-Kenny Rice

The fan was too young to be cynical. It wasn’t meant as a taunt or vitriolic in any way. But it was a simple question that hit Jamie Varner as hard as any punch or kick ever had. It was almost two years ago but like yesterday for Varner every time he goes into the gym.

“The kid came up to me, very sincere and asked ‘Didn’t you used to be Jamie Varner?’” the former WEC lightweight champ recalls vividly. “It struck home for me. I wasn’t mad I just thought about things. It motivated me to broaden my horizons.”

He thought about the two ways to go with this: wallow in self-pity, the “would’ve-could’ve-should’ve” easy way or make a change, reinvent and return to the fighter with all that potential. Varner chose the latter in taking a circuitous route back to the UFC, a return to the place where he had been viewed as a future star when he made his debut at the top level at age 21.

“It’s just growing up, hitting rock bottom and I had to get away,” he explains the uneven road since being released by the UFC in 2007. “I was saved by people close to me. ‘God gave you a gift and you have to share it with the world’ they’d tell me. And they were right.”

The “kid” as he describes himself back in UFC 62 when he got caught in a third round arm bar against then top 10 ranked Hermes Franca, has shown all the necessary maturity, evaluating and executing not just in the physical sense.

“I swallowed my pride and started training with the guy who took my title.” That alone speaks volumes about the character and growth of Varner over the last couple of years, the change he saw he needed and the steps he took to resolve any feeling of conflict. It was about “outsourcing” to grow inwardly.

The guy is Benson Henderson, who beat Varner for the WEC lightweight crown on January 10, 2010. It ended the reign of Varner, who won the belt from Rob McCullough and had two successful defenses of it prior to the Henderson fight. Henderson, the guy who was the turning point in the career of Varner; from that of a fighter on the rise to a fighter struggling to find a home, bouncing from the XFC and Titan FC to the Legacy Fight Championship.

“I walked in The Lab (home base gym for Henderson) and right away I felt all the positive energy. That’s what changed, my outlook. I had always done this (fighting) because people wanted me to, now I wanted it for myself. I go train with Ben, then go back to my place (Arizona Combat Sports) working with Trevor Lally who has been my coach for ten years. It totally has built my confidence so much I can’t help but have it grow.”

It has been noticed by many, including the powers that be of the UFC who contacted Varner when Evan Dunham was injured and a replacement was needed to fight one of the best power kicking strikers in the sport, Edson Barboza. Varner, five years after beating Jason Gilliam with a first round submission in UFC 68 and then parting ways with the group for the WEC, is back.

“I knew it could happen (the UFC) and heard rumors. But I wanted to win five in a row, that was the number I had in my head that would get me back there.”

He will take a two fight win streak into UFC 146 on May 26.  Mick Maynard, the founder and president of Legacy, worked a deal to release Varner from his contract to fight in Houston this weekend. As with many things that have happened in a rollercoaster five years, another obstacle cleared as if it was meant to be. Maybe it was appreciation for all Varner has gone through with dignity and drive. Either case, it is reciprocal.

“I appreciate all the organizations that I’ve been fighting for recently, for the chance to prove myself all over and for their understanding and support.”

The 2.0 Varner – maybe even the 3.0 version – knows the daunting challenge ahead with the red-hot Barboza, perfect after 10 fights, but for the 27- year old the five years since his brief UFC stay is decades removed in his attitude.

“I have learned to go for the gold. How to appreciate every moment in the fight, that’s the focus for me now each moment of it that leads to the bigger goal. Being with Ben and The Lab and then with my home base Arizona Combat three days a week has given me such a whole new perspective. It’s not just about fighting itself, the preparation and training required. It is about a positive attitude, to again figure out how to fight, the many aspects of being ready.”

He is still Jamie Varner, the former high school wrestling star in Phoenix, who wrestled and boxed at Lock Haven University and held a major belt in MMA. He might have forgotten that himself occasionally, but never again. And the youngster who helped remind him may just be watching, telling his friends ‘I know that guy, he’s Jamie Varner.”

The UFC didn’t forget.


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