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EDMONTON, Alberta – Jamie Varner has never been afraid to express his opinion.
The Arizonan held the WEC lightweight championship for nearly two years. During that time, he created as many headlines with his words outside the cage as he did highlight reels with his fists inside.
Some considered his blunt approach honest and refreshing. Others found him arrogant and off-putting.
But these days, the confident Varner is turning his focus inward. He's no longer the champion, having been submitted by Ben Henderson in January. He knows that fighters have a limited window of time at the top, and he's in his eighth year as a pro in a fast-changing sport.
As Varner steps into the cage against unbeaten Kamal Shamorus in the main event of Sunday's WEC 49 at Rexall Place, he's determined to prove he has matured as a fighter as he prepares for another run at the gold.
"Losing the title was the best thing that ever happened to me," said Varner (18-3, 2 no-contests). "That might sound weird, but Ben really did me a favor by beating me. He forced me to rethink my whole approach."
During Varner's title reign, a three-way rivalry emerged with the then-champion, Henderson, and Donald Cerrone, all of whom were fairly evenly matched. A disputed title defense against Cerrone in Jan. 2009 – Varner won on a technical decision after Cerrone hit him with an illegal knee in the fifth round – led to an ongoing war of words that most assumed would build to a rematch.
But while Varner and Cerrone yapped at one another, Henderson put together a string of victories, first defeating Cerrone via and decision, then claiming Varner's championship. Varner was winning handily on the scorecards on January 10 when Henderson caught Varner in a guillotine out of nowhere in the third round and took Varner's title.
"I made a mistake and I got caught," said Varner. "I won the first two rounds and I could have coasted and played safe and gotten the decision, but I don't want to be an Anderson Silva type of fighter. No disrespect to Anderson but I want to put on an exciting fight for the fans and I wanted to finish the fight. So lost my focus and I got caught and I lost the title."
Varner was front and center when Henderson defended the title against Cerrone on April 24 in Sacramento, a match Henderson won in short order via submission.
"Here's the thing. Ben winning the title wasn't a fluke," Varner said. "He's legit. Donald Cerrone, I'm done with him. Donald spent all this time looking for a rematch with me, then he went out and he didn't get the job done against Henderson. I'm not going to make the same mistake he made. I've got a tough fight against an underrated guy and I wouldn't even be thinking about Cerrone if I wasn't asked about it."
Varner has made it clear he won't be overlooking his next foe. Shalorus, who grew up in the small Iranian town of Khalkhal near the Russian border and now fights with the American Combat Association camp in Austin, presents Varner with an interesting stylistic challenge. Shalorus is a strong wrestler who has proven he can also get the job done on his feet, with four of his six wins coming through TKO via punches. Varner is former NCAA wrestler at Lock Haven who has turned his fists into his bread and butter.
"I've said it a million times, Kamal is the toughest guy you never heard of," said Varner. "And we're very alike in our skills. He's a much more decorated wrestler. I feel like I'm a much more decorated striker. … I feel like this is my toughest fight just because the styles are so similar. If the people don't know who Kamal is, believe me, they will after our fight on Sunday."
Shalorus (6-0-1), meanwhile, is taking a huge step up into the spotlight, just over two years into his pro creer. He already has a pair of WEC victories under his belt – a first-round stoppage of Will Kerr and a decision over Dave Jansen – but this is his first time headlining a nationally televised event, one receiving a big local push as Edmonton's first major-league MMA event.
"For me, a fight is a fight," said Shalorus. "Mr. Jamie Varner is a great fighter and it is an honor or me to fight with Jamie. I love his style of fight, but I'm super, super ready for this fight and I have so much surprises [ready for] this fight. It is not like I have done anything differently to prepare for the fight."
And if the challenge provided by an underrated Shalorus isn't enough motivation, Varner will have his mother, Lisa, at the fight. Lisa Varner, who has been fighting cervical cancer, is doing well enough to travel to Edmonton for the fight.
"My mom is my rock," Varner said. "I'll tell you what, to do what I do for a living, as a fighter, and have your mother support your career choice the whole way, that's not an everyday thing. So yeah. You can talk about all the other reasons why this fight is important to me, but that's all the motivation I need right there."