WEC Title Not Enough for Varner

By Tommy Messano Jul 31, 2008
It’s good to be king.

And right now, Jamie Varner (Pictures) is the king of the WEC lightweight division. Even though he’s the champion, it’s not hard to stay motivated. The hunter is now the hunted. Yet the always-ravenous underdog is now the heavy favorite, too.

How can those labels not change a fighter’s mindset?

In Varner’s case, after he climbs one mountain, he looks for a taller peak to scale.

Fighting exclusively in the WEC 155-pound division while trying to crack the lightweight top 10 has not been easy. Instead of naysayers questioning his credentials, they are now questioning his division’s legitimacy.

Since the WEC found a home under the Zuffa umbrella, the company has crowned six champions in six separate weight classes. Although fighters such as Carlos Condit (Pictures) and Miguel Torres (Pictures) have been awarded with top 10 accolades across numerous polls, the WEC’s 155-pound class has yet to have a fighter even sniff the top 10 since the company’s reemergence.

Varner is out to prove that he is more than just a big fish in a small pond.

“I still got all the doubters out there, and that’s motivation to me,” Varner said. “All the people out there saying this guy in the UFC would beat you or this guy in Dream would kill you. I want to beat everyone that Zuffa puts in front of me and hopefully one day get my opportunity to fight a B.J. Penn (Pictures) and show the world what I’m made of.”

The next showcase for Varner is his first title defense Sunday against Marcus Hicks. Unlike his last opponent, former champ Rob McCullough, Hicks is a fighter who has the ability to knock you out on the feet just as easily as he could lock on a guillotine choke.

For the past two years, Varner has been training out of Arizona Combat Sports. Todd and Trevor Lally (Pictures) founded the gym located in Tempe, Ariz. Trevor will be in Varner’s corner Sunday and knows it won’t be long before his fighter has a permanent home in the 155-pound top 10.

“The only thing Varner has to worry about is believing that he is the guy other fighters should be worried about,” Lally said. “When he believes that, I don’t think there are very many people other than a B.J. Penn who can hang with the kid. Varner is the complete package. The only thing is that he still is young in the game, and his mind is a little young.

“Before he beat Razor Rob at his own game, he still had doubts. The kid was 23 years old and he still wasn’t sure if he belonged there. I think now he feels that belt is earned. He is a lot more confident.”

Still months away from his 24th birthday, Varner is the youngest champion in any of the major MMA promotions. His youthful anticipation nearly cost him his title victory, though, as Varner suffered from what he and his camp called a case of overtraining.

For this training camp, Varner has been forced by his coaches to pull back the reins on his iron man work ethic. Lally has reminded him daily that overtraining can be worse than not training at all.

Even when Varner is not training, he’s in the gym. Between answering questions about the Hicks fight, he’s coaching the AZCS amateur MMA team through warm-ups. Varner loves to fight, but he also has a passion to teach the sport. He is quick to put on his coaching hat when asked how he would corner one of his students versus Marcus Hicks.

“Circle to his outside foot, throw straight punches because he likes to throw looping overhands and hooks,” Varner said. “Circle to left while throwing straight punches, and if we are going to go for that takedown, take him down from the clinch.”

According to Lally, the game plan for Hicks is to “just let Varner be Varner.”

Varner might sleep in the gym if you let him.

The former D-1 wrestler at Lock Haven University has all the physical gifts necessary to succeed at the highest level. Overcoming the mental roadblocks will come with time and maturity. Yet, in reality, Varner is the more seasoned fighter than Hicks, having double the number of professional MMA bouts to his credit.

Varner’s camp would like to project the pressure on the 32-year-old Hicks' shoulders and allow the champ to be loose come fight time.

“I do have something to lose now, but the pressure really isn’t off anymore. I’m still a hungry wolf, and Marcus Hicks is in my way,” Varner said. “Keeping the WEC title is very important to me, but I want to be recognized as the best lightweight fighter in the world. Until that happens, I’m not going to be satisfied.”

The only feeling sweeter than victory for Varner may be proving the critics wrong.

“I’m not a one hit wonder,” he said. “I want to show the world that I’m a deserving champion. What makes me a good fighter is that I can adapt. The biggest thing I’m trying to show the world is that I can evolve, and no matter where the fight goes, I can compete with the best. I’m not just a wrestler, I’m not just a boxer, I’m not just a jiu-jitsu guy. And I think with this fight with Hicks, I’ll be able to open my game up even more.”

Last time in the cage, Varner showed a striking game that few outside of AZCS knew he had. After repeated shot attempts on McCullough produced little to no results, Varner went back to his corner searching for answers. He was told to out-strike the five-time world muay Thai champion, and that’s what he did on his way to scoring a dramatic TKO win.

The victory didn’t propel Varner into the top 10, but he has a plan to climb the rankings.

“I don’t know what it’s really going to take to crack the top 10,” he said. “I see me doing the same thing Carlos Condit did -- fight everybody. Beat everybody they put in front of me and do it decisively -- knockouts and submissions. That’s how I’m going to get myself in the top 10.”
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