Early UFC fighter Paul Varelans dies at 51 due to COVID-19

Paul Varelans, a well-known name from the UFC's early days, died Saturday after a battle with COVID-19, his live-in girlfriend, Kim Watson, confirmed to ESPN on Monday. He was 51 years old.

Varelans was admitted in December to Emory University Hospital Midtown in Atlanta with coronavirus and was subsequently put into a medically induced coma, Watson said. On Friday, family and friends were told Varelans didn't have much time left. News of Varelans' death circulated Saturday on Facebook.

"After a solid month of fighting off COVID while in a coma on various machinery fighting off multiple infections Paul's body finally grew exhausted," close friend Shane Viens wrote on Facebook. "Anyone that truly knew Paulie knew he was all heart. A fighter to his core he was not one to give up and he [gave] us his all. He left us [Saturday] morning. I was able to tell him I loved him one last time on speaker phone."

Watson said Varelans fell ill early in December and tested positive for COVID-19 in an exam that came back Dec. 12. On Dec. 15, Varelans took a turn for the worse, and Watson, who also tested positive for COVID-19, called him an ambulance. Watson said doctors told her that Varelans was intubated almost immediately when he arrived at the hospital.

Varelans wrote on Facebook about his illness following his coronavirus diagnosis.

"Best way I can compare the feel of COVID-19 in my experience is, it's like fighting a guy who specializes in kidney punches," Varelans wrote. "They never stop coming."

Varelans was most known for his size -- he was 6-foot-8 and well over 300 pounds -- and amiable nature. He was nicknamed "The Polar Bear," and his stature was one of the reasons the UFC ended up redesigning its original cage to be larger, with a taller fence.

Varelans debuted at UFC 6 in July 1995, beating Cal Worsham with a vicious elbow in the quarterfinals of a tournament, before getting knocked out by Tank Abbott. Varelans returned to beat Gerry Harris and Mark Hall to make the tournament finals at UFC 7, less than two months later.

In the UFC 7 finals, Varelans was upended by Muay Thai specialist Marco Ruas in a very influential fight. It was the first time in UFC history a fight ended with leg kicks. Ruas, a much smaller man than Varelans, was one of the first mixed martial arts fighters to show United States fans how effective that technique could be.

"Before that, American fans didn't know a leg kick from a bowl of cereal," UFC co-creator Art Davie told ESPN. "That fight was actually pretty seminal."

Varelans wrestled at West Valley High School in Fairbanks, Alaska, and played football there and at San Jose State.

He went 9-9 in his MMA career, retiring in 1998. Varelans' time in the early days of MMA took him to places like Brazil, Japan, Ukraine and the Netherlands to compete. In 1996, Varelans made a few appearances for ECW, a cult-favorite pro wrestling promotion that was red-hot at the time.

"Everybody liked him," Davie said. "If you look at the people who knew him from wrestling and MMA, everyone says he was a very likable guy. He was a gentle giant. My recollection of him was that he was a gentleman to do business with."

Watson said a "kindhearted" nature extended throughout Varelans' life. People sometimes mistook his enormous size for him being unkind -- until they got to know him, she said.

"Besides all of his athletic accomplishments, he was just really loved," said Watson, who had lived with Varelans in Atlanta since 2018. "He loved kids and animals. He was very kindhearted. I think most people see this imposing force of nature. But even still, when you were around him and knew him, you don't realize he's that big until people see him in the grocery store and say, 'Oh, my God, how tall are you?'"