Jamie Varner’s unexpected resurgence started with his upset at UFC 146. | Donald Miralle/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images
Edson Barboza had played the part of the hammer plenty of times in his career, but never before May 26, 2012 had the fearsome striker been cast as the nail.
Initially booked to face former Top 10 talent Evan Dunham at UFC 146, Barboza was suddenly matched with onetime World Extreme Cagefighting champion Jamie Varner after Dunham withdrew from the contest due to injury. To say that Varner entered the Octagon against Barboza as an underdog would be quite the understatement. Previously regarded as a world-class lightweight, Varner had experienced a serious fall from grace, losing his WEC title to Benson Henderson in 2010 and going 0-3-1 to end his run with the promotion.
“In my career, I started out at the bottom,” Varner later told Sherdog.com. “Just this young, punk kid that had a dream and I worked my way up to a world title, defended it, then in one year I lost everything. In one year I lost my title. I lost my job. I lost my love and respect for the sport. It was just tough, man -- rock bottom. It was just lonely, and I was just miserable and angry. I didn’t want to fight. I didn’t want to do anything anymore.”
Though “C-4” posted three wins in his next four fights on the local circuit, a unanimous decision defeat at the hands of prospect Dakota Cochrane seemed to indicate Varner’s best days were behind him. Despite re-entering the Octagon on the strength of a first-round smashing of veteran Drew Fickett, the Arizonan was nevertheless regarded as little more than fodder for Barboza’s seemingly insatiable appetite for blunt force trauma.
Varner opened as a modest 2-to-1 underdog, but the line shifted significantly over the next three weeks, with gamblers apparently all too eager to put their money on the Brazilian bomber. By fight night, those odds had doubled, and Varner was listed as a 4-to-1 underdog against Barboza, who by then was regarded as a 5-to-1 favorite.
A long and powerful lightweight, Barboza had gone a perfect 4-0 to start his UFC career, serving notice to the rest of the division in his dominant debut against an overmatched Mike Lullo. Hard-fought decision wins over Anthony Njokuani and Ross Pearson would follow for Barboza, who then kicked off 2012 by burying Terry Etim with a spinning wheel kick so superb that it earned him Sherdog.com’s “Knockout of the Year.”
Even with all of the violence Barboza had inflicted in his four-fight Octagon career, each of his matches up until his meeting with Varner could be described as “athletic contests.” Of course, the Brazilian had done his best to batter each of his UFC opponents, and he had naturally been subjected to a certain degree of punishment as a result, especially in his competitive bouts with Njokuani and Pearson. However, even in those battles, Barboza had always been able to take a step back, hit the reset button and take a breath before resuming what could best be described as a gradual, scientific destruction of his opponent’s soft tissue.
This is why Varner’s performance was so special. Like David with his sling, Varner’s audacity in the face of what most predicted would be a gruesome demise at the hands of a superior force granted him an as-yet-unseen immunity against Barboza’s Goliath-like reputation and abilities.
As Bruce Buffer finished his introductions at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Varner leisurely paced back-and-forth, seemingly without a care. Just moments before the fight would begin, Varner’s corner repeatedly shouted some last words of advice: “Beat this kid up!”
Though Varner eventually obliged the request, the bout’s opening moments followed the path expected by most, with the stockier American trying to gauge distance while Barboza continually attacked Varner’s lead thigh with his bread-and-butter. Four times, Barboza’s shin collided with the meat of Varner’s quadriceps before the striker decided to go for the kill early, launching a missile-like kick at the MMA Lab export’s skull.
The former WEC champion responded with the first indication that he had not shown up simply to pad the prospect’s resume, catching the attack, driving forward and dumping the 26-year-old face-first to the canvas. Barboza quickly slithered his way out of Varner’s over-under control and recovered half guard, from which he ate several short punches before pushing the wrestler off and regaining his vertical base. At the time, such a decision seemed not only reasonable but advisable given Barboza’s purported superiority in the standup. Nevertheless, it was a choice that would ultimately summon disaster for the heavy favorite.
As Barboza picked up where he left off with the leg kicks, Varner waded forward in search of an opening, his head bobbing from side to side as the crowd chanted the Brazilian’s name. The opportunity for which Varner was searching revealed itself not long after, as the 28-year-old countered a two-punch combination with a straight right hand and followed up with another hard cross.
The underdog pressed ahead, lunging with a clubbing left hook to the ribs followed by an overhand right that put Barboza on his heels before the favorite retaliated with two more blistering low kicks. Perhaps sensing that his lead leg would not hold up to the sustained abuse, Varner seized the moment and once again attacked with his left hook to the body-overhand right combination, this time catching Barboza flush with both shots.
The striker staggered backward, extending his lead hand in an effort to both regain his wits and stave off the forthcoming onslaught. Once a laughable underdog, Varner was now anything but a joke, charging forward like a bull hunting a wounded matador. Two more blows caromed off Barboza’s frame before he found himself hoisted high in the air by a power double-leg. Varner climbed on top and landed a quartet of bombs as the undefeated talent once again placed his feet on Varner’s hips and pushed him away.
This time, however, Barboza’s recovery was stalled by his wobbly legs and Varner’s fearless aggression. Pinned against the cage, halfway between standing and sitting, Barboza’s undefeated record evaporated in a matter of seconds as Varner unleashed a series of powerful hooks while Barboza gamely found his base and attempted to circle away from the punishment.
Varner showed no quarter to his enemy, pursuing Barboza with a piston-like right that caused him to bounce off the chain-link fence before collapsing to the canvas. Varner followed up with sustained, unbridled ground-and-pound, blasting Barboza with jackhammer lefts as his foe shrimped from half-guard in search of last-ditch kneebar. That attempt was mercifully cut short by referee Steve Mazzagatti, who saved the Brazilian from further punishment and waved off the bout as the both the crowd and the UFC’s commentary team reached a fever pitch.
In just 3:23, Varner had suddenly rejuvenated his career while simultaneously handing one of the lightweight division’s most promising talents the first loss of his career. The “Upset of the Year” performance kick started quite a 2012 for Varner, who followed the victory with a “Fight of the Year”-nominated performance against Joe Lauzon before closing out the year with a workmanlike split decision victory over Melvin Guillard.
While the MMA community witnessed a host of stellar performances in 2012, no result was more shocking than Varner’s gutsy victory over Barboza. Regardless of whether Varner continues his success into 2013, the lightweight may always look back on that night knowing that his belief in himself proved more powerful than the disbelief of the masses.