Meet the Mixed Martial Arts Champion Who Became an Asian Movie Star

Brandon Vera - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of One Championship

One Championship heavyweight title-holder Brandon Vera looks set for a post-fight career in films after making an eye-catching debut in Erik Matti's actioner 'BuyBust.'

Former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) star Brandon “The Truth” Vera raised eyebrows when he made the move to Asia in 2014 for a fledgling fight promotion and an uncertain future. Five years later, the Filipino-American fighter had become a world champion and, rather more unexpectedly, a movie star. 

Today, the 41-year-old from Norfolk, Virginia, is mixing his fight life as the current heavyweight champion of Singapore-based One Championship with an emerging career as an action star, after grabbing attention on debut in last year’s Erik Matti-helmed and well-received Filipino actioner BuyBust.

With a slew of film projects coming up, The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Vera on the sidelines of One: Roots of Honour fight card in Manila, to talk about walking in the footsteps of his heroes.

How was the experience of trading the mixed martial arts cage for the BuyBust red carpet?

It was weird. It’s a different animal, a whole different monster. I thought it would be the same but it’s not. You have to try to be cute and be handsome. So it's totally different. It was really weird but awesome at the same time. I loved it.

Who were the film stars you grew up idolizing?

Obviously Bruce Lee. Chuck Norris. Everyone from the Saturday morning kung fu theatre I watched. Then [Arnold] Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Clint Eastwood and even Tom Hanks. Bit of a broad range.

How much of an influence was Bruce Lee considering you followed the same path — from martial arts to movies?

Come on. As a kid you looked up to two people — your dad and Bruce Lee. If your dad made you, it was only Bruce Lee. He made a major impact. He was small and we grew up in a racially charged era, real racism not just like today where someone just gets their feelings hurt. But that “little Chinaman” was always the one doing the biggest things. He was always reaching to do the impossible. So for sure, he had an impact on my career, not just as a martial artist but as a person.

Did you ever think you’d become an actor?

Never in a million years. I was looking for representation in the Philippines and wanted to look at pursuing an entertainment career outside the cage. I ended up with Virtual Playground, owned by Dondon Monteverde. They put a plan together, which I had to follow to a tee. I had to do all my [acting] classes, I had to read all my scripts. I fell in love with it.

How was your first day on set with Erik Matti on BuyBust?

Man. The only comparison I can imagine is if you took somebody and you threw them into the fight circle on fight night and they had never even seen MMA before. “Go ahead, kid. Good luck”. I’d taken classes and preparing but once you’re in there? The first day was a blur.

There were some big stars involved — including Anne Curtis. Did you feel that when it came time to the stunts, that would be your chance to shine?

Oh, for sure. These are huge stars. But that was easy. I would do the rehearsals and say let’s do this one more time. It’s like a beautiful dance that you put together on set. It’s fun.

You were singled out in a lot of reviews for praise, too.

It felt like another world championship belt. It got to act with the biggest stars with the best records in the Philippines — and it turned out OK. I didn’t make a fool of myself, which is really, really cool.

So what do you have coming up?

We have three movies coming up. I have two scripts and am waiting for workshops. I can’t really talk about them at the moment, but I am super excited.

And you’ll still be fighting as you’ve challenged One’s light heavyweight champ Aung La N Sang?

Yeah, for sure. Actually, the training for these films is helping me keep my weight down and I have that fight coming up in October. So we have that hanging over us now as well. On the books we’re busy, off the books we’re even busier. It’s go, go, go and I’m drinking coffee all the time.

There was some debate in fight media when you made the move from the United States about whether it was the right one. How do you feel about it now?

One Championship’s last event [in Tokyo on March 31] smashed all sorts of records. The planets have aligned. Everything is just great and it’s lining up, one after another. Everybody thought I was crazy but look now. It’s like magic.