by Tom Hamlin – MMAWeekly.com
“Razor” Rob McCullough may have played more than a small part in bringing Jamie Varner to this point in his career.
The 23-year-old Varner is scheduled to face McCullough for the World Extreme Cagefighting lightweight championship in early February. It’s the first title shot in his career. He feels a win will satiate a desire to achieve that went unfulfilled after an injury cut his wrestling career short.
“I didn’t get to achieve all my goals in wrestling,” he says. “I was an All-American, but I never got to be a champion. I’m still pretty young, so the fact that I get a title shot and have a chance to be a world champion at age 23, that’s a pretty big accomplishment.”
When he was 18, Varner made a pilgrimage to Huntington Beach to meet the fighters of Team Punishment. The camp was at its apex; at the time, Tito Ortiz was seemingly unbeatable. He met McCullough, who had just begun his career in MMA after making a name in kickboxing.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Varner says. “Going there and watching all these big fighters I’d heard of. (Razor) was a cool guy. I was like ‘oh (expletive), you’re Razor Rob.'”
Varner rolled with as many people as he could before heading back to Arizona. A year later he was fighting in Rage in the Cage, Arizona’s most well known MMA promotion. His work there led to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, where he contested Hermes Franca for three rounds before being caught in an armbar. After besting Jason Gilliam at UFC 70, he made the jump to the Zuffa-run WEC, defeating Sherron Leggett by TKO. He was offered the title shot earlier this month.
“It’s crazy, because I looked up to this guy before, and now here I am having to fight him,” he says.
It won’t stop him from taking away McCullough’s belt, though. Varner feels particularly confident about his hands.
“Everybody that’s seen me fight knows that I have great wrestling technique,” he says. “But the one thing that people haven’t seen … I grew up boxing way before I ever started wrestling. I’m really confident in my boxing; I’ve just never had a chance to show it.”
McCullough told MMAWeekly.com that one of his chief concerns was Varner’s shot. Varner believes that will be the champ’s downfall.
“I’m glad that he’s worried about my wrestling, because that’s going to set up my big shots for my big punches,” he says. “I can use my punches to set up my takedowns, and my takedowns to set up my punches. He’s going to be constantly playing defense and worrying about what I’m doing. I don’t see how he’s going to be able to mount an offense without being worried about being taken down.”
At 23 and 13-3, Varner is two years and two fights shy of McCullough’s experience in MMA. He’s come a long way from the 18-year-old dreamer who walked into the Huntington Beach gym that summer.
“As far as my toughest opponent, he isn’t,” Varner said. “It would mean a lot to beat him, but it’s a bigger accomplishment having that WEC belt around my waist. I know he’s a tough guy and he knocks a lot of people out, but every time he gets into a tough fight he loses. I have the ability to decide where this fight goes. I don’t think that’s something he can look past.”