There has to be something about Jamie Varner, the former World Extreme Cagefighting lightweight champion, that I'm not seeing. How else can you explain how a guy fights four rounds with a broken hand, two rounds with a broken foot and suffers a potentially career-ending eye injury from an illegal knee and then is called a coward and is lambasted by fans on message boards across the Internet?
Varner has somehow managed to so enrage an upcoming opponent, Donald Cerrone, that Cerrone lost control of his emotions and said during an interview that he wished Varner would die in the cage.
Cerrone lost a technical split decision to Varner in a lightweight title bout at WEC 38 on Jan. 25, 2009, in what was one of that year's finest fights.
As the rematch on Thursday in the co-main event of WEC 51 at the First Bank Center in Broomfield, Colo., nears, the intensity has ratcheted way up. WEC general manager Reed Harris is very close to Ultimate Fighting Championship star Chuck Liddell and Harris said the dislike between Liddell and long-time rival Tito Ortiz is nothing compared to the way that Varner and Cerrone feel about one another.
As the WEC was filming promotional videos Monday that will be used on the television broadcast on Versus and in the arena, Harris felt the need to bring security into the room to prevent the two from going at each other.
"In 10 years in this business, I've never seen two guys dislike each other more," Harris said. "When we were doing the (videos), I felt I needed to have people there to control it. It's way worse than Tito and Chuck. The feelings between Donald and Jamie are very strong and run very deep."
It's to the point where winning simply isn't enough. Varner tries not to talk about it publicly, but Cerrone doesn't mind. And while he concedes that the most important thing is to win, he won't really be satisfied unless he wins while at the same time exacting a physical toll upon Varner.
Each man needs a win to get back into lightweight title contention. Cerrone has lost two of his last three and three of his last five. Another loss would likely end any chance he has of getting another title shot. Varner is 0-1-1 since the Cerrone fight and can't particularly afford another setback if he wants to be fighting for the belt any time soon.
Yet, this is as much personal as it is business.
"Winning is absolutely the ultimate goal, but I wouldn't be being totally honest with you if I said that one of my major goals is to do a lot of damage to him," Cerrone said. "That's certainly part of it; a major part of it. Words were said and they were rebutted and, basically, this fight has been two years in the making. For me, I'm ready to get this over with."
The WEC doesn't need the endless stream of talk between the men to sell the fight. All it has to do is to show highlights of their first brawl.
Cerrone, though, put the emphasis on the extreme part of the WEC when he did an interview earlier this month with Tapout Radio. As he was discussing the role his emotions would play in the fight, Cerrone got a bit carried away.
"I hope my emotions drive me; I fight better under emotions," Cerrone said during the Tapout Radio interview. "Ask (training partner) Leonard (Garcia). When I'm hot and some new guy comes in the gym and wants to throw down, that's when I do my best. So I hope my emotions take over and I just kill this dude. I hope this is the first death in MMA." Cerrone quickly apologized and WEC vice president Peter Dropick soon after released a statement in which he chastised Cerrone for his choice of words, noting they "had crossed a line of decency."
That it did, though it was fairly obvious that Cerrone's emotions had bubbled over and that he really didn't wish death upon Varner. Unbridled emotion often causes a rational man to do or say irrational things. However, the animosity between Cerrone and Varner is no work, no contrived feud designed to sell tickets and boost television ratings.
After a fight like they had, fighters are usually all hugs and smiles. There is a respect that develops between fighters after they endure the type of battle they did, even if it is a grudging one.
Varner broke his right hand in the first round. He broke his left foot in the third or fourth. And when the fight was ended at 3:10 of the fifth round because Varner was unable to continue after absorbing an illegal knee to the head, there were legitimate fears that Varner's career might be over.
He left the San Diego Sports Arena in tears that night after doctors told him following a post-fight examination in the locker room that he likely had a detached retina that would require career-ending surgery.
It turns out that he didn't need the surgery, but the scars of the battle were very real. Varner did not fight until for 50 weeks, until losing his title to Benson Henderson via guillotine choke at WEC 46 on Jan. 10.
Controversy still swirls around the outcome of their first fight and it may be because of the nature of the finish that the heat between the men builds each passing day. Varner was down at the time Cerrone threw the fight-ending knee and it is illegal to knee a downed opponent in the head. However, there are questions about whether Cerrone's knee landed and replays are inconclusive. In Cerrone's view, Varner quit because he knew Cerrone was gaining momentum and may have finished the fight in the final two minutes. Varner laughs off that contention and points out how long he had fought with broken bones.
"I broke my hand in the first round and boxing is a big part of my game," Varner said. "I didn't quit then. I broke my foot, I think in the third or early in the fourth, and I didn't quit then. I kept going and fighting. So why would I quit with so little time left in the fight? I'll tell you: I didn't quit. The doctor stopped the fight. My pupils weren't responding. There were broken blood vessels in my eye. I would have fought on, but the doctor – not me – chose to stop it."
But because there wasn't conclusive video evidence that he was kneed in the eye while he was down, Varner was chided as a quitter, both on Internet forums and by Cerrone. Cerrone said the intensity between the men developed in the aftermath of the bout when Varner got frustrated because it was pointed out he quit.
"There was a lot of animosity towards him for quitting in the fight and his natural reaction to that was saying things about me," Cerrone said.
The stoppage cut short Cerrone's bid for the championship – the bout went to the cards when Varner couldn't continue and Varner won a split decision – and the feelings of animosity festered.
Varner said he understands Cerrone's frustrations with no being able to finish the fight, but he said he's baffled by much of what Cerrone has said since.
"My reaction to Donald has been the same: He's an idiot," Varner said. "The guy is just uneducated and he acts like a hillbilly. He has no class. Come (Thursday), he'll be able to right all those wrongs. If he has a discrepancy from what happened the first time around, he has the opportunity to change it, which is why I don't understand all the talking. I'm not going to get caught up in all the name-calling."
Both men praised the other's talents and had little bad to say about their skills. Neither, though, will put the other on his Christmas card list.
"Their first fight is one of the best I've ever seen," Harris said. "I was in the locker room after that fight and you could see the impact the fight had upon them. It was devastating. I don't know if I had ever seen two guys as beaten up as they were. Jamie could barely walk. Donald was really laid up. We were trying to get them to the press conference and we were wondering, 'Is this the right thing to do?' They had taken a tremendous physical beating. It left an impression on me, that's for sure." Expect more of the same on Thursday. Even Varner, who believes he dominated the first fight, expects the same.
"I don't plan on doing anything at all that will require me to be physically active for at least a month after the fight," Varner said. "I've already planned for the recovery time. He's a tough dude and I think if he were honest with you, he'd tell you I'm a tough dude, too. We're going to go at it. I dominated that first fight for four-and-a-half rounds and I've gotten a lot better.
"But I'll give him credit: I think he's gotten better, too. He's really tough. This is going to be a great fight to watch."