MMA is one of the world’s youngest major sports. It has nothing like the long, rich history of boxing’s continuous practice for the last 400 years. However, that means that the birth of MMA is in living memory; those who brought it into being are here to share their experiences.
But one of those who helped the sport at a critical juncture is now no longer with us. Paul Varelans, the Polar Bear, died two days ago at 51 years of age, from coronavirus. Many newer fans will not know his name, but once he was a fierce competitor in the early days of the UFC and fought in one of its first truly great fights.
Remembering Paul Varelans
Varelans has been dubbed by some fans as the UFC’s first gatekeeper; overwhelming lesser talent consistently, but unable to beat the promotion’s top tier. Billed as a “Trapfighter,” a possibly fictional martial art, Varelans was an American football player who had some experience in boxing and wrestling.
But when he turned up to the UFC 6 tournament, it was clear that his main advantage would be his 6’8” frame and 300 pound weight. Unlike today, where fighters usually go months between fights, back then tournaments were the standard; in the UFC, three fights in a night.
Paul Varelans – UFC 6
Varelans’s first fight would be against the much smaller Cal Worsham. Worsham lit Varelans up as Varelans clung to a double collar tie, battering him with punches as Varelans sought to try and knee him. Varelans, however, withstood the onslaught grimly, and pushed forwards, finally catching Worsham with some powerful elbows. After the fight Varelans was all class, praising Worsham and reminding the audience that, “nobody here is not a tough individual.”
Indeed, there were several other tough individuals in attendance that night. The UFC’s first gatekeeper would be handed his first defeat by one of the UFC’s first stars; Tank Abbott, a trash-talking pitfighter with questionable cardio but extremely heavy hands. Abbott swiftly took Paul Varelans down and battered him with relentless ground strikes for a finish.
The Return of the Polar Bear – UFC 7
When Paul Varelans returned at UFC 7, however, he showed impressive momentum, employing both more disciplined striking and a far more aggressive pressure wrestling strategy that leveraged his size much more effectively than most of the other early UFC big men. He dispatched Gerry Harris and Mark Hall in just over a minute apiece, the first with ground and pound and the latter with an americana, and on another night might have claimed the title.
But UFC 7 was also the tournament where, according to UFC co-founder Campbell McLaren, MMA would truly be born. Varelans’s opponent in the finals would be the Brazilian Vale Tudo champion Marco Ruas. Ruas was a truly complete fighter, trained in boxing, Luta Livre catch wrestling and Brazilian Muay Thai.
Nor would he be intimidated by Varelans’s size; Ruas had earned his nickname, “King of the Streets”, after beating two larger men in a street fight as a youth. He had just defeated Larry Cureton and Remco Pardoel, both with size advantages, to get to the finals.
Paul Varelans vs. Marco Ruas: “Before this, it was just MA”
Paul Varelans swept across the octagon, significantly faster than one might expect of a 300 pounder, but Ruas snapped his head with a left hook as soon as Varelans tried to enter a clinch. Ruas then began punching into leg kicks, which would become the story of the fight. Varelans found success when he trapped Ruas against the cage and began grinding him with strikes there.
But when Ruas broke free he immediately made sure he was circling out from then on. Varelans slowly stalked Ruas, jabbing with him, but all the while Ruas pounded him with vicious leg kicks.
Varelans would not go quietly, however. Searching for a strategy, he began throwing his own leg kicks. The form was bad, but it forced Ruas to check and allowed Varelans to close in. Ruas responded with a takedown, but Varelans snatched up a guillotine choke and brute force lifted Ruas off of his feet with it. Ruas was able to break the squeeze but Varelans took advantage of the headlock to force him back to the fence. Varelans had outfoxed the more experienced Ruas, with his own weapon no less.
The Turn of the Tide
By this point, Varelans’s inferior stamina was starting to take its toll. Ruas broke free, and when Paul Varelans threw leg kicks again instead of chasing him, Ruas pushed Varelans to the fence in a clinch and began striking him there. The fighters had temporarily swapped strategies.
Ruas began pursuing the takedown, and managed to get Varelans clutching the fence (not yet forbidden) to maintain stability. Soon Ruas was actually behind Varelans with a bodylock, kneeing his thighs, while Varelans hung onto the fence and tried to elbow him. This later evolved into exchanges of foot stomps. Ultimately, the deadlocked fighters would be separated.
Ruas immediately went back to the leg kicks, more dedicated this time. Paul Varelans managed to charge into another clinch but Ruas was able to break free after a few strikes, and went back to the kicks. Varelans managed to start timing them with checks, but enough had gotten through that soon he was being held up by willpower more than anything.
Exhausted and desperate, Varelans stopped checking and began trading leg kicks with Ruas, but soon Ruas landed a final thudding kick to the inside of the knee that caused Varelans to drop his hands in agony. Varelans reached to push Ruas away but was overwhelmed by a final flurry of punches.
The fight had gone through several stages, and except for the deadlock on the fence slowing things down, had been one of the most memorable in the early UFC.
Paul Varelans – After Ruas
Paul Varelans would fight in the UFC a few more times before leaving for the world of wider MMA, continuing his pattern of consistently beating weaker opposition and losing only to established fighters like Mark Kerr and Igor Vovchanchyn. Eventually, he would retire from professional fighting in 1998, though he would occasionally moonlight as an MMA official.
Paul Varelans – Remembering the Polar Bear
Even nowadays, MMA is an incredibly dangerous endeavor that takes special qualities to get into. It does not pay particularly well, even at the higher levels, and is a quickly evolving and difficult sport on top of being violent. But back in the day, the pay was practically non-existent and in America the sport was barely a level above being a sanctioned pub brawl. Rather than MMA, it was most often known as NHB – “no holds barred”.
So the role of those who were brave enough to put themselves at great physical risk, for little reward but the thrill of fighting in something new, is bigger than most give it credit for. Without the Gracies and the Shamrocks, MMA would never have taken off in the west. But without the Varelanses of the world, it would never have survived and flourished.