Many pundits will try their best to tell you that sports are like life, that they teach lessons and build character. And that's true in some ways—sports can teach you a lot, mostly about how much of your life you're willing to devote to them.
The vast majority of us prefer sleeping in on weekends, eating at McDonalds instead of yet another grilled chicken breast, going to the movies instead of the weight room and quitting while others continue on.
Drive and desire do just as much as native athleticism to separate athletes from everyday citizens.
They are also the character traits that separate the great athletes, the winners, from the also-rans.
The best of the best have something burning inside of them, a need to win and impose their will. Michael Jordan had it. So do Roger Federer and Tiger Woods. Winning and losing at sports is what defines their lives. They aren't satisfied with moral victories. A moral victory isn't even in the vocabulary of a winner.
That's why, with due respect, Brandon Vera showed MMA fans exactly why he's gone 4-6-1 in the UFC Octagon since he cockily told the world he was going to hold the UFC heavyweight and light heavyweight championships at the same time.
Vera was practically gloating at the post-fight press conference after his fight with Mauricio "Shogun" Rua. Sure, he had lost two of the first three rounds and was knocked out in the fourth. But few expected him to do even that well. Against a flat-footed and slow Shogun Rua, he managed to survive a little longer that expected.
Many called it a "feel-good" performance. Clearly it felt good to Vera. You could practically see the joy, and the surprise, on his face every time he landed a blow, every minute that went by, each tick of the clock a feather in his cap.
He was never winning. Each little success was countered, often brutally, by the experienced Rua. To his credit, there weren't any cringe-inducing moments either, the kind that have haunted Vera throughout his career. He lost, clearly and without controversy, but at least he never looked like a clown.
And that was enough for him. It was a moral victory and he celebrated like he had won the Super Bowl and three Olympic medals. He raised his hand in the air and told the assembled media it was “...for all the haters. You know which finger is yours.”
Imagine Michael Jordan celebrating a loss to the Pistons by telling himself that he "played hard." Imagine Matt Hughes being smugly satisfied with a moral victory. That just doesn't cut it for anyone who has the temperament and fighting spirit to truly be the best.
Sports are binary. There are two possible outcomes—winning or losing. Any other result might as well not count.
There are no moral victories. That doesn't mean you can't take a defeat, deconstruct it and use it to your advantage. You can learn plenty from a defeat. Everyone loses eventually, and the best come back from a setback mentally stronger than ever. But the most important and lasting lesson from a loss, at least for true champions, is to never to be satisfied with defeat.
Brandon Vera lost to Mauricio Rua. The fact that he celebrated that loss, that a competitive loss was enough for him, tells you everything you need to know about why Vera never has, and never will, meet the lofty expectations he set for himself at the outset of his career.
Vera is happy to be the valiant loser. That's good enough for him. And that's why Brandon Vera will never hold UFC gold. It's not that he isn't physically capable of it. It's that he just doesn't care enough. He's satisfied with losing in style, an also-ran attitude that eventually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.