I’m learning to walk again
I believe I’ve waited long enough
Where do I begin?
~ Foo Fighters ‘Walk’
It’s hard to imagine that less than a year ago, Jamie Varner was ready to walk away from fighting all together.
The former WEC champion had exited the promotion in late 2010 after going 0-3-1 in his last four fights, and was trying to mount a comeback tour to earn his way into the UFC, but things were just not looking up for him.
A last minute switch put Varner in the cage with Dakota Cochrane, who would go on to try out for the most recent season of the Ultimate Fighter, and what resulted was a three round decision loss for the former champion.
Looking back now, Varner knows he had no business being in the cage that night.
“I should not have fought that fight,” Varner said when speaking to MMAWeekly Radio. “Everybody told me not to fight cause I was sick, but I needed to do it. I fought tougher guys than this, I can get through it. But when I lost it took a piece of me. It sucked. I would say a week and a half after that I packed my bags in New Jersey, and moved back home.”
The same night that he lost the fight to Cochrane, Varner took to Twitter and announced that he was walking away from the sport for good. Obviously there was an emotional element that led to the hasty reaction, but still Varner wasn’t convinced that he had anything left for MMA.
Long gone were the days where Varner was dominating fighters like Rob McCullough and Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone. The person that stepped into the last few fights in the WEC and his post-Zuffa career was a shadow of the champion that once proudly strutted with a gold belt around his waist.
“The pressure got so great it made me hate the sport. It made me not like it,” said Varner. “That’s the guy that you saw fight Shane Roller and the guy who fought Dakota Cochrane.”
As Varner packed his bags and headed home to Arizona he wasn’t sure what the next step was going to be, but it didn’t take long for him to find a new fire.
He got back to his roots at home working with his former trainers at Arizona Combat Sports, the team that helped build him into a WEC champion. He also started working at the MMA Lab, the team that spawned current UFC champion Benson Henderson.
“To be honest with you for me it was moving back to Arizona and training over at the Lab. I’m still at Arizona Combat Sports 5 days a week, but I’m going to the Lab three days a week and being there with all those guys and training and just the positive atmosphere and the team atmosphere that they have there, it’s unreal. That’s what really rejuvenated me,” said Varner.
With each punch thrown, with each takedown landed, with each round in sparring, Varner started to gain his confidence back and in turn he went out and flattened his next two opponents, finishing both in less than two minutes time.
Then the call came in.
Evan Dunham was injured and UFC matchmaker Joe Silva needed a replacement, so they reached out to Varner to see if he was interested. It didn’t take him long to answer ‘yes’, but there was a very daunting task ahead of him in the form of Brazilian knockout artist Edson Barboza Jr.
Barboza was an explosive Muay Thai striker with deadly knees, devastating kicks and power in both hands. Varner knew he had his hands full, but it was a chance to be back in the big show.
Like a baseball player who once saw World Series glory only to find himself buried in the minor league system just years later, Varner wanted one more chance to prove to everyone that he belonged in the UFC.
“That’s what I told me trainers, I just want to make one more run. We’ll call this like my final journey, when it’s done it’s done, I’ll retire,” Varner stated.
“I couldn’t confidently say I was going to win. I knew I could take a beating, I knew I could stand in front of somebody, I could take a beating.”
In the early going, Varner’s words rang true as he started to eat a healthy diet of leg kicks from the dangerous Brazilian, his signature strike that has finished other fighters. Then the tide turned for Varner.
He cracked Barboza with a few good shots and he saw the Brazilian was stunned, and so he rushed in looking to turn up the heat. Varner blasted away and as Barboza fell to the ground, he felt a rush wash over him.
A few more punches and the fight was over. Jamie Varner had done the impossible and defeated the previously unbeaten Edson Barboza.
“I was not supposed to win that fight. I was like a 5 to 1 underdog,” Varner said about the victory. “It’s surreal, I can’t believe people want to talk to me now. I understand people like winners, but I think the fans could see there was something different about me. That I had the passion and desire that the fans wanted to see from me, I had lost that passion and desire and they could see that I got it back.”
When Bruce Buffer was calling out his name as the winner, Varner was overloaded with emotions from the long, hard road he had traveled to get back to the top.
“Honestly, I’m back,” Varner revealed as the first thing that entered his mind after the win. “It was like I’m back but the first thing was we did it. My team, we did it. The people behind me believed in me more than I believed in myself. They’re the ones that came up with the game plan and believed I could do what I did.”
It was hard to believe that just 8 months earlier, Varner was contemplating retirement and here he was feeling like a new man standing on top of the world.
“I attribute a lot of that to just hitting rock bottom, losing my job, and just kind of going on this journey and being alone. It’s really lonely down there at the bottom, it’s a crappy place to be. But it shows you what type of person you are to be down there and to fight, scratch, claw your way back up and that’s what I did,” Varner said. “That’s what I was prepared to do.”
There’s a famous line in the Christopher Nolan film ‘Batman Begins’ that says ‘why do we fall, sir? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.’
The fact is Jamie Varner fell down and he fell down hard, but through the belief of his coaches, manager and people closest to him he made his way back. Does this mean he’s destined to become champion again one day?
The honest answer is who knows.
But there’s one thing for sure – Jamie Varner is back and he’s happy to be here, and his next mission is only to keep fighting in the UFC.
“My major focus is on my next five minutes, my next round that I have in the Octagon under the lights,” stated Varner. “I don’t care who it is, where it is, I just want to get back in the gym on Monday and start training. I just want to focus on my next round.”
Follow @DamonMartin on Twitter or e-mail Damon Martin.
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