Jamie Varner didn't want to retire. He just felt he didn't have a choice.
Nine days before his fight with Drew Dober at UFC on FOX 13 in December, Varner had his bell rung in training. He went to the doctor and was told that he suffered a concussion. It wasn't just that, either. After looking at tests, doctors determined that Varner had sustained more than 30 concussions in his life.
They recommended to the veteran lightweight that he step away from the fight game and Varner made the decision then that the fight against Dober would be his last. He fell via first-round submission after landing awkwardly on his head in the Dec. 13 fight in Phoenix and announced his retirement afterward.
Varner never knew how his concussions piled up like that. It wasn't just getting knocked out, but almost every time he had his bell rung in training was a concussion.
"I had no idea," Varner told Ariel Helwani on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour. "I felt like I was in a perpetual state of just constant migraines. I knew it was from sparring, but I thought it was OK. I thought it was normal and that's what we have to do as fighters, part of the cross that we bear is having headaches and being beat up because we're fighters."
Varner, 30, still does not feel 100 percent and admits that he is concerned about what his future will be like. Doctors told him that a significant amount of concussions could lead to Alzheimer's disease, dementia or other memory-loss afflictions.
Currently, he forgets simple things like whether or not he brushed his teeth in the morning or if he washed his hair in the shower. He has trouble articulating simple words. Varner is seeing a cognitive therapist three or four times per month and said he feels an improvement.
There was no doubting he had to get out when he did. But Varner, the former WEC lightweight champion, said he has no regrets about being a fighter. He only followed through with the Dober fight, because it was in his hometown and he felt obligated after all the media he had done.
"I definitely would've become a fighter," Varner said. "This is what I was born to do. This was the chosen path for me."
However, he would have done a few things differently. Varner said for most of his career he sparred three or four times per week hard. If he had to do it all over, he would spar only once a week, starting around six weeks before the fight. Varner said sparring is overdone in most fight camps, but for a logical reason.
"The best way to get in shape for a fight or to get ready for a fight is to get in a fight," Varner said. "You're sparring. Your training should always be harder than the fight. At least that's what my coach told me."
While Varner (21-11-1, 2 NC) won't be getting into the Octagon again, he's trying to hook on with the UFC in another capacity -- fighter relations. He wants to be the guy imparting his knowledge on up-and-coming athletes in the organization. Varner has already had two interviews with the UFC and he will be speaking at a rookie symposium in June. If that goes well, it could turn into a full-time gig.
Varner won't just talk about head injuries. As someone with a bachelor's degree in finance, he also wants to advise fighters on how better to budget their money.
"There's a lot of fighters that aren't as knowledgeable," Varner said. "They almost get used to those big paydays and rely on them, as opposed to me. I always planned for the absolute worst, which I think what you should do in life in general anyways. You can't count on getting a knockout or fight of the night bonus. You can't spend your money before you have it, which is what a lot of guys do."
Varner said in December that he would be interested in helping fighters develop a union. First, he's going to try and do something with the UFC to help the athletes. If not, he'll try and start something on his own.
"I hope that the UFC will hire me and I can be the guy that the fighters can relate to," Varner said. "If not, there's gonna be something down the road that I would be looking to do to help these young fighters and even help some of the older fighters prepare for the life after fighting."
Varner said there's still quite a bit of fight in him and retirement has been hard. But after four straight losses -- some of them via sheer bad luck -- and the amount of concussions, he knew it was time.
"I felt like it was God's way of telling me it was done," he said. "I'm just gonna tarnish my reputation [if I continued]. I didn't really want to go out the way I did, but at least I went out on my own terms."