Nearly eight years after his UFC debut, Ecuadorian bantamweight Marlon "Chito" Vera is finally on the cusp of his goal.
Currently sitting at No. 5 in the company's official 135-pound rankings, Vera (21-7-1 MMA, 13-6 UFC) faces former champion Dominick Cruz (24-3 MMA, 7-2 UFC) in the headliner of Saturday's UFC on ESPN 41 event in San Diego, Calif. The winner will find themselves in an enviable position in the current title picture, where Vera has dedicated his life to be.
"It feels good," Vera told MMA Underground. "I'm just grateful with knowing every single thing I did until today is paying off. I'm happy. I'm excited. Most important thing, I'm f-cking ready, and I can't wait to get in there Saturday night."
Making his way to the UFC through "The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America," Vera has carried the flag for his native Ecuador as the nation's top MMA talent, but the 29-year-old has higher aspirations than that. After a rocky start to his UFC career in which he was just 4-4 after his first eight appearances, things have started to click in more recent times, fueling his current run of 9-2 in the organization since 2018.
Vera credits his work with famed coach Jason Parillo for his rise.
"It's just consistency over time," Vera said. "Parillo is top-notch. If you have somebody with what it takes to become a world champion, he's going to get it done, and we take this stuff seriously. After my last fight, I took Sunday and Monday off to see my parents before they went back to Ecuador, but by Wednesday, I was already back in the gym hitting mitts.
"I really think that people believe once the fight's over, it's time to go eat like a pig, drink like an idiot, go to 20 different parties and almost use that victory to get away with all this craziness at night and Hollywood and all that. Sure, that's cool. I've been there a couple times. You go see all the people, and everybody's kissing your ass, but then it's like, 'Is that going to make you win again?' Maybe not. The only thing that's going to really make you win is staying consistent in the gym because then you don't have to play catch up."
With that in mind, Vera has filtered out the distraction in his path to the top, preferring a more spartan approach. The dedication has paid off with his current winning streak, which includes a devastating knockout over former UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar, as well two "Fight of the Night" wins over Rob Font and Davey Grant.
Next up is Cruz, a future UFC Hall of Famer. Technically, Vera is fighting down in the rankings, with Cruz currently sitting at No. 8, but "The Dominator" brings an impeccable pedigree to Saturday's contest.
"Dom is not a guy that is going to get in there and just give up," Vera said. "Yeah, he's No. 8, but let's be honest, ... at the end of the day, it doesn't f-cking matter. You want to be a world champion? Win fights.
"I don't look at this fight as I'm going backwards or looking down. I'm thinking I'm fighting for the belt because winning brings everything, so a good win on Saturday night would probably send me for a title shot – and guess what? If that doesn't happen, I don't give a f-ck. I keep going. I keep working."
The old saying about the squeaky wheel? Vera doesn't subscribe to it. Just keep the wheel moving forward, and the rest will take care of itself.
"I have a mindset that I really decline bitching for everything," Vera said. "I don't do that in my life. Like, if I'm cutting weight, I don't bitch because I'm hungry. I don't bitch because people are eating around me. That's my job. I get paid to make weight. I just like to do things the right way, and I hate complaining."
Reigning UFC bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling is set to face former champ T.J. Dillashaw in October at UFC 280. Another former titleholder, Petr Yan, faces fast-rising contender Sean O'Malley on that same card in Abu Dhabi, while top contenders Jose Aldo and Merab Devalishvili have a massive bantamweight clash scheduled for UFC 278, later this month.
As Vera inches closer to his first shot at UFC gold, he knows nothing is guaranteed just yet. That said, Saturday provides him with a key opportunity to make a statement, and he's prepared to do exactly that, not resting on his laurels but rather taking the mindset of a prospect trying to make his way into the UFC on Dana White's Contender Series.
"I think a good win, it just sets me up," Vera said. "It's like a huge job, but at the end of the day, it all comes down to performance, how you win, because sometimes even winning doesn't matter.
"I have the Contender Series mentality. I'm not trying just to win; I want to f-cking send your head to the moon. So I think that's the right mentality to have in every fight. ... Be smart, stay focused, but fight hard. Try to fight. I'm a fighter. I'm going to fight."
UFC on ESPN 41 airs on ESPN and streams on ESPN+, with preliminary bouts kicking off at 4 p.m. ET, and the main card following at 7 p.m. ET.
This story first published at SI.com/MMA.