In five fights under the tutelage of veteran trainer Ronnie Shields, hard-charging Bryan Vera has shown just how good he can be when he puts all of the pieces of the puzzle together.
Known for years as a relentless brawler who has played the role of underdog well enough to score a series of upset wins, Vera (23-7, 14 KOs) is finding out at 32 what adding layers of technique, wisdom and top-shelf conditioning can do. His finest work to date, incidentally, came in defeat in September against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. in a fight many believed Vera had won.
Vera will get his chance at redemption Saturday in San Antonio (HBO, 9:45 p.m. ET/PT) when he faces Chavez (47-1-1, 32 KOs) in a 12-round super middleweight bout.
The Texas native shared his thoughts with ESPN.com on what he learned from the first fight and how he plans to get over the hump in the rematch:
At what point in the Chavez fight did you start to realize you were going to have a good deal of success against him?
From Round 1 I thought he was going to be coming at me hard. But when I saw him backpedaling the first couple of rounds, I started realizing that he's not as strong as I figured him to be. He didn't have much of a size difference. When I saw that I was able to do more things, towards the end of the fight I boxed more. I knew that I could change things up on him. I don't have to be one-dimensional. I feel like I'm the more athletic person in there so I'm going to try and use that to my advantage.
As the fight progressed, you were able to take his best shots and continue to keep coming. How do you think that affected him?
I think he was planning on trying to catch me with one big shot. When he realized I wasn't going to [go down], he didn't have enough gas to put together combinations or he just wasn't confident in himself due to the big layoff.
Did Chavez's issues with making weight before the bout insult you at all in terms of how he conducted himself professionally?
I have a world-class trainer like Ronnie Shields who has been around the game for a long time and he just kind of told me don't worry about it. But it did come to a point a couple of times where he said we should just go back home and say 'f--- it' and move on to the next thing. But we were in camp for 16 or 17 weeks. I still felt by looking at [Chavez] that he wasn't prepared and the reason why he was overweight was because he wasn't training too hard. It felt like we could just go out there and outwork him. That's what we thought we did.
There appears to be so much more polish in your offensive game the past few years. How much do you credit that to the work you have done with Shields?
I think it's the everyday work with him -- the technical stuff with him staying on me to keep my hands high and moving my head -- and just the confidence battle I have gone through training with him every day. It has been him reminding me and me growing respect for him. Before, I think the trainers I had didn't have that type of respect because they weren't world-class trainers. They were good trainers but I think I just felt like I could get away with certain things. With [Shields] you have no other option but to listen and take in all you can. I think it's a respect thing.
Fans have grown to know you as a hard worker who comes to win every single fight. Where does that fighting spirit inside of you come from?
I think it just runs through my blood. One of my younger brothers [Gilbert Vera Jr.] is a professional boxer. My older brother, Leonard Garcia -- he's my half-brother with the same dad -- fought in the UFC. He's known for tough fighting like that. Then you've got my dad [Gilbert Vera Sr.] who was a heavyweight in the '80s who was known for being gritty. I just think it runs through our blood. Being raised by my mother, who raised three boys her whole life and always worked three jobs and stuff, you grow up seeing that and realize that it takes hard work, dedication and that type of stuff to be successful.
In what ways have the mental aspects of the sport played a bigger role for you as you've gained more experience?
A whole lot. I was talking to Ronnie the other day about getting hit. Back in the day you just don't care but as you get older you start realizing that it could play a part and you see people getting hurt and things like that mentally as far as the brain and all that. So you start realizing, hell, if you are athletic and you can move, you might as well utilize your ability to not get hit. It also looks better in the long run. I think with that type of thing as you get older you start learning that there's a life after boxing. You want to be successful when you get out. As a younger fighter you don't really think about that. You just want to fight and getting hit is not that big of a deal. But things change as you get older.
One thing that showed in the Chavez fight in terms of your ability to drag him into deep waters was your conditioning level. How important has that been to you in recent fights?
Being at [Plex Gym in Houston] with our strength and conditioning coach Danny Arnold, they keep us in shape. Ronnie doesn't have to worry about us staying in shape. We do a great boxing workout as well but the second workout is always all about conditioning and you have to be there to do it or they'll send you home. You have to put that part in. Back in the day you used to have a boxing trainer and you would do the strength and conditioning on your own. Now you're forced to do it and I like it. I always stayed in shape anyway, but this is top-of-the-line work. We also get long runs in for a third workout from time to time. Being in great shape is part of why I am where I am, I think.
Did you have any trepidation as you headed to the scorecards following the Chavez fight?
In the first fight in California, yes. But I think with [the rematch] in Texas, there are too many people there who saw the first fight and know what happened. I think, if not 50/50, it will be pretty close because they can't keep giving these big-name guys those opportunities when they don't deserve it. I think they will do me right.
Do you believe the first fight was enough of a scare for Chavez to take this rematch, and essentially you, more seriously the second time around?
I would like to hope so. I would think that he would come to fight and give everybody a good fight. But you never know with him. He says a lot of things. But looking back in the past, he says a lot of things and never follows through with it. He said he is going to make weight, but I doubt it. But at the same time all I got to do is prepare, get ready and work on my game plan and expect the best to come. Even if it is his worst, I will be prepared come March 1.
Despite the contentious nature of the scorecards, do you look back and see things in your own performance you could have done better?
There were times I felt like I could have gone to the body more. I made him miss but didn't capitalize by throwing combinations. I allowed him to land a couple of big shots and it was careless on my part because I had my hands down and was kind of getting cocky a little bit. Once I eliminate all that and stay on top of him -- he's not the fastest guy and it isn't hard to make him miss -- I think I can make it happen.
You have long played the spoiler as the underdog throughout your career. What does it mean to you to finally be in a position with a victory to become a real player in the division?
It's great. It has been a long road for me, but it finally came to something. To me, a win right here sets me up to a couple more big fights and then it will be time to look at what's past boxing. I'm only 32 right now, but at 35 or 36 you don't want to be doing it past that. It all led up to this and I'll make sure I capitalize and finish up strong. I want to make the next two years the best of my career and we'll see what goes on from there. I definitely don't plan on losing anymore. I plan on going out there and giving that same effort I always had, I just think I'll be more polished and more skilled.