Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Ben Fowlkes: Three Years After Home Invasion, Scars Remain for Brandon Vera and Lloyd Irvin

Brandon VeraSomething like this, maybe you never really get over it. Maybe you're not supposed to.

You wake up in the middle of the night to find two men with guns in your house -- men who obviously arrived there with a plan, and one which may or may not involve leaving living witnesses to their crime -- and right then your whole world has been altered in ways you can't fully comprehend just yet.

"To this day, I'm still paranoid," said MMA trainer Lloyd Irvin, who, along with his wife and young son, as well as UFC light heavyweight Brandon Vera, lived this nightmare just a little over three years ago. "It changed our whole lives, how we think about life, about our families, about security and how we stay safe -- everything."

For Vera, it also changed the way he thinks about his MMA career, and not necessarily in any way that's helpful for a man who makes his living fighting other men inside a cage on Saturday nights. Lately, he's begun to realize that what happened in Irvin's house that night didn't truly end there, and maybe it has more to do with what's happened to him ever since than he originally allowed himself to believe.

The story, which is now practically a part of MMA lore, goes like this: Lloyd Irvin woke up in the pre-dawn hours of October 4, 2008 to find that two armed men had broken into his suburban Maryland home and were standing over him as he slept. They instructed him to get up and join them as they rounded up the home's other occupants, which included Irvin's wife and son, who was then just four years old, as well as Vera, who was staying with Irvin while he did his pre-fight training camp at Irvin's gym.

MMA Hour - Episode No. 104 - Brandon Vera

While one of the men held Vera and Irvin's family at gunpoint, the other led Irvin into a back bedroom. That's when Irvin saw his opening and took it, grabbing for the gun, ejecting the ammunition clip, and wrestling the weapon away from the gunman. Disarmed, the man shouted out a warning to his accomplice and they both fled the house, leaving Irvin, his family, and Vera all unharmed, but badly shaken.

"My son is still traumatized to this day," said Irvin, who added that both he and his family sought professional psychiatric help after the incident. "We just got him back sleeping in his own room about four or five months ago. About two years ago we got him back in his room for about 30 days, and then one incident where these deer set off the alarm outside the house, after that it went downhill again."

For Vera, the damage was slightly more subtle. He and Irvin flew to England for the fight with Jardine as scheduled, and he tried his best to carry on as if nothing had happened. He lost the fight via split decision, but that was only the beginning.

"I remember after that fight, going in to train would suck," Vera said. "I'd be looking at the clock, waiting to leave. Sometimes I didn't want to go two or three-a-days. I'd be arguing with my coaches or slacking off. I honestly think that it had to do with that home invasion."

It wasn't just that he was emotionally traumatized, Vera said, though of course he was. But it was more that, once he realized how easily and suddenly his life could have ended, spending hours in a gym every day didn't seem like such a good use of his time.

"After that, I don't think MMA was number one in my life anymore," said Vera. "After that home invasion, I was like, hey, I could have been dead today, and there's still so much I want to do. There's so much I want to experience, so much I want to do with my wife. MMA just wasn't the number one priority in my life anymore. Without me knowing, my life rearranged itself."

In theory, this isn't such a bad revelation. If this were a movie script, it might be just the kind of catalyst that forces the main character to examine his priorities and put the right things first in life. He starts leaving the office early to take long walks in the park. He calls his mother. Everything works out in the end.

In real life, it didn't happen that way for Vera. Instead of reveling in the impermanence of life, he grew paranoid. As Irvin put it, "[Vera] got really into guns and security and stuff."

Not that Irvin was exactly ready to give himself over to the worst impulses of his fellow man, either.

"I did some really crazy stuff at the house for home protection," he said. That included not only a security system that would present a challenge to the Mission: Impossible team, but also a permit to carry a concealed handgun, which isn't easy to get in Maryland. "For a while I had a protection company follow my wife around," Irvin added. "It was crazy times."

As Vera put it, what bothered him most was that he'd left himself so vulnerable, and he never wanted to make the same mistake again.

"They were professionals," he said. "It was this feeling that I'd been caught out there, no weapon in my hand, no dogs, no gun. I just got caught slipping."

But as Vera grew more concerned with his own safety and struggled to put his new list of priorities in perspective, his career inside the cage suffered. He won two straight after the Jardine loss, then dropped fights to Randy Couture and Jon Jones before being dominated by Thiago Silva and getting cut by the UFC following his third loss in a row.

As Vera explained, that's when he knew he'd lost "it."

"People keep asking me what it is," he said. "But if you've never lost it, there's no way I can explain what it is."

Following his dismissal from the UFC, Vera embarked on a road trip across the U.S., teaching seminars at gyms along the way, he said. He drove 8,500 miles in all, and "somewhere along those 8,500 miles is where I found it again."

"Watching an 11-year-old kid take an adult seminar and do better than the adults because he was so serious and so hungry to learn, it made me happy again," he said. "It brought me back to that place."

Vera was also aided by some delayed, though no less satisfying justice. Police arrested a suspect in the home invasion case that they believed was linked to multiple murders in similar situations -- a man the local police chief deemed a "serial killer" -- who will now spend the rest of his life in prison following sentencing, Irvin said.

On one hand, it shook Vera to know that, had his longtime coach not disarmed the man, they would almost certainly have been killed that night. On the other, Vera said, "I think maybe it was something in my life that I couldn't get past until those guys got caught."

Vera got a reprieve in his professional life as well when, nearly three months after the loss to Silva, the Nevada State Athletic Commission revealed that Silva had submitted a sample for testing that was "inconsistent with human urine." Silva would later cop to steroid use and Vera's loss would be changed to a no contest. The UFC would also opt to give him another chance in light of this information, welcoming him back to face Eliot Marshall at UFC 137 in Las Vegas this Saturday night.

"It's not a new chapter; it's a whole new book," said Vera. "The path I was on before, I don't know where I was going or where I got lost. Somewhere I made a left when I should have made a right. I don't know, but I lost it, and now I've found it."

The change is apparent to Irvin, too, who has had Vera back in his gym in Maryland for a full training camp for the first time since the home invasion incident in 2008. Vera never came out and told him that he'd been hesitant to return because of what happened that night in his house, Irvin said, "but I had a good sense of that. I personally didn't really want to be in my own house sometimes because of it, so I understood."

Now Vera is not only back training with him, Irvin said, but he's actually doing the work because he wants to, rather than simply going through the motions because he has to.

"He's in the gym 40 minutes or an hour before his training time is supposed to start. He's putting the time in and enjoying it more," said Irvin. "It used to be that if he had a bad training day or a bad day in the gym he'd just keep going forward or whatever. Now he'll text you at midnight asking, 'The half-guard sweep didn't work, is my hand in the wrong position?'"

If there was anybody who could understand Vera's lack of motivation after the home invasion, it was Irvin. The same trauma had touched his life, and still lurks there somewhere under the surface, he said.

"The reality that we could have been dead right then, it makes you think all sorts of things about life and what it means and what you haven't done yet. When we were being held hostage...you ever see the movies where a guy will go through this montage of his whole life and everything he's done? That really happened in my mind."

Now that Vera has worked through some of his issues and is back to training like the man he used to be in the gym, Irvin is "one hundred percent" confident of victory against Marshall, he said.

"If Brandon follows the game plan and does what he's supposed to do, Eliot's going to know in the first round, this is wrong, that something's not right, because this is not where he's supposed to be. Then he'll be forced to do some things that we're anticipating, and Brandon will get the victory. I have no doubt in my mind about that."

For Vera, the weight of the expectations on him is something that he feels, but insists he isn't laboring under. This return to the UFC could easily be a one-shot deal, more of an audition for his old spot rather than a guaranteed second chance.

"I'm supposed to win this fight," he said. "I'm supposed to go in here and hurt Eliot bad. It's different. It's not added pressure, it's just that this is what I was supposed to be doing the whole time. It feels weird. I don't feel nervous anymore. I just feel like I'm supposed to go in here and whoop his ass."

Now, just a shade over three years since the incident that made him re-organize his entire life, Vera insists that he's back to doing the sport because he wants to, and not because he has to.

It's fitting then that he prepared for this return alongside the man who probably saved his life that night, and who knows all too well what he's struggled with ever since.

"Brandon's been with me for a long time, since before he got to the UFC and before everybody knew who he was," said Irvin. "He's not just a fighter to me, he's like a son and a student, and I love him. I just look forward to seeing him rise back up to the top."

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