Ben Fowlkes
Friday March 19th, 2010

The mob, as they say, is fickle. But fight fans, now they're just downright brutal.

Every fighter learns this sooner or later. One day your bandwagon is loaded down with loyal passengers. Then you wake up the morning after a loss to find the exact same people using the T-shirt they bought off your website to wipe down their lawn furniture.

Brandon Vera's already been there. He was a rising star in the UFC until two straight losses followed by a string of lackluster performances left him in career limbo. Five years ago, he seemed destined for greatness. Now he's 32 years old, 2-2 in his last four fights, and he could most charitably be described as a gatekeeper. How quickly a fighter's future can turn from a promise into a threat.

It's fitting that Vera should face off against Jon Jones at UFC Live this Sunday night (9 p.m. ET, Versus) from Broomfield, Colo. At 22, and with the only blemish on his record a bizarre disqualification loss against Matt Hamill in a fight Jones was dominating, he's riding the crest of the same wave that once carried Vera to a lucrative contract. He seems to be all bright, shining potential, and the questions are not so much whether he'll rise to the top of the light heavyweight class, but how quickly.

It would be easy to get lost in that kind of hype, as Vera admits he might have done, but Jones swears it won't happen to him. He's already seen for himself that the love of the masses is fleeting and unpredictable. Sitting cageside as Anderson Silva, who Jones describes as his "idol," defended his belt against Thales Leites last April, Jones watched as the crowd showered the middleweight champ with boos for allowing the challenger to last the full five rounds.

"After that fight people talked so much trash about him," Jones says. "About how he's not that good, how he doesn't finish fights, and I'm thinking, oh my God, there's all these forums talking about how great is before this, but now since he doesn't knock the guy out he's horrible and he sucks? That was a first-hand experience of how brutal fans can be."

So what does a fighter make of the tenuous adoration of his fans? If he's smart, not much. It's like Sartre said: "One is always responsible for what one makes out of what is made of one." Surely he was talking about pro fighters. They're the ones who have to court fans' affections, but without taking either the positive or the negative too seriously.

Jones' performances in the Octagon thus far have indeed been hype-worthy. He roughed up experienced fighters like Stephan Bonnar and Jake O'Brien without much trouble, and he tossed Hamill around with the violent ease of a surly airline baggage handler. Even Vera admits that the only major hole he can find in Jones' game is inexperience, and that's a hole that will necessarily close itself with enough time in the cage.

Then again, didn't Vera once seem like the fighter who had the world laid out before him? When he knocked out former champ Frank Mir in 2006, wasn't that supposed to be just the beginning?

In an alternate universe somewhere, maybe Vera did become the fighter we all thought he'd be back then. Maybe in that bizarro world, Vera managed not to believe his own press, and maybe that, along with a million other little factors, helped propel him to a world championship that he proudly defends to this day.

Here in our world, however, Vera is a reminder that you're never as good (or as bad) as they say. He is the personification of the gap between potential and realization, ability and accomplishment.

When Jones steps in the cage with him on Sunday, he'll be looking at one possible version of his own future standing across from him. In the unforgiving world of MMA, it's all in what happens during those next few minutes that decides which version becomes the reality. If things don't go the right way, a guy could easily wake up to the lonely sound of those bandwagon fans hitting the ground running in search of the next big thing.

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