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From hero to villian, Jamie Varner looks to win back fans this weekend

Finally healthy, Varner looks to restore reputation against Ben Henderson

Image

Courtesy of WEC

Jamie Varner (left) throws a right hook to Marcus Hicks during their WEC lightweight bout on Aug. 3, 2008 in Las Vegas. Varner won the fight by TKO in the first round.

Jamie Varner remembers a time when, after defeating the then-undefeated Marcus Hicks in his first WEC lightweight title defense in 2008, everybody loved him. Varner was signing a lot of autographs. He was the people's champion.

Those were the good ol' days.

Today, Varner can't stand 20 feet from a cage without getting booed from every angle.

The change in the lightweight champion's reputation came in January 2009 when Varner couldn't finish a closely contested fight with Donald Cerrone after claiming he couldn't see clearly out of his right eye thanks to an illegal knee from Cerrone in the fight's fifth round.

Varner ended up taking a technical split-decision win, with most of the crowd switching its loyalty to Cerrone. Nearly 12 months later, Varner still hasn't won them back.

"After I fought Marcus Hicks people loved me, I had people coming up telling me I was their favorite fighter and I should be fighting B.J. Penn," Varner said. "Cerrone had a chance to win that fight and he didn't. But fans have the tendency to be fickle, and with controversy comes disrespect."

Varner (16-2) could take a big step in getting the fans back on his side if he's able to defeat interim champion Ben Henderson (10-1) in their championship fight Sunday at ARCO Arena in Sacramento, Calif. It will be the first fight back for Varner after the injuries he suffered in the Cerrone fight kept him out of action almost all of last year.

In addition to the lesion Varner suffered on his eye that ended up stopping the fight, the champion suffered a break in his right index metacarpal and two fractured bones in his left foot.

Although Varner says he could have pointed out the injuries that night in January to show how much he already had fought through, he said that the people who matter know the truth about that fight.

"I didn't cut off my glove to show my hand was broken and they didn't zoom in on my foot to show it was broken," Varner said. "Reed (Harris, general manager of WEC) was the guy in the back that carried me to the ambulance. All the important people know what happened in that fight."

The fact that Varner thought Harris and the WEC understood what he went through in that fight didn't stop the organization from setting up an interim title during the champ's long absence.

Part of it was Varner's fault, as he said he could have come back in June had he let the bone in his right hand properly heal. Instead, he began working with it too soon, forcing doctors to rebreak and recast it after it healed at a 30-degree angle.

But another part of it was the WEC's lack of patience, says Varner, as he believes they could have promoted an October fight between Cerrone and Henderson as a top contender's fight rather than the interim championship it was.

"I broke my hand and foot in the cage, fighting for the organization that I love," Varner said. "It's one thing, when (former UFC heavyweight champion) Frank Mir gets in a motorcycle accident and is out for two years; I can understand an interim title for that.

"For me, I did all my work and the fact that we were a couple months short? Realistically, they could have made that for the No. 1 contender. That was a great fight and Ben deserves a belt for that fight, but it wasn't necessary. I was ready to fight in December, it would have been 11 months."

Even though Varner has expressed a little frustration over the WEC creating an interim belt, there is no question he's the true champion at least in the eyes of his opponent.

Henderson, whose five-round decision win over Cerrone was regarded as one of the top fights of the year, says he has no illusion that his belt means more than Varner's.

"Jamie and I both know I have the interim belt," Henderson said. "Jamie has the belt and I want to go get it. We both understand that among ourselves. We know what the real deal is."

Both fighters have had less-than-ideal training camps leading up to Sunday's championship fight.

For Varner, he was initially hampered by the injuries in his hand and actually was told by doctors to play video games as a way to strengthen the muscles again. He also went back to his background as a swimmer, working out with the Arizona State University swim club to get back in shape.

Henderson also was kept out of the gym briefly following his fight with Cerrone due to an eye injury that required seeing a specialist in Phoenix. With his next fight already fast approaching after the recovery, Henderson said he didn't receive as much time off as he would have liked.

"I've only been fighting for three years, I would like a little longer in between fights so that I can really get better," Henderson said. "I'm not at the level where I can go from camp to camp and not train in between."

Varner says the two also are alike in that while they both currently carry the 'champion' title in one form or another, they both still have a lot to prove.

"There's pressure on both of us," Varner said. "Ben has to prove that his belt isn't just a paperweight. And after the controversial ending of my last fight, I have to show everybody why I'm the champion. I have to remind people who the real Jamie Varner is."

Brett Okamoto can be reached at 948-7817 or [email protected]. Also follow him on twitter: LVSunFighting.

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