Sometimes fighters get in a slump, but they rarely pull out in spectacular fashion. However, one young veteran has been to his own personal hell, but is back on his way to the top.
Former WEC lightweight champ Jamie Varner was living the high life from 2007 through 2009. The young man, only 23 years old at the time with a 14-2-2 record, defeated “Razor” Rob McCullough by third-round TKO to win his first championship belt, a belt he subsequently defended against Marcus Hicks and Donald Cerrone. However, nearly a year after winning the belt, Varner hit a rough patch in his career.
In January 2010, Varner began a one-year, four-fight winless streak, which unfortunately started with the loss of his title to current UFC lightweight champ Benson Henderson. In May 2011, he finally climbed back into the win column with a first-round submission of Tyler Combs. Although, his next fight was a decision loss to Dakota Cochrane, he quickly moved forward on a winning path, with a fresh start to his career. And he owes it all to the people around him.
“I want to thank both my gyms, my coaches and my family,” Varner said in an exclusive interview with The MMA Corner. “Trevor Lally, John Crouch, Oren Hodak and Mike Constantino. Those guys believed in me when I didn’t even believe in myself. They helped instill confidence in me, and they helped rejuvenate my career. They made me love the sport again. I wouldn’t be doing this without them. I hated this sport—2009, 2010, 2011, I wanted nothing to do with MMA. I just did it because that’s what I was supposed to do. I just did it for the money. I did not enjoy it. They helped me find love for the sport again. Without those four guys, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now.”
And the fans are grateful too. Varner has too much skill to sit on the sidelines, running through smaller promotions. He is a guy that deserves to be on the big stage.
The 28-year-old Varner is a former collegiate wrestler and boxer who has been competing professionally in MMA since he was only 18 years old. He currently trains between two gyms in Arizona.
“I train at Arizona Combat Sports. That’s my main gym,” Varner explained. “I go to The [MMA] Lab three days a week. I do all my grappling there Tuesdays and Thursdays. I also do MMA sparring there on Saturdays. My main training is at Arizona Combat Sports with Trevor Lally.”
Between the two gyms, in addition to having awesome coaches in Lally and Crouch, he trains with top pros like Benson Henderson, Joe Riggs, Efrain Escudero, John Moraga, Jeremy Larsen and Clifford Starks, as well as many others. Needless to say, the veteran fighter has a great group of guys he trains with. This stable of pros helped him prepare for his incredible return to UFC action in May.
At UFC 146, in his first fight in the UFC in over five years, Varner pulled off an amazing upset of Edson Barboza in the first round, which sent the MGM Grand Garden Arena into a sudden roar. At just 3:23 into the fight, Varner punched out the seemingly unbeatable Barboza with a totally unexpected TKO. He took that fight on less than four weeks’ notice after Evan Dunham pulled out with an injury.
“It was definitely awesome,” Varner admitted. “The fact that one of those punches landed and hurt him, it was awesome. It was just great.”
After his first-round win, he wasn’t too beat up and was able to get right back to work, and it’s a good thing he did. About a month later, he received another call from the UFC for a short-notice fight against Joe Lauzon. Again, an opponent had pulled out due to late injury.
On Aug. 4, at UFC on Fox: Shogun vs. Vera, Varner put on a “Fight of the Night” performance against the veteran BJJ specialist Lauzon. Although Varner did eventually submit to a third-round triangle choke, he definitely showed something to the UFC.
“That was a very winnable fight,” Varner explained. “I had winning in my mind going into that third round. It was a great fight, but it was bittersweet, because it was ‘Fight of the Night,’ but I ended up losing it. For me, it showed me that I belong in the upper echelon of the UFC fighters, taking that fight on short notice and going out there and putting on that kind of performance. He’s been at the top and has been one fight away from a title shot. To fight a top contender like that and put on that type of performance, it showed me that I belong there.”
Even though he wasn’t victorious in his match against Lauzon, the growing maturity of Varner shows in his newly rejuvenated attitude.
“I broke my hand in that fight, so I was forced to take about eight weeks off,” Varner revealed. “But, it wasn’t like I wasn’t doing anything. I was doing my strength and conditioning and still working out. I was doing a lot of legs, a lot of running. I didn’t take a lot of time off, but I wasn’t able to box or grapple for about six to eight weeks.”
It’s a good thing Varner got right back at it, because shortly after he got back to business, he received his third call in only six months. The UFC brass offered him a match against fellow longtime veteran Melvin Guillard at The Ultimate Fighter 16 Finale this Saturday night.
“It couldn’t have come at a better time,” Varner said. “I had just gotten back in the gym. I had been back about three weeks. I actually got the call about six weeks out from the fight, so I got a lot more time than I had for my previous two fights. Both my training camps were less than six weeks for Barboza and Lauzon. I don’t necessarily like long training camps. I don’t need three months to prepare. Usually, I only need about five to six weeks of training as long as my body stays healthy.”
Melvin Guillard has been one of the more exciting fighters to grace the Octagon. In his seven-year, eighteen-fight UFC career, the TUF 2 alum has seven knockout wins, but also has six submission losses, which bodes well for Varner. He feels good about this match-up.
“I would say I’m a little bit more durable than Melvin,” Varner explained. “I’ve never been dropped. I’ve never been knocked out. Not to say that it can’t happen, Melvin is one of those guys that’s been known to knock people out that have never been knocked out. He’s hurt people that have never been hurt before. I’m a little bit more battle-tested. I can go into the later rounds and still fight. Even if I’m tired, I have that mental toughness that I can still grind it out. We have some of the same abilities. We both have raw power in our hands and our feet. But my wrestling and grappling is better.”
Varner has a great game plan in preparing for Guillard, even though he’s a little unsure of what to expect.
“It all kind of depends on what Melvin shows up,” admitted Varner. “I’ve been training for two different kinds of Melvin. I’ve been training for the Melvin that’s really aggressive and comes at me, looking for that kill. And I’ve also been training for the Melvin that runs and is real mobile on his feet. So, if he’s real light on his feet, we could go three rounds to decision. If he comes forward, one of us is going out. One of us is going to go down, early. So, it’s either going to go three rounds to decision, or it’s going to end in the first round by knockout.”
Varner has a clear head and a great attitude going into the bout, and while some fighters try to play the tunnel vision game going into fights, Varner is more realistic about what he wants to do. This is helping him to remain focused and on track.
“I really like that the WEC guys are in the upper echelon of the UFC,” Varner said. “All the guys that were in that division, top guys, like Ben [Henderson], Donald [Cerrone], Anthony [Pettis], myself—we were all some of the top guys in the WEC. And now those guys are like top three, top four guys in the UFC, and I just want to try to work my way back up there. The Lauzon fight set me back, even though I was doing the UFC kind of a favor, taking that fight on short notice that no one really wanted. I would like to get that fight back.
“It’s hard not to think about the future. All these fighters say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this fight right in front of me. I’ve got to focus on that one,’ which is true, but you can’t help but think about what happens next. I would really like to fight Lauzon again after a full training camp. I’m going to keep my eye on the winner of that Jim Miller-Lauzon fight. I train with Jim Miller. He’s kind of like a friend of mine, but I kind of want Lauzon to win, because it ups my value, and I’d really like that fight back.”
One can almost be certain that if Varner and Lauzon win their upcoming battles, that’s a scrap that UFC matchmaker Joe Silva should have no problem putting together. ”Fight of the Night” performances usually make great rematches.
As for Varner’s life outside MMA, between family and investing, he has quite a bit going on.
“I bought a house in Tempe, Ariz., right after my second fight in the UFC,” Varner explained. “I lived in it for about five years, then I moved to New Jersey and I rented it out. I recently moved back into it, and I’m kind of fixing this place up. I’m trying to make some smart moves with my money. I’m trying to invest in more real estate. That’s one of the things I’m really trying to focus on.”
But, that’s not the only thing taking up the young fighter’s time.
“I’m a big-time family guy,” he admitted. “My brother just recently had a daughter, and my niece is the most beautiful little baby ever. I’m a family man. I’m real close to my mother. My mom, my stepdad, my brother, my family—we’re real close and I try to spend every Sunday with them. Except this Sunday, because I’m trying to cut weight, and going over to their house is like Candyland. My mom’s side of the family is all Greek, so they just make tons of food. It’s like a party there all the time. They love to eat.”
Well, Varner will have plenty of time to eat following his fight on Saturday night. For now, he remains focused on Melvin Guillard with a clear idea of where he wants his career to go in the near future. While he hit a rough patch for a couple years, the Arizona fighter is back on track and ready to make waves in UFC action.
Top Photo: Jamie Varner (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)