When MMA fans saw Jamie Varner’s name on a fight card they came to expect a war. Varner made a career out of pushing his opponents and himself to the limits. The former WEC Lightweight champ possessed the kind of once in a generation skills that make you stop and take notice. Outstriking the strikers and outgrappling the grapplers, Varner was the prototype of what the future of MMA was to be. Which is why when Varner retired at 30, leaving the sport widely considered a crafty journeymen by most, it felt like someone got the story wrong. Not to say we don’t appreciate the fact that Varner sacrificed his physical and mental health for our entertainment, we are eternally grateful for the epic battles he left behind. Its just one can not but help to wonder what might have been?
Jamie Varner’s entrance into the elite realm of fighting came at a very pivotal time in the history of MMA. The UFC had recently brought back the Lightweight division and its parent company Zuffa purchased the WEC promotion to showcase the lighter weight classes. Varner, a 21 year prospect training with the Lally Brother’s at Arizona Combat Sports had impressed on the local Arizona circuit and earned the call up to UFC with a 9-0 record and future of possibilities.
Varner’s introduction to mainstream MMA fans came at UFC 62 on August 26, 2006. Varner faced off against Lightweight perennial contender Hermes Franca. Varner looked quicker, stronger and more technical than Franca. Varner dominated Franca for two and a half rounds before falling victim to a slick arm bar Franca snagged from the bottom. Despite the loss Jamie Varner made it very clear that night that he was able to compete with the division’s elite.
Following the Franca loss, Varner earned his first victory in the octagon submitting fellow prospect James “Gizzard” Gilliam in only 1:34 with a textbook rear naked choke. With his first UFC win under his belt Vaner made the move to the WEC, where he would immediately be a title contender. In his first bout in the WEC Varner would be matched up with 28 year old wrestling standout Sherron Legget. Varner promised to end the fight inside of the first round, a promise he made good on. Varner slammed Legget multiple times before pounding out a first round stoppage. With the win Varner earned a title shot against current lightweight champ Rob Mcullough.
Tito Ortiz training partner “Razor” Rob Mcullough had found success in the WEC cage displaying top level kickboxing and excellent take down defense. Varner’s path to the title would be no walk in the park. Varner came out strong taking down Mcullough multiple times in the first two rounds. Mcullough rocked Varner in the third knocking the mouthpiece out of Varner’s mouth, and then in a MMA first Varner pointed to his mouthpiece and called a time out. The mustachioed Steve Mazzagati was dumbfounded and had no choice but to stop Mcullough’s attack to wash out Varner’s mouthpiece. Having gathered his wits about him, Varner opened up on Mcullough landing several heavy shots before finishing the champion kickboxer with a vicious right straight. At only 23 years old Varner had shown the striking, ground and mental game of a true champion, who looked to be atop the 155 pound division for many years to come.
Varner defended his title twice against Marcus Hicks and “Cowboy” Cerrone before losing to future superstar Benson Henderson. After losing the belt to Henderson,Varner appeared to have lost the spark that we saw in the up and coming kid who was beating everyone in their own game. Though he would go on to have flashes of excellence a few more times in his career, ultimately he would not obtain the kind of legendary success that he seemed destined to achieve.
Jamie Varner’s career was brilliant at times and frustrating to no end at others. Was it too much too quick, was it over training or was it freak circumstances that prevented him from reaching the pinnacle of the sport? Who knows? But If Varner truly has stepped into the octagon for the last time he will be remembered as one of the most promising prospects who became a champ and was nearly a legend.