Paul Varelans, a 51-year-old Fairbanks mixed martial artist and UFC pioneer known as “The Polar Bear,” died earlier this month in Atlanta after battling COVID-19 for a month.
”He is the greatest fighter that came out of Alaska,” friend Sven Holmberg said. “He is legendary.”
Varelans, a graduate of West Valley High School, was “one of the most popular figures from the early days of the UFC,” according to ufc.com.
He was 4-4 in the UFC and 9-9 professionally with wins over fighters like Cal Worsham, Mark Hall and Joe Moreira. He was best known for his size: He stood 6-foot-8 and weighed more than 350 pounds, and the UFC had to redesign the octagon cage to accommodate him.
”Paul was the original big man of the UFC,” friend Shane Viens said via Facebook post. “He was larger than life, literally and metaphorically.”
On Dec. 12, Varelans announced on Facebook that he contracted COVID-19.
“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,” he wrote a day later. “They never stop coming.”
Kim Watson, Varelans’ longtime girlfriend who lived with him in Atlanta for the past two years, said Varelans’ symptoms worsened soon after he tested positive. She called an ambulance on Dec. 15.
”Of course he didn’t want to go to the hospital,” she said. “He was pretty coherent — he asked for his charger and things like that — but he was in a very bad shape.”
At Emory University Hospital Midtown, Varelans was put on a ventilator and later into a medically induced coma with a goal to slowly bring him back up, Watson said.
But his health kept declining, even though “some days (it) seemed like he was going to pull through,” Viens said. Varelans fought infection after infection that kept his heart from stabilizing, Viens said.
He died Jan. 15 after battling the disease for 31 days.
Varelans had an impressive stature even as a child. Kirsten O’Malley, who lived a few doors down from Varelans at Chenana Apartments, remembers that when Varelans was in the third grade, he “towered over his tiny (but extremely stern) German mother, who was struggling to find a way to discipline her son.”
“She once took a large, flat snow shovel to his behind, ‘spanking’ him in the parking lot in front of our apartments,” O’Malley wrote in an email to the News-Miner. “I don’t think Paul felt more than a vague irritation that she was making his punishment public, and rolled his eyes and she sweated out her attempts to make him conform.”
Varelans grew up in Fairbanks and attended Woodriver, Ryan and West Valley schools.
He wrestled and played football at West Valley, sent football highlight reels to a number of colleges and wound up winning a scholarship to play at San Jose State.
”Basically he got that scholarship himself, without any help, and left Fairbanks at 18,” Wilson said.
That courage and initiative inspired others, Holmberg said.
”Paul always went for it. He would get knocked out and he would get up, and we all saw it,” he said. “He was the first one to go out into the world, he was fearless that way, and it influenced me.”
Varelans competed in UFC and Extreme Championship Wrestling from 1995-98. His work took him to Brazil, Japan, Ukraine and the Netherlands, Watson said.
The early days of UFC fights were very different from what the sport is today, with fewer rules and safety precautions, and “no plan or gloves,” Holmberg said.
”For us, watching his fights was terrifying,” Holmberg said. “Back then in the early fights, I’m surprised nobody got killed. But Paul could take a punch like nobody I’ve ever seen, and then he would use his elbows and crumble them. Smaller guys are always faster, but Paul would persevere.”
Though Varelans gravitated to violent, physical sports, his friends remember a soft, artistic nature. Watson said Varelans was a storyteller who wrote poetry and worked on a children’s book about a polar bear and vulture, with a message about climate change.
Holmberg remembers discussing literature with Varelans, who he said “had a brain of a philosopher on top of being a fighter.”
”He was a gladiator who liked to read Franz Kafka,” he said.
His kindness is a common thread in every interview about him.
”He was a gentle giant with a heart bigger than his body,” Viens wrote. “He loved animals. He loved kids. He had a huge heart and would check up on friends randomly.”
He loved Alaska too, and ”was very proud to be one of us,” Viens said.
Holmberg said Alaska helped shape Varelans.
“When we were growing up in Fairbanks, there were not that many people; it was like Wild West back then,” he said. “The mountains were your peers, the mountains were your brother, and that’s who you needed to compete with — Mount Hayes, Mount Deborah. ... Maybe it made Paul bigger?”
Alena Naiden is a staff writer at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. She can be reached at 907-459-7587. Follow her at twitter.com/FDNMlocal.