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Cerrone vs Varner: Grudge Match

“This is an opportunity,” Varner said, “to not only shut him up, but to shut him up in his own backyard.” 

Punching an arch-nemesis in the face, for most people, would mean risking a lawsuit or being thrown in jail. Donald Cerrone and Jamie Varner are two of the lucky ones.

Theirs is a wonderfully dysfunctional relationship. Donald can’t stand Jamie, and Jamie can’t stand Donald. The former buddies are parties to one of the sport’s liveliest feuds – ranking right up there with the simmering bad blood between Brock Lesnar and Frank Mir. Cerrone and Varner have waited 20 long months for the chance to clobber and one-up each other in a highly-anticipated rematch. “It’s not personal” is a common line that MMA fighters feed to the media. But Thursday’s clash between the two lightweight standouts is refreshingly “personal.” The mutual vitriol between the fearless Coloradan and aggressive Arizonan is very real and one of them could be publicly humbled as a result of Thursday’s WEC 51 co-main event in Broomfield, Colo.

Varner doesn’t mind one bit journeying to hostile territory – Cerrone’s hometown, no less – to physically exercise his grudge and try to beat Cerrone again.

“This is an opportunity,” Varner said, “to not only shut him up, but to shut him up in his own backyard.”

Neither Cerrone nor Varner talks too much about the root of their disdain, though part of the ill will can definitely be traced to their clash in January of last year. Varner, WEC lightweight champion at the time, won via split decision but received a lot of backlash from fans who questioned his refusal to continue fighting after being on the receiving end of a knee that grazed his head.

The knee strike, thrown while Varner still had a knee on the ground, was deemed an infraction. Varner’s subsequent contention that he was too compromised to continue caused the referee to halt the bout prematurely, forcing it to the judges’ scorecards. Some accused Varner of acting, of trying to find a way out since the bout had clearly turned in Cerrone’s favor as he relentlessly inflicted punishment on a slowing Varner during the home stretch of the fifth round. Being deprived of the chance to finish the fight seemed to irk Cerrone, who openly questioned Varner’s heart afterward, a rare occasion in major league MMA.

“I definitely didn’t start the battle,” Varner said. “I feel that after that last fight, he went home, sat around with all of his homies, and they all decided that there was some sort of injustice there. I started hearing the comments and bantering back and forth … and that’s when I kind of got fired up because I felt that I won four out of the five rounds of that fight.”

Cerrone weighed in on the present state of the animosity

“There’s absolutely still bad blood there,” Cerrone said. “I mean, I thought I took my loss to him just fine but he just wants to keep after it, after it, after it … I don’t know, man, he’s just a punk. I’m going to have a lot of fans in Colorado. It’ll be good to feel that energy. I’ve fought there and I’ve never lost in Broomfield.”

Weeks away from the fight, Cerrone had said he was amped for the sequel but concerned that perhaps Varner might falsely claim an injury “or use some excuse to bail out of the fight.” While Varner has willingly engaged in back-and-forth banter with Cerrone in the past, he has not lobbed many verbal grenades back at his archrival.

“To be honest, I don’t’ even concern myself with it,” Varner said, adding that maturity has dampened his willingness to engage Cerrone in a public war of words. “I find out through Twitter and Facebook what he’s saying. I don’t watch videos; I don’t care, man … As far as bad blood goes, I don’t have any. This has been a question mark in my career and everybody has question marks in their life, that’s what this fight means to me. This is a question mark on my career and I have the opportunity to turn that question mark into a period or an exclamation mark. So I’m ready to finally clear the air and silence all the critics and put this guy and this fight behind me.”

Varner feels misunderstood, as if plenty of people have a distorted memory of his first go-round with Cerrone.  

“A lot of people forget the rounds before the knee (to my head); all they remember is the last three seconds of that fight. They don’t remember the four rounds before that where I was kicking the s--- out of him with a broken hand and a broken foot. All they remember is the controversial ending and then him running his mouth. So this is a good opportunity to shut him up and shut everybody else up and let them see that I’m the real deal.

“I just want to fight and this has been a long time coming. Our fight together was a good fight, a tough fight, an epic battle. He feels that I took the easy way out and, you know, honestly, the doctors wanted to stop the fight. And I just want to clear the air. Now, with only three rounds, I feel that I can push it even harder and look for the finish.”

Varner said his perception of Cerrone’s fighting style has changed since their first meeting. He previously believed Cerrone to be more dangerous in the kickboxing realm. Now, after watching the slickness and deftness of Cerrone’s submission game, Varner said he has placed even greater emphasis on Brazilian jiu-jitsu for their rematch.

“Before, I was worried about his kickboxing,” Varner said. “But honestly, Donald is more of a grappler than he is a kickboxer. Most of his wins really come by submission. He never knocks anybody out and he never finishes anybody on his feet, so I feel like I’m a better kickboxer and a better striker than him, and I’ll use my wrestling and kickboxing to dictate where the fight goes.

“I feel like I’m better than he is in every position. I mean he’s real long and lanky and those guys give me the most trouble on the ground. I can fight in any position but I want to stand with him, I want to out-kickbox him. I want to put him to sleep.”

Cerrone’s only career losses have come to Benson Henderson and Varner. He is often called “The Terminator” – even by Varner -- because of his extraordinary ability to walk through opponents’ blows and eventually wear them down. The Greg Jackson protégé, a notoriously slow starter inside of the Octagon, conceded he must jump on Varner early on Thursday.

“It’s a good thing it’s not going five rounds for Jamie’s sake,” Cerrone said. “He’s lucky it’s for three rounds and not five. But it doesn’t matter. I just have to get going a little bit earlier.”

Cerrone also addressed Varner’s view that his standup game is a bit overrated.

“Man, I wish he would stand with me for most of the fight,” Cerrone said. “Hell yeah. I mean, that would be like me saying ‘I don’t think his wrestling is very good, I think I’m going to go in there and wrestle with him. I grew up kickboxing and striking so, hell yeah, come into my territory and fight me. If Jamie does what he says he’s going to do, man, it’s going to be Fight of the Night. I’m not saying I’m going to go out there and knock him out but I’m going to do my best. I’m going out there to throw down.”

Varner predicts his speed and wrestling will once again be the decisive factor against Cerrone. He hopes to capitalize on any mistakes to finish the fight. Otherwise, he envisions a three-round war.

“On September 30th we get to go out there and settle our differences,” Varner said. “Hopefully we walk out of the cage and the beef is squashed. Or you know what, maybe the animosity continues. Nevertheless, I’m not going to concern myself with it anymore. I wish no ill will upon Donald … I can’t let the negative energy drag me down, man. I’m on a quest, I just want to get through this fight, I want to get that belt back, and I want to just keep moving forward with my career. My main motivation is definitely to get that world title back.”

How does Cerrone feel about the “squashing” the squabble after Thursday?  

“I don’t know if the animosity can be settled,” he said. “Only time will tell.”