Jamie Varner resurrected his career in the UFC. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
Even Jamie Varner had his doubts.
For a time, the former World Extreme Cagefighting lightweight champion wondered whether or not he possessed the necessary means to return to the pinnacle of his profession. When one incurs four losses and a draw in one six-fight span, such uncertainty tends to seep in.
“I felt like I’d just lost whatever I had, whatever drive, motivation, fire that I had,” Varner told the Sherdog Radio Network’s “Cheap Seats” program. “I felt like I had lost it. I’d lost a sense of who I was as a fighter and as a competitor. I think coming back to Arizona and kind of just saying screw it ... I guess you could say I like to fight. I like to compete. I wasn’t done competing. I just had to kind of find my love for the sport again. That was what made it more difficult for me.”
First-round finishes on Nate Jolly and Drew Fickett cleared his head. When an injured Evan Dunham withdrew from his scheduled showdown with undefeated Brazilian prospect Edson Barboza at UFC 146, a path was cleared and Varner set down both feet upon it. The 28-year-old MMA Lab representative upset Barboza, engaged in a “Fight of the Year” contender with Joe Lauzon and polished off his campaign with a split decision victory over Melvin Guillard, cementing himself as the Sherdog.com “Comeback Fighter of the Year” for 2012.
“I think going to the Lab and training with some of those guys, being around John Crouch and getting back to my old ways with Trevor Lally over at Arizona Combat Sports, I found a love for the sport again,” Varner said. “I just quit putting so much pressure on myself. I think that’s what made it fun and that’s what allowed me to have this amazing 2012.”
His crossroads bout with Barboza went down May 26, as Varner entered the cage at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas as a 4-to-1 underdog. Many anticipated a one-sided shellacking. Instead, in his first Ultimate Fighting Championship appearance since November 2007, Varner sprang a stunning upset and stopped the highly touted Brazilian on punches 3:23 into the first round.
Varner ate some horrific leg kicks but punched his way into the clinch and rattled Barboza with his heavy hands. With the lightweight prospect in retreat, Varner bashed him with a straight right hand, trailed his fallen opponent to the mat and finished it with punches and hammerfists.
“I have to thank the UFC for bringing me back,” Varner said. “Once you’ve hit rock bottom, you can really appreciate some of the places that you have been. Barboza was tough, man. He’s scary good. I didn’t care if I won or lost; I just wanted to put on a good performance. I wanted to fight for the fans.”
Three months later, Varner was back inside the Octagon, again on short notice. The Phoenix native submitted to a Lauzon triangle choke 2:44 into the third round of their memorable UFC on Fox 4 scrap on Aug. 4 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Varner, who filled in as a late substitution for Terry Etim, staggered Lauzon with one right hand in the first round and leveled him with another. He swarmed “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 5 alum on the ground to no avail and returned to his corner between rounds visibly fatigued.
Lauzon sank his teeth into the fight in the second period, where he twice moved to the Arizona-based lightweight’s back and ultimately mounted him with roughly half a minute remaining in the round. Varner secured a takedown in round three, only to be swept by Lauzon. The 28-year-old Massachusetts native then trapped Varner in a triangle during the transition, coaxing the tapout.
In defeat, Varner banked a $50,000 bonus for “Fight of the Night” and, more importantly, locked down some desirable job security.
A proposed battle with the gifted but volatile Guillard was soon knocking at the door. The two lightweights agreed to meet one another as part of “The Ultimate Fighter 16” Finale on Dec. 15. However, Varner came down with an illness the day of the fight, forcing its postponement. Guillard claimed fear was behind the sudden development, but the bout was rescheduled for UFC 155 two weeks later in Las Vegas.
Varner quieted his opponent and his critics, as takedowns, ground-and-pound and effective power punching carried him to a split verdict on the “Dos Santos vs. Velasquez 2” undercard.
Guillard leaned heavily on leg kicks, particularly in the first round. Varner was not dissuaded. The resurgent MMA Lab export absorbed the punishment and kept pressing forward, his stout right hand firing freely. In rounds two and three, he brought out the takedowns, answering Guillard’s jab and leg kicks by grounding him repeatedly. Varner delivered three takedowns in the third frame alone and withstood a Hail Mary armbar attempt from his Florida-based foe.
Once believed to be on the verge of retirement, Varner now casts a hopeful eye on the future.
“I’ve got anywhere from three to eight years left,” he said. “I just want to make the most of it and I want to be able to go out on my own terms and hopefully work my way up to a world title.”