Paul "The Polar Bear" Varelans, an early UFC star, lost his battle with COVID-19 Saturday, passing away at the age of 51.
Varelans had been in a medically induced coma at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, GA, in intensive care, on and off a ventilator and dialysis since December 12th. He had posted on social that he felt really sick two days earlier. Later, after testing positive, he said he felt the worst he ever had like he was in a fight with an expert on kidney punches who was hammering him and the punches never stopped.
Billed at 6-foot-8 and 300 pounds, Varelans was one of the early UFC PPV stars. A former San Jose State football player who got his nickname because he grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska, he was training with someone in martial arts when his instructor found out about UFC. However, the instructor was too small for an unlimited weight division tournament, and Varelans, with very little skill and great size, debuted at UFC 6 on July 14, 1995, in Casper, Wyoming, in an eight-man tournament.
Varelans had little going for him as a fighter past that he was very tough and could absorb a great deal of punishment with his size helping him win some fights.
He won a sloppy first fight in that aforementioned tournament and was eliminated by referee stoppage in the semifinals against Tank Abbott in his own first UFC tournament. Varelans' face was busted up and he was clearly outgunned, but garnered some popularity for his fire, still challenging Abbott after it was stopped.
At UFC 7 in Buffalo, NY, he went to the finals, winning his first two fights in less than 70 seconds each before facing Marco Ruas. An experienced Vale Tudo star from Brazil who showed Americans the value of leg kicks in a fight, Ruas chopped Varelans down for 13 minutes until he could no longer stand.
Off his UFC name, Varelans fought in Japan, the Ukraine, Brazil, and the Netherlands. He did one ECW match against Taz at Hardcore Heaven 1996 which turned into a fiasco. The idea was to have Taz convincingly beat a UFC star to get over his shooter image, but Varelans didn't want to lose clean. It ended up with Perry Saturn kicking Varelans in the head unbeknownst to him followed by Taz choking him out, but it was not the convincing win they wanted.
Varelans also worked for pro wrestling companies RINGS and Pancrase. By comparison, his two matches in those companies were both legit including a win over Dick Vrij, a major star of the 1990s.