It would be safe to say Jamie Varner knows what he likes, and he definitely knows what he doesn’t like.
Chief among the items in that second list is losing. But right there next to that is something unavoidable in the fight game, and that’s time off in between jobs.
Varner (21-7-1 MMA, 3-2 UFC) is three months removed from a split-decision win over Melvin Guillard at UFC 155 – a fight many, including two judges, said he won handily. (A third had it somewhat inexplicably 30-27 for Guillard.) A combination of a hand injury and just the regular downtime in between fights, though, has had the former WEC lightweight champion itching to get back in the octagon.
At 2-1 since returning to the UFC with arguably 2012's biggest upset, a “Fight of the Night” loss to Joe Lauzon and the win over Guillard, to call Varner resurgent would be an understatement. The mental side of his game admittedly in a different place than it was when he closed out his WEC career on an 0-3-1 slide, Varner now, like most times, finds himself craving competition outside of a fight camp.
This week, he’ll make the drive from his Phoenix-area home base to Las Vegas to compete in Saturday’s Spartan Race, which is a combination eight-mile run with all kinds of obstacles along the way that most armchair warriors would consider nothing short of “Ummm, no thanks” territory – crawling under barbed wire, jumping through fire, wall climbs, carrying giant sand bags, that kind of thing.
And it is this Spartan Race, which carries the tagline of “You’ll know at the finish line,” that Varner is using to fuel those competitive fires until he gets his next UFC assignment – because those fires keep burning whether he wants them to or not.
“I try to find something to keep me busy and motivated and get my mind off it,” Varner told MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com). “There’s this whole purgatory of when you don’t have a fight lined up. So whether it’s a jiu-jitsu competition, or this Spartan Race, or any kind of adventure race, it gives me something to keep me motivated and keep me in shape. I hate the lag in between fights. I’m just coming off an injury, but this is just fun and different and I get to go out and meet new people, so it’s just a great experience.”
Varner has had the Spartan Race in mind for a while, but it never synched up with his schedule. Instead, he’s done other races when he can work them in, and finally the time was right to go to the next level this week.
“I’m into adventure races and I’ve done a lot of local stuff just to keep me in shape and keep me motivated for training,” he said. “It sucks just grinding it out and not having a fight to look forward to. So having this Spartan Race makes it easier for me to go into the gym and stay motivated.”
Varner said preparing for Saturday’s event also has helped him change up some of his training regimen, as well. Gone, he said, are the days of going to the gym, hitting bags and pads, doing a little ground work and going home.
Instead, he believes MMA may be in a new era of training, one that follows more of a “crossfit” mentality with heavy focus on strength and conditioning. In other words, the kind of training that would help someone finish an eight-mile race while running through fire and crawling under barbed wire.
“I’m an MMA fighter, so I train for fighting,” Varner said. “But one thing my coach and I have added in is a little more distance to my workouts. A fight is mostly anaerobic conditioning – it’s a lot of sprinting. We scramble for 30 seconds, and then we kind of look at each other and move around, then we scramble for another 30 seconds and look at each other and move around. This Spartan Race is an eight-mile run with obstacle courses, so it’s a much different kind of conditioning than what a fight would be. So just adding in those long runs will help me with aerobic conditioning instead of anaerobic.”
Varner’s fight preparation in many ways mimics some of his training work for the Spartan Race, just now with a little bit more distance added to his runs – which he said he’s still not a big fan of.
And while he hopes to do well in the race, perhaps the greater benefit will come when he’s next back in the octagon.
“When I first started fighting, the old-school way of thinking was run, run, run,” Varner said. “You want to get stronger? Punch the bag or wrestle more, lift bodies, throw bodies, throw punches. That’s how you’re going to get stronger or get better. Now, I see these new waves: first, Olympic-style lifting, then it was circuit training, now it’s crossfit. I love the fact that athletes are taking their weight training a little more seriously and are being more competitive with it because honestly, when you walk into a fight, you have many weapons. It’s not just great boxing skills, kickboxing skills, grappling skills – strength is a weapon.
“Being strong and being stronger than your opponent is a weapon. Conditioning and heart are weapons. Just being tough and being able to take punishment, just being able to stay in a fight, you can mentally break somebody that way.”
As for his expectations on Saturday, remember – he’s not a fan of losing. But at least for this first crack at a Spartan Race, he’s being keeping his goals somewhat tempered, yet still well on the high end.
“I hate losing more than I like winning,” he said. “I hate losing. I don’t care what it is – checkers, video games, anything, I hate losing. So I’m going out to try to win. There will be quite a few badass triathletes out there – guys who are in much better aerobic shape than me. And I don’t feel there’s enough obstacles to really play into my strong suits. I’m a strong, explosive guy, but I’m not used to running eight miles.
“But I plan on being somewhere in the top 10 percent. Obviously I want to win it, but I’m a realistic person. But a victory for me is being in the top 10 percent of all the competitors.”