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Jamie Varner: 'I Can Win a World Title Again'

Jamie Varner is over Donald Cerrone.

Kinda. Sorta. OK, not really.

The former WEC lightweight champ has been defined the last two years by his feud with "Cowboy." And even though Varner is 10 weeks removed from his last fight with his nemesis, a unanimous decision loss at WEC 51, and even though it could be years before the world sees a rubber match between the two, and even though Shane Roller is waiting on Thursday night, Cerrone never seems to be far from his mind.

"He's just the most disrespectful person that I've ever met," Varner told MMA Fighting last week. "He shows no class in the ring, he shows no class out of the ring. I mean, he got into a fight at some amateur show with a guy – over a girl. The guy has no class. Whether I win or I lose my fights, at least I can hold my head up high. I've got dignity and integrity, and that guy has nothing. He's just a lonely, uneducated hillbilly that will go nowhere in his life after fighting."

And so it goes with Varner – not necessarily chasing after Cerrone, but usually finding the need to distinguish himself from his fiercest rival. Varner won their first meeting nearly two years ago, successfully defending his WEC lightweight belt. But he was dominated by a fired-up Cerrone in September in Cowboy's home state of Colorado.

There was talk about doing an immediate rubber match – but in Varner's home town of Phoenix, site of WEC 53 on Thursday. Cerrone suggested it, and Varner was game, even though he said he never should have taken the last one after being busted up from a draw against Kamal Shalorus. But he took it because he thought a win would get him a title shot against champ Ben Henderson.

"The last fight I took with Donald, I was told by the WEC that if I took that fight and I won, I would most likely get a title shot in my home town against Ben," Varner said. "The only reason I took that fight on such a quick turnaround – I was really banged up after the Kamal fight, where I broke my hand, broke my foot, had some busted ribs – is I really wanted to fight for the world title in my home town. I just knew I wouldn't lose if I fought here. I was a little bit pressured into it, and then two weeks before the Cowboy fight even happened, they announced that Anthony Pettis was going to fight (Henderson)."

No matter, though, Varner said. The bigger picture is that he believes his Zuffa career is on the line. WEC 53 will be the last show for the promotion before it merges into the UFC. And though Varner said he signed a nine-fight contract extension after his last fight, a loss to Roller on Thursday would make him 0-3-1 in 2010, his comeback year after missing most of 2009 with injuries sustained in the first Cerrone fight.

Being that the new UFC will have an deluge of fighters at 155 pounds thanks to the merger, Varner said the pressure is on.

"I know if I lose this fight, I'm probably going to get cut," Varner said. "And that's tough. Same with Shane Roller. He'll probably get cut (if he loses), too. I'm fighting for my life, dude. So there's a lot of pressure. But I've got the home-court advantage, so that's one thing I've got working in my favor."

Varner was born in Phoenix and still lives and does most of his training there. He campaigned plenty to help the state legislature be convinced MMA regulation was needed. And now he gets to fight in front of his home fans for the first time in nearly four years, pre-UFC and WEC.

His reward? A spot closing out the preliminary card while fellow Phoenix resident Ben Henderson main events to defend his lightweight title. A title fight, naturally, is going to get top billing. But that doesn't mean Varner can't be annoyed that everyone wants to call this a "hometown" fight for the champion.

"I'm the only guy on that card who was born and raised here in Phoenix, Ariz.," Varner said. "Ben Henderson? He tries to claim Arizona, but the guy's from Washington. He moved out here two years ago. Dominick Cruz is from Tucson. He's not from Phoenix, and he spends all his time in San Diego. I was born and bred and raised here – I stayed true to my roots. I've stayed in Arizona. I fought in front of the state legislature to get the UFC rules sanctioned here. None of those guys were there. They didn't do anything. This is my house. This is my home.

"Whether I'm on TV or not on TV, I get to fight in the house that I built because the UFC wouldn't be (in Arizona) if it wasn't for me. So I get to hold my head up high no matter what."

But between the whirlwind of thoughts about a hometown fight and his job being on the line and Arizona-born fighters raised in Washington and rubber matches with Cowboys, Varner still has to find time to think about Shane Roller – no easy task, he admits.

Varner said he wants nothing but tough fights – and that's what he has gotten. Unlike, he said, Cerrone.

"I like the matchup I've got," Varner said. "I think it's a real tough fight. A real standup fight. If you look at when Donald and I fought the first time, and I beat him, his first fight back was against James Krause – a first-time, (WEC) debut (opponent). He beat James pretty decisively, and then he got a title shot against Ben Henderson. He lost to Ben Henderson and for him to get back into that title contention again, he had to fight Ed Ratcliff – another guy who's got maybe a .500 record in the WEC, not the most distinguished.

"My first fight back after I lose that title shot, I fight Kamal. That was supposed to be a No. 1 contender fight – and a fight I thought I won, and most people thought I won. Then I fight Donald, who's another tough guy, and after Donald I fight Shane Roller. So I'm only fighting the toughest guys – I'm not getting any cupcakes. The WEC isn't doing me any favors. I want to fight the toughest guys, I want to get back on that horse and I want to get back into championship shape."

Though Varner and Roller both have wrestling backgrounds, it's Roller who has the stronger pedigree. He's a three-time All-American wrestler from Oklahoma State. Varner knows the danger in that.

"That's no joke – that's the real deal," Varner said. "His wrestling is better than mine is – and so was Kamal's. But fortunately, I get to punch you. I get to choke you. If this was a wrestling match, I'd lose – hands down. I know I would. But since it's a fight, I feel pretty confident and comfortable."

But Varner has also been around the block enough times to know it sometimes takes more than being well-prepared, more than being healthy, more than having the perfect game plan. He might need a bit of good old-fashioned luck against Roller.

"I just think I hold such a high, fast pace that I may be able to break him with conditioning," Varner said. "But when a guy is that tough, a three-time Division I All-American, he's been battle-tested. I think it just comes down to a little bit of luck and timing. Am I lucky enough to land that one shot? is my timing going to be on where I can hit him with a knockout punch, knockout kick, knockout knee, or catch him in a submission?"

If it is, Varner probably sticks around as the WEC becomes the UFC. And if it isn't, well ...

But Varner is banking on the former. At 26, he believes he's only a few wins away from getting back into title contention and going on another run – if he stays healthy. He even spent a few weeks training at the American Kickboxing Academy to prepare for Roller, venturing outside his Phoenix camp for the first time.

"I feel pretty confident that I can win a world title again in the UFC," Varner said. "I had a year off. And six months out of that year, I couldn't do anything. I couldn't even walk on a treadmill. That's a long time to just be stagnant, not really learning and not getting better. So now I get to make up for lost time and lost ground. I've had all these quick turnarounds, so I've constantly been learning – I've constantly been getting better.

"I feel like I'm a force to be reckoned with, whether it's the UFC, WEC – all lightweights need to watch out for me."