LAS VEGAS — Marlon Vera wasn’t making a lot of money in his native Ecuador, but then he didn’t need a lot. The cost of living was low and he was doing well enough that he could have survived with his family quite comfortably.
Being comfortable, though, doesn’t always mesh well with greatness. And while Vera’s overriding goal was to make a comfortable life for his wife and children, the means to that end was via greatness in mixed martial arts.
There was no MMA scene in Ecuador. There was nobody to show him the ropes. There were no qualified training partners.
If you want to talk about a self-made man, Marlon Vera is about as self-made as it gets.
He’s still not there yet, but he’s become one of the top fighters in the UFC’s bantamweight division. On Saturday, he’ll continue his climb toward the top at Apex when he meets fifth-ranked Rob Font in the main event of UFC Vegas 53.
“It was so hard because when I started [in Ecuador], there was no road, like no guide to say, 'This is where you should go,’ ” Vera said. “I honestly don’t know how I’ve remained in the company [UFC] this long. In the beginning, I was playing with fire. … When I see videos of me hitting the mitts or training back in the day, it was like a joke. But I was being serious.”
He had to leave Ecuador if his dream of success in MMA was ever to be fully realized.
So he left his wife and two children behind and moved to the U.S. to find more suitable training conditions. It clearly opened his eyes to what he was missing, but it didn’t instantly make his life simpler.
He was in a new country on a different continent with a different language, culture and expectations. Every spare cent he had he sent to his wife, keeping only enough for the bare necessities for himself.
He left Ecuador with next-to-nothing in his pocket and it remained that way in the U.S. for a while. But his wife played a key role. She supported him and encouraged him to shoot for the stars and didn’t complain of the hardships his absence created, even though they were real and many.
“When I left my house, I didn’t have more than six grand,” Vera said. “ … [I told my wife] my family will support you. Your family will support you. But if I stay here, we’re going nowhere. A good wife means so much. A bad woman can drag you down but a good woman will take you a long way. She was able to stay with our two kids by herself and just wait for me.”
But something neither of them really thought about hit Vera at the beginning. He had five fights scheduled, and then get canceled when he first moved to the U.S. full-time. Because UFC fighters are independent contractors and not employees, they don’t draw paychecks and only are paid when they fight.
“I was teaching a lot of classes trying to survive by myself in the U.S.,” Vera said.
No one gets rich teaching martial arts classes.
He was booked to fight Ning Guangyou in Melbourne, Australia, on Nov. 27, 2016. He was 7-3-1 at the time, coming off a loss to Davey Grant and had gone 1-2-1 in his last four. He felt a win would allow him to stay in the UFC but a loss at that stage would have cost him his job.
It’s an enormous amount of pressure but it’s part of the game in major league sports. There are only a select few slots and if you can’t perform, whether it’s baseball, football, basketball or fighting, there are thousands of others eager to take your place.
He won the fight and his career has been on the upswing ever since. He’s gone 11-2 since then, with the only defeats being close decisions to Song Yadong and José Aldo.
Consistency, he said, is the key. He trains year-round and only takes time off after fights to let his body heal. He doesn’t have the bad habits like drinking or smoking. He’s saving that, he said laughing, until his career is over.
But he’s turned himself into one of the best in the world and a win over Font will keep the dream alive.
It’s the kind of ending that is all too rare. Too many either give up, aren’t good enough or never get the break that allows them to make it.
Vera was the picture of perseverance and it’s now paid off. His family is taken care of and his future has been secured.
But there is still the matter of reaching his goal of making it to the top. He’s not quite there yet.
“Lot of time left and I’m very patient,” he said, chuckling. “And you know me: I’m going to never give up until I finally do this.”