There was only one fighter Jamie Varner didn’t want to meet in his UFC return.
Naturally, that’s whom he found himself in the Octagon with at UFC 146.
“I knew I was going to get back to the UFC,” Varner told the Sherdog Radio Network’s “Beatdown” show. “That was my goal. I was going to work hard no matter what, but my biggest thing was -- I told myself and I even told people around me -- the one guy I don’t want to fight when I come back, my first fight back, I just don’t want it to be Edson Barboza. I said him specifically. I mean, they could have me fight Frankie Edgar my first fight back, but the one guy I didn’t want to fight was Edson Barboza.”
Varner had decided Barboza would be a tough matchup months before he was asked to fight him. The undefeated Brazilian was supposed to take on Evan Dunham at the May 26 card, but when Dunham dropped out, Varner got a call. It was his manager, asking if he wanted to fight in the UFC.
“Shoot yeah,” Varner replied. “That sounds great. Who’s the opponent?”
“Oh,” said Varner. “Oh. Oh man. God dang, that’s a tough one.”
Varner not only took the fight he didn’t want, he won it. He rocked the highly touted Barboza on the feet and finished him with strikes on the ground, pulling off the stunner 3:23 into the first round.
“I knew no matter what, I was at least going to put up a good fight with Edson,” Varner said. “I know how fast and tough and dynamic that he is. I’m like, ‘I’m going to keep my hands up, and if I have to, I’ll at least take a beating for 15 minutes and hopefully try to give one back.’”
The way Varner saw it, he had nothing to lose and a UFC contract to gain. He signed a four-fight deal with the promotion, which comes less than a year after he considered retiring from MMA following a loss to Dakota Cochrane. As of September 2011, the former WEC lightweight champion had won just one of his last six bouts.
“In my career, I started out at the bottom,” Varner said. “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.”
Now, though, Varner has rediscovered his love for the sport. For the first time in a long time, he genuinely wants to fight.
“The only thing that really held me back in my career, especially in the past, was my mental game,” Varner said. “That is one thing I’ve been really focusing on in the past few months. I think training over there at The Lab with Ben Henderson and all those guys and coach John Crouch and plus my trainer Trevor Lally over at Arizona Combat Sports -- we’ve really been focusing on my mental preparation.”
Certainly it seems to have helped him conquer any fear he had of Barboza. Whether Varner will build on the victory remains to be seen, but with the highs and lows he’s already had in MMA, it’s easy to forget he’s only 27. A mature, focused Varner could be a big factor in the UFC’s lightweight division.
“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.”
Listen to the full interview (beginning at 47:10).