One of the early figures in UFC history, Paul “The Polar Bear” Varelans has died following a bout with COVID-19 that left him hospitalized for the past month.
Varelans was a native of San Jose, California, although grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska before returning to his home state for school. He played football at San Jose State University and fell into fighting as a physically impressive looking athlete at 6-foot-8.
His introduction occurred at UFC 6 in Casper, Wyoming in July 1995 entering the one-night tournament. He advanced from the opening round by defeating Cal Worsham before losing to David “Tank” Abbott in the second round. Abbott would fall to Oleg Taktarov in the finals that same night.
The reaction to Varelans was positive as he was invited back two months later at UFC 7 in September 1995 and fared better earning submission victories against Gerry Harris and Mark Hall until losing in the final to Marco Ruas.
Varelans capped off the year by entering the Ultimate Ultimate tournament in December where he was submitted by Dan Severn.
His next tournament was UFC 8 in February 1996 as he kept an insane turnaround between events. This show was best remembered for the debut of Gary Goodridge, who annihilated Paul Herrera with elbows from a crucifix position and won in thirteen seconds. Varelans was successful in beating Joe Moreira by decision over ten minutes but was injured and replaced by Sam Adkins in the second round, who lost to eventual tournament winner Don Frye.
Varelans fought outside the UFC taking fights in Ukraine for the IFC competing twice in one night in March 1996 that included a KO loss to Igor Vovchanchyn.
His final UFC took place in December 1996 for the Ultimate Ultimate tournament in Birmingham, Alabama. Varelans replaced Mark Coleman, who was unable to compete that night, losing to Kimo Leopoldo in the first round after a corner stoppage.
His fighting career continued beyond UFC as he fought in Brazil and went to Pancrase in April 1997 losing to Ryushi Yanagisawa. Two weeks later he fought Scott Taylor on an Extreme Challenge event and won by submission.
Varelans’ final set of fights took place within a five-day period in February 1998. He fought twice in one night on February 3rd at the World Vale Tudo Championship 5 event in Brazil, then flew to the Netherlands for his last fight that ended in a knockout by Dick Vrij for Rings Holland on February 8th.
Of course, his notoriety from NHB/MMA dovetailed into a brief stint within professional wrestling in 1996 for ECW. Varelans was brought into the promotion and did two short matches with Jason Helton, who was a Canadian wrestler out of the Dungeon that had a background fighting. The prime reason for using Varelans was to elevate Taz’s status and have him beat a known UFC fighter.
The match took place at Hardcore Heaven on June 22, 1996, under “Shoot Fight Rules” with lots of concern that Varelans wouldn’t put Taz over. Through the years, there was a famous story that Missy Hyatt had promised Varelans a sexual favor if he lost to Taz. Hyatt has denied that she offered a blowjob or sex to Varelans but has stated she was able to convince Varelans to lose. The match turned out to be a disaster with Taz choking out Varelans, and is only remembered because of the bizarre nature of it and the different stories that emerged from the promotional tactic of using Varelans.
In Jonathan Snowden’s book Shamrock, it noted that when Ken Shamrock began in the WWF, Varelans was asked to do a “No Holds Barred Exhibition” with Shamrock on an episode of RAW, but turned it down. In his place, Vernon “Tiger” White did the exhibition on April 7, 1997, from Muncie, Indiana, and was paid $5,000.
Last month, Varelans noted he was feeling sick and discovered on December 12th that he had COVID-19 and would later compare the feeling to nonstop punches to the kidneys. He was on and off a ventilator during his time at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia and eventually, went into a medically induced coma.
We send our condolences to the friends and family of Paul “The Polar Bear” Varelans, who died on Saturday at the age of 51.