Jamie Varner had fallen a long way since the days of his World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) reign, where he seemed an emerging young face in a rising promotion. After winning the title in an epic brawl against Rob McCullough, then making two exciting defenses, Varner looked exactly like the kind of potent talent that would rise to ascendance as the promotion did, or at least be along for the ride as a roster mainstay.
Instead, he lost his title belt after inactivity through injuries, then suffered the ignominious fate of a nightmarish 2010, losing to Ben Henderson and Donald Cerrone in addition to a draw that would've been yet another loss for Varner, if not for Kamal Shalorus losing points on a foul. Varner closed out the year with a meek performance in losing via first-round submission to upstart Shane Roller.
It's hard to think of an equivalent decline for such a promising young fighter, especially for a guy who, at 21-years-old, gave Hermes Franca a hellacious battle before losing in his Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) debut.
At UFC 146: "Dos Santos vs. Mir" on Saturday night (May 26, 2012), Varner faced unbeaten Edson Barboza, a numbing striker whose physical gifts and thudding kicks made him a fascinating lightweight possibility. Barboza had achieved two eminently rare feats in his four-fight UFC career: forcing surrender via leg kicks (Mike Lullo) and finishing a fight with a Chuck Norris-like spinning back kick to the head (Terry Etim). He seemed almost too good to be true, especially give his huge frame and obvious athleticism.
Varner, a substitute for injured Evan Dunham, had no illusions. He was being brought in under difficult circumstances, perceived as a faded veteran willing to take a chance. And that's all he needed.
In a rousing performance, Varner survived some whopping leg kicks as Barboza started strong, only to land some nice punches of his own. Veterans have plenty of tricks, and in facing a streaking, unbeaten young guy, one of the best ones is to land an inventive combo or two and let them know who's boss. Varner continued to dial in, mixing in a nice body shot-head blow combo, prior to unloading on the stunned Barboza against the cage, delivering a dozen hammerfists to get the stoppage.
"I'm back," said Varner as the camera zoomed in on him, post-victory.
And in a big way.
Jason Probst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/jasonprobst.