Don’t mistake hunger for desperation. And UFC lightweight Jamie Varner is very hungry.
That should be no surprise from a man who fought only once last year. Varner’s lone 2013 bout ended in a split-decision loss to Gleison Tibau at UFC 164 in late August. Compare that to 2012, during which Varner fought four times, going 3-1, with wins over highly regarded Edson Barboza and Melvin Guillard.
Now, heading into his UFC 169 fight against Abel Trujillo (11-5), Varner (21-8-1) finds himself in familiar territory: hastily preparing for a dangerous opponent.
He took the fight on short notice, something to which he’s gotten accustomed. This is the third fight since mid-2012 that he’s taken on short notice. Filling in for Bobby Green, who pulled out of the fight for unspecified reasons, Varner has had about four weeks to get ready. Varner is fine with that.
“The UFC knows I’ll say yes,” Varner said. “Just being completely honest -- I only fought once last year. They know I’m hungry and I want to fight. So I have no qualms fighting on short notice.”
In fact, Varner’s first two fights upon returning to the UFC in May 2012 were on short notice.
“My manager just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Varner said of his bout with Barboza. “[The UFC] couldn’t find an opponent for Barboza.”
What was supposed to be a stepping-stone fight for the rising Barboza ended in a TKO win for Varner, earning him fight-of-the-night honors.
“Really, I just went into the fight like I didn’t care,” Varner said. “With me being a former wrestler and WEC champion, I’d be a good test for Barboza. I’m sure the UFC had all intentions of getting me in there, getting my butt kicked or knocked out and then cutting me.”
Against Joe Lauzon, Varner took the fight also on three weeks’ notice, nearly defeating Lauzon until the last two minutes of the fight when Lauzon caught Varner in a triangle.
“I ended up losing, but I was clearly winning the fight up until that point,” Varner said. “I was probably a week away from being in adequate shape to win that fight.”
Though he’s just 29, Varner is an MMA veteran with more than a decade of pro fights. He knows the window for him to get into serious contention for the lightweight title is closing.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” said Varner, who own his own gym, Impact MMA, in Scottsdale, Ariz. “I had my first professional fight in 2003, so I’ve been fighting going on 11 years now. But I know, I don’t plan on fighting past 33 or 34 years old, so I have to try and make my move now. I haven’t had many opportunities to fight a top 10 guy, so I’ve got to get more fights with top 10 fighters. A lot of the guys in the top 10 now are guys I fought in the WEC. I have to get wins, but I have to get quality wins.”
Indeed, Varner’s never really regained the acclaim that he garnered while holding the WEC lightweight title from 2008-10. MMA fans might remember the feud Varner waged with Donald Cerrone.
“When you have an uneducated idiot like that, it’s not too hard for him to develop some sort of drama,” Varner said. “The guy’s got no class or tact, but he’s a great fighter. But I love watching him fight, that’s for sure.”
But somewhere along the way Varner lost that passion, that hunger.
“I think around 2009 or 2010 I started getting very burned out from the sport,” Varner said. “Not getting carried over to the UFC from the WEC [after the merger] had a profound effect on my life.”
Varner is referring a four-fight span shortly after he lost the WEC title to Benson Henderson during which he went 0-3-1 and was summarily cut from the league. His losses included Henderson, Cerrone and Shane Roller. A year in on the outside of the UFC served as the wake-up call the Arizona native needed.
In other sports, they call it a “near-death” experience. In other words, when an athlete comes this close to seeing his career end it’s easy to get that hunger back. He started his resurgence with two knockout wins in the XFC. Then came Barbosa.
“It kind of showed me my way back,” Varner said. “The respect you get from being a UFC fighter is definitely more than we ever got as part of the WEC. Also, I just realized that I can’t do this forever and realizing that this opportunity to compete is closing. I had to Carpe Diem it and seize the opportunity.”
His TKO of Barboza, who had gained notoriety with his dynamic spinning wheel kick knockout of Terry Etim at UFC 142, remains Barboza’s only loss. And many fans and media regained respect for Varner after his hard-fought loss against Lauzon.
“I took the fight no one wanted on short notice,” Varner said. “I wanted to show I belonged in the UFC.”
Against Trujillo, he plans on showing how much by making optimum use of his deep wrestling background. Trujillo’s susceptibility to take downs (just 37 percent defended) seems to fit that plan.
“I reviewed film and the only fight he lost he got outwrestled,” Varner said. “So as far as game plan goes, I’m going to try and take him down, use control and look for the submission.”
Varner also is an accomplished boxer. But Trujillo’s got a significant edge in striking, landing 3.98 strikes per minute and boasts 55 percent accuracy.
“Obviously I’m also confident in my striking but he’s very fast, strong and powerful. I’ve never even seen him get hurt by a punch. But as far as training camp goes, all I really did was focus on the conditioning. But I feel I’m ready.”
And hungry again.