Great article written by Bryan Levick-
Former WEC lightweight champion Jamie Varner has his eyes on the big prize. Becoming a world champion is the biggest dream a mixed martial artist can have, but there has to be more.
Varner knows what he wants, and he has a pretty good idea of how to get it.
He may only be 25 years old, but the experiences he has gone through have helped him mature beyond his years.
A little less than six months ago, Varner partnered with Frank Ruggiero, who was the co-owner of a 5,100-square-foot facility in Long Island, N.Y., and developed Varner’s Combat Academy.
Wednesday afternoon, I was given a tour of the facility and sat down with Ruggiero and Varner to find out what they hope to accomplish.
With Varner spending most of his time in Arizona, one would wonder why he would open up a gym on the opposite side of the country.
“When I first met Frank, it was at the N.Y. MMA Expo,” Varner said. “We met through Carl Kern, who owns Fighter Warehouse in Centereach. I wanted a gym. Frank had a gym and was looking to change the name. He had heard about my seminars, and at the time, I had my world title. It seemed like a good match.
“The facility was awesome, with a great group of guys who were looking for that extra little instruction. It was the right place at the right time.”
Being a world-class athlete and a gym owner are very different things, but, as Varner explained, you go about promoting each the same way.
“I like to utilize the social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook to keep in touch with my friends and fans,” he said. “We do the same thing with the gym. We can let our members know of anything new that is going on by sending out a tweet or posting it on Facebook.”
According to Varner, it’s never too early or too late to get yourself in shape.
“Our basic demographic are the 15- to 40-year-old men and women who are looking to get into better shape,” he said. “We have classes for all age groups. If you are 60 years old and want to use MMA to help you get into better physical condition, then this is a good spot to go to.
“We don’t force anyone to fight or spar, and we let the members choose how hard they want the workout to be. We also try to make sure the environment in the gym is also fun. We want people enthusiastic about coming to the gym.”
Varner’s Combat Academy has it all: American-style kickboxing, Muay Thai kickboxing, MMA, jiu-jitsu, wrestling, and boxing to go along with classes for women and children.
Varner is also looking to develop a team of fighters who will represent the gym up and down the East Coast.
“We also have a few more amateurs who are looking to turn pro—Brian Kelleher, James Jenkins, and Anthony Giacchina. We have a really good group of guys here. They are helping one another to get better.”
When questioned about why he chose the East Coast as the spot to open his first gym, Varner’s goals started to come into focus. He also spoke about giving someone an opportunity he normally wouldn’t have had—the way Varner was given a shot when he was younger.
“The East Coast is behind as far as MMA is concerned,” he said. “A third of our nation’s population is out here. Between New York, parts of New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, there aren’t a whole lot of options for people who are serious about training. We are already looking for areas in which to expand.”
“Eventually, I would love to bring VCA to Arizona, but for now I am content on focusing out here. I went to college in central Pennsylvania. I still have a lot of friends in the New York area. I really enjoy being in New York. I’d like to bring my style of fighting out here.
“There are so many great wrestlers out here, and once they are done wrestling, they don’t know what to do. They may not have the opportunity or the resources, and that’s what I want to do here at VCA.”
Arizona Combat Sports is where Varner will spend the bulk of his training when he has a fight upcoming, but he he didn’t rule out coming to New York and splitting his time between gyms.
“I would like to make the move east—not on a permanent basis, but my goal is to have a place out here so I can make myself more available to the fighters and instructors here. Once the gyms get up and going, it is something I will entertain. When it’s time to fight, I would fly back to Arizona and then come back here to train and teach classes.”
Ruggerio and Varner both realize that attaching the Varner name to the gym will lend legitimacy to the facility, but they don’t want to rely on the name alone. They plan to offer seminars from some of Varner’s friends in MMA.
“As you know, I train with a lot of good guys in Arizona, but I also can bring in guys that you have never heard of who are some of the best instructors available,” Varner said. “My jiu-jitsu instructor, Steve Rosenberg, is a black belt in BJJ. He’s a Pan-American champion who took third place in the World BJJ Championships.
“We have Ryan Diaz, who is a nine-time world champion, kickboxing on our team. I want to bring Aaron Simpson out here eventually. The more guys I bring out here, the better. Everyone has a different style, a different way they go about teaching. It’ll keep things fresh.”
This Saturday (Jan. 30), Varner has an open invitation to anyone who is thinking about getting in shape or just wants to come down and check out the gym. He believes in his style of teaching and knows that people will walk away having gained something.
“This will be the second seminar that I have held here, but the first one that is free of charge,” Varner said. “I treat each seminar like a fight. We start on the feet; I go over striking, and then the transition to the ground is through wrestling, whether it’s takedowns or takedown defense. Then we go over what to do once you are taken down or have secured the takedown.
“We want everyone to learn all aspects, whether you are on top or on bottom. We go over some jiu-jitsu, and I finish it up with ground and pound. I show them some MMA techniques that I like to use. We put them through some positioning drills.
“At the end, we will have a little Q&A. Most people want to know about my strength and conditioning program, as well as my diet.”
Anyone looking to make a change will find out right away that they came to the right place.
“We will be as hands-on as we need to be. Every person requires a different level of attention,” Varner said. “Some people want me to make up a diet for them. I tell people all the time to send me a message on Facebook. I am really good at getting back to everyone. I will give an outline of a diet, then we can structure it around that particular person. People know what they need to eat—some of them just like to have it written out for them in black and white.”
For Varner, fighting will always be his first love, but the opportunity to help people get into better shape or to help an angry kid deal with his aggression is also very important to him.
“Fighting has always been there for me, and I love what I do, but it won’t be there forever,” he said. “Coaching is my passion; without some of the coaches I have had in my life, I don’t know where I would be. If it hadn’t been for my high school wrestling coach telling me I was good enough to wrestle in college. Without those people believing in me, I wouldn’t be sitting here with you doing this interview in my own gym.
“When I was 17, I was fortunate to meet my very first MMA coach. I was a young, punk kid who thought he was tough,” Varner said. “I was full of anger, and I came from a rough neighborhood. My coach centered my aggression and turned it into something positive.
“I gained a whole new respect for competing and the martial arts. I hope to be that guy for some of the people who come into this gym. Maybe I can help turn their life around the way mine was.”
Varner was quick to point out that it’s rough in the beginning, and even to this day, he still has those moments when he asks himself what is he doing here.
“People ask me all the time how much longer I want to fight, and I tell them all the same thing—it depends if I had a hard day of sparring and walked away with a good headache. I say to myself, ‘God, I don’t want to do this anymore!’ Then there are times when you wish you could do this forever.
“After my last fight, even though I lost, I was so happy just to be fighting again,” Varner said. “The feeling you get when you are out there competing is like nothing else in this world. I know if I was to retire, I would regret it. I am going to do this as long as I can.
“There are other things I want to do with my life. I want to open more gyms. I would like to focus on coaching and eventually get married and start a family. I don’t want to be the dad who can’t play with his kids because I hung on too long. I’m hoping God will tell me, maybe send me a sign when it’s time to hang it up.”
Speaking of fighters who are nearing the end of the line, Varner brought up former UFC lightweight champion Jens Pulver.
“Jens Pulver has nothing left to prove. He has nothing left to prove,” Varner reiterated. “He has paved the way for fighters like me. He doesn’t need to fight anymore, but he does it because he loves it. If he still has the competitive fire burning, then more power to him. I would never want to take that away from him. If he feels like he has unfinished business, then that’s up to him. It’s his decision and no one else’s.”
The subject of his loss to Ben Henderson came back up, and Varner had an awesome perspective on it.
“It would have been nice to win, but I went out there and laid it out on the line. I know I fought hard. Ben is a good fighter. All it takes with him is one mistake, and he will catch you.
“There are so many aspects of this game, and you could be better in every area than your opponent, but when you are competing at this level, you know that it doesn’t take much to lose a fight.”
Varner appreciates all that he has and realizes that things could have gone differently for him.
“In this sport, you only get one opportunity,” Varner said. “Look at baseball. Derek Jeter gets a hit 30 percent of the time and is considered to be a great player. If I were to lose seven out of 10 times, I’d be out of a job. There’s a lot of pressure, but pressure turns coal into diamonds. I thrive on that adrenaline to be perfect.”
A lot of people come into Varner’s gym either for the wrong reason or thinking they are a lot better than they really are. It is in those instances when Varner the teacher really shines through.
“A lot of people actually weed themselves out on their own,” he said. ‘”Everyone wants to be a fighter until they get punched in the face and realize they have to put the work in to it. There are people who are willing to put in the work but just don’t have the natural athletic ability that is required to be a fighter. Realistically, maybe one out of 10 people will ever fight.
“When we have a person who doesn’t realize that he isn’t athletically gifted enough to compete, we will let them fight in the amateurs with other fighters in the same category.
“We don’t want to crush anyone’s spirit or tell them they aren’t good enough,” Varner said. “Eventually, they will figure it out. I tell everyone that this is not a career of choice, you need to have a Plan B. I went to college to be an accountant. I got my degree.”
Varner gets a bad rap, and he admits he sometimes says things without thinking, but if you take the time to get to know him and see what he’s all about, you might have a whole new perspective.