The summer air is crisp when I take a drive with the reigning ONE Championship’s heavyweight champ, Brandon “The Truth” Vera.
It’s early June 2016 in Metro Manila and Vera is in town for a promotional tour as part of the ONE: Global Rivals fight card.
“MMA in the Philippines is delayed by about 15 to 20 years behind the West,” Vera says as we head to the Manila Polo Club.
Vera started his pro MMA career in 2002, competing in modest leagues until his impressive, successive wins netted him a UFC debut in 2006, where he continued his assault on the heavyweight division, even scoring contender status, until he lost to Fabricio Werdum in 2008.
In his post-UFC career, he signed with ONE Championship and won the heavyweight title in December 2015. He is set to defend that belt against Japanese grappling standout Hideki Sekine on December 2, 2016 in the Philippines, at the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City.
“When I first started out I was counting pennies so I could drive from Virginia and make the tolls, pay for my gas, pay for my entrance fee, grab something small to eat, and sleep in the car and drive back home,” he shakes his head.
“I did this by myself, with nobody helping, for at least eight months before I picked up a sponsor.”
Vera is of the opinion that, for both Philippine and Asian MMA to grow, it must embrace the challenges that comes its way, that this is the road to the evolution of the sport; that the parochial infighting and tribalism that inevitably afflict local leagues are hindrances that need to be set aside for growth.
“[Philippine MMA] lags behind even with ONE Championship in the area, and the PXC (Pacific Extreme Championship), and the URCC (Universal Reality Combat Championships),” he adds, referring to the Guam-based and Manila-based professional MMA leagues, respectively.
WHEN MMA FIRST STARTED WERE WERE TRAINING IN A GARAGE. PEOPLE ONLY KNEW HOW TO GO HARD AND BEAT THE HECK OUT OF EACH OTHER.
“How? The style and the techniques, the gyms and facilities, and the coaches. The sport of MMA is consistently and constantly forever changing. It is in flux. You just can’t get that overnight. You have to go through the grind.”
“Right now with what [the Philippines has] here, if you have a gym you belong to this gym. If you go to another one, you’re a traitor,” he says, adding that it happened to him in his early days competing in Brazilian jiu-jitsu tournaments.
“When I get back home [after cross-training] to train with my team the owner of the school doesn’t like me. I’m a douchebag, I’m a creonte. Now everything I’m doing is bastardized jiujitsu and that I should stop training at other places. And that is retarded, man. To be the best chef in the world—I promise you—you cannot work in just one kitchen!”
He narrates that the same patterns of transformation could be seen in the US. He explains all this, later on, when we get to Safehouse MMA in Quezon City, to an assembly of people who’ve come to train under him for a charity seminar.
“That’s what I mean by behind the times. It’s all of it: the business, the mentality. But really that’s how it is at first. It was like that in Brazil, it was like that in the [USA]. When MMA first started we were training in a garage,” Vera laughs, and stands up to mime the size of a modest garage.
He shakes his head, “People only knew how to go hard and beat the heck out of each other. It’s not smart training, just hardcore. It works for a little while until you run into tough people who train hardcore and have really good technique. Then, that works for a little while until you run into somebody who trains smart with perfect technique.”
Still, Asian MMA is also, in Vera’s estimate well on its way to healthy maturity. The numbers also back him up: since its start in 2011, ONE Championship has grown its market share exponentially into heretofore untapped “exotic” markets like Myanmar and China. Its events broadcast to a potential 1 billion homes through partners like FOX and Star Sports with a coverage that spans more than 70 countries worldwide. In the Philippines, ONE Championship has partnered with ABS-CBN for televised events.
Cities like Beijing, Yangon, or Jakarta go largely unnoticed by the Western MMA promotions (albeit UFC held a Manila event in 2015) but ONE cultivates them like important breakthrough markets, banking on their Asia-centered fighter roster.
Vera is just one American with Filipino ethnicity in a roster of champions with a distinctly global feel and Asian bent. Titleholders hail from countries like Japan (Shinya Aoki), Kazakhstan (Kairat Akhmetiv), Brazil (Roger Gracie), and Thailand (Dejdamrong Sor Amnuaysirichoke). Hometown heroes like Vera get their focused share of the limelight in their home turf, inspiring local MMA to grow.
Vera is also quick to emphasise that these changes are simply established patterns, and not criticism on the way fight camps or gyms are handled. “All the stuff I said about the coaches and facilities, they’re not bad things, they’re just where things are at. Great things will no doubt come after overcoming these initial obstacles.”
Industry, Vera explains, simply develops this way and that the fight game is exactly that: a business that continually changes according to market demands. “It’s the way to evolve. It’s the future.” Vera says.
This kind of long game, laissez faire tactic of watering the ground and planting seeds of combat sports inspiration does seem to have paid off. It has encouraged new talent to go train and deepened the love of longtime fans – goading once timid fans into curiosity and eventual conversion.
Five years after the first ONE event in Manila, I could feel the effects of growth and popularity that Vera had explained on a grassroots level.
Listen: There’s a fortyish man, in blue jeans and striped white and red polo shirt, standing at the Coral Way entrance of the Mall of Asia Arena, looking outside and motioning at people with tickets in his hand.
It’s the night of ONE Championship 41: Global Rivals and this man asks me if I have friends out there. Why? Is he scalping these tickets? No. He’s holding three extra seats for friends who never showed up. He wanted to give them to me, or just give them away in general.
He would give them away gratis to anybody who couldn’t buy tickets but had still gone to the arena, hoping for a miracle, hoping for a way to get in and see the fights. He didn’t want to sell them. He just didn’t want to see them go to waste. Sayang, eh. “It would be such a waste if nobody gets to use these seats,” he tells me in Tagalog.
Plenty of Filipinos love MMA, but he says he knows not everyone has the capacity to buy seats. I take a minute to think if I can give them to anybody. No, sorry. All my friends are inside the arena and accounted for.
“I hope somebody takes them,” he tells me. “Me, too.” I wish him good luck giving the tickets away.
Brandon Vera defends the heavyweight title on 2 December in ONE Championship: Age of Domination at the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City, Philippines.