former PRIDE and UFC champion has only fallen short to fellow champions: Forrest Griffin, Lyoto Machida and Henderson.
Vera's road has been far rockier. He was on the verge of being cut from the UFC following a loss to Thiago Silva at UFC 125. He was given a reprieve when Silva was suspended for submitting a fake urine sample, but he was flat in a return performance against Eliot Marshall and narrowly squeaked out a decision win. After winning his first four UFC fights as a heavyweight, he lost two straight to Tim Sylvia and Fabricio Werdum and moved down to the light-heavyweight class.
"It sucked," Vera said of his most recent fight. "I think I was nervous. There's two times I've felt like that. My very first fight in the UFC, and my last fight where with a loss I would have gotten cut."
With nearly a .500 win percentage as a light-heavyweight, Vera's career would be given a shot of adrenaline with a win over a former champion. That would appear to pile more on his proverbial plate in advance of the fight, but Vera said the stakes have, in fact, freed him to better perform.
"I have nothing to lose," he said. "I need to go out there and leave it all on the line. 'Shogun' brought me in thinking I'm going to be an easy win. The UFC is basically trying to hand 'Shogun' me on a platter. I have nothing to lose, man. So I think that's why I feel so alive now. I'm game."
Vera's bigger gripe was that interviews for the Aug. 4 event were cutting into his training time. Rua used to be a frequent visitor to the Alliance Training Center where he spends most of his time training, and the two several times worked out in the same room. They never sparred, however.
Vera was four weeks into a camp for a fight with James Te Huna on July 11 at "UFC on FUEL TV 4: Munoz vs. Weidman" when he got the call to fight Rua. Now, the calls come more frequently, and the underdog questions come along with them. Those are the product of the many setbacks he's met over the years. Betting lines don't look favorably upon him.
But along with those brutal soccer kicks, Vera has been thinking about something else lately. After he took a road trip this past year that turned into more of a vacation, he's been getting comfortable with the idea of correcting his flaws in unfamiliar gyms. In a recent trip to Australia, he said veterans Elvis Sinosic and Anthony Perosh taught him a few lessons. Then there's his camp in San Diego, where he works with a bevy of UFC veterans.
"Remember 'The Last Samurai,' when Tom Cruise was fighting and training, and the Japanese kid came up and told him that he had too many minds, that he minds this too much and that too much?" Vera said. "That's kind of where I've been.
"The road trip was cool, but I shouldn't have been on no damn road trip. I'm not retired. I don't have the luxury of going off for a month-and-a-half. I should have been training and learning more. Where I'm at now, and where I was then, I shouldn't have been there. I should have been doing everything else to become better as a fighter."
He has perhaps one last chance to show what he's learned on the big stage, and against one of his early heroes.
"Where I'm at today, the good, the bad, the ups and downs of my career – it's all led to this fight with 'Shogun,'" Vera said. "For whatever cosmic forces in the universe – karma, God, whatever you want to call it. I'm here, and this is my shot. I couldn't be more ecstatic."