Josh Barnett has designs on a second UFC title reign. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
If Josh Barnett seems a little angry, well, it’s probably because he is.
Despite winning 10 of his last 11 fights while using a nice balance of four knockouts and five submissions, the 36-year-old MMA veteran still battles for respect at nearly every turn. After compiling a 32-6 record and winning titles all across the globe, he returned to the Ultimate Fighting Championship in August for a matchup with Frank Mir. Once thought of as a dream heavyweight bout featuring two of the best ground fighters on the planet, Barnett claims it always bothered him when Mir was ranked higher while he was off fighting in Japan for the Pride Fighting Championships organization.
Set to finally meet in the Octagon, his opponent offered few compliments for Barnett’s accomplishments.
“He’s going to go out there and lose by how he usually wins,” Mir said prior to UFC 164. “Over a 10-year span, the guy hasn’t improved.”
Never one to shy away from a challenge -- on the mat, inside the cage or in front of a microphone -- Barnett retorted: “If he thinks I haven’t grown or changed in 10 years, there’s a lot he doesn’t understand. It’s always nice having a weapon that nobody is ready for.”
That weapon came in the form of his fists and knees. However, even with the impressive technical knockout, Barnett was cheated out of his full moment of glory, as Mir complained the fight was stopped too early. Yet, at the post-fight press conference, UFC President Dana White was quick to point out that “Josh Barnett was 100 percent winning that fight.”
Even so, before Barnett’s hand was raised in victory that night, another slight of sorts took place on the undercard. After fellow heavyweight Ben Rothwell knocked out Brandon Vera, he was asked who he would like to fight next. Rather than call out the winner of the Mir-Barnett fight, Rothwell stated he wanted rising star Travis Browne. Matchmaker Joe Silva and the company’s brass saw things differently. Coming off Barnett’s victorious return to the UFC following a decade-long absence, he would be the one to get a crack at Browne first. Scheduled for UFC 168 on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, the bout has a familiar theme of many recent high-profile fights the company has put on, as the new-guard representative meets an old-school combatant.
While some may occasionally confuse Barnett’s comments as nothing more than hype derived from his love for professional wrestling, he is actually a warrior all the way through to the core of his soul.
“There’s still great, true fighters coming out of this [sport],” he said, “but these guys aren’t quite as tough as they used to be. They’re way better athletes [and] they’re much better prepared, but some of these guys, they don’t have that grit.”
Separated in age by only five years, a far greater divide exists when it comes to experience between Barnett and his upcoming opponent. Browne made his professional MMA debut on Feb. 7, 2009 in Tijuana, Mexico. Two weeks prior, Barnett had secured his 27th win with a third-round technical knockout over Gilbert Yvel.
“I fought when you couldn’t even buy MMA gear at your local sports store or whatever. We had to make it ourselves. I fought when most of the time we didn’t even wear gloves. We were under attack from all angles,” Barnett said. “There wasn’t much fame. The only real reason to do it was because you just had a never-ending desire to get in there and bathe in blood.”
Fast forward to 2010, when Browne entered the UFC with a perfect 9-0 record. He has gone 6-1-1 since, and after knocking out former Strikeforce champion Alistair Overeem a few months ago, some consider Browne to be a legitimate threat to champion Cain Velasquez’s UFC title. Naturally, Barnett has other ideas. In fact, he has made it perfectly clear that he returned to the UFC for one reason: to reclaim the belt he never lost. It is an attitude White appreciates.
“That should be the only reason anybody signs here,” he said. “I don’t want guys who sign the contract to come into the UFC because they want to be on TV or whatever it is. The only reason you should ever come to the UFC and sign here is because you want to be a world champion and believe you can be here.”
Upon hearing those remarks, Barnett tweeted: “They aren’t hopes, they’re facts. It will be mine again.” The last word in that statement is one of the key pieces to the story.
In March 2002, Barnett knocked out future hall of famer Randy Couture to become the youngest-ever UFC heavyweight champion. His reign at the top was short lived, though, as he tested positive for the drug Boldenone, a veterinary steroid, and was banned by the Nevada Athletic Commission. His road back to the UFC was a long one, seeing him largely compete in Japan, where fighters were not tested for performance-enhancing drugs. Subsequent issues with test results in California in 2009 cast a dark cloud over his career for many years.
Recently, the commission moved to make history of a different variety. Barnett is the first MMA fighter required to undergo random, certified drug testing in order to receive a license to compete. The conditions are strict, too. He is open to random testing through Dec. 31, 2014. He agreed to go through with it, in part, because he knows what is at stake. At least one group is in his corner, as the UFC has agreed to pay for the additional testing, which is expected to cost in excess of $20,000. Barnett now looks to change the story from what has taken place away from the Octagon to what he is capable of doing inside of it.
“The first time around, I went all the way to the top and won the heavyweight championship of the world,” he said. “I don’t expect any different [this time around], other than to get, probably, paid a lot more money and get a lot more stardom and fandom out of this whole thing because of the explosion of MMA as a whole, probably a lot more Twitter followers, too.”
At first, White hedged a bit when asked if the winner of the Barnett-Browne matchup will be granted a title shot in 2014.
“We’ll see,” he said, acknowledging that there were many other moving pieces.
Velasquez is out of action until the latter half of 2014 after undergoing shoulder surgery. The man currently viewed as the number one contender, Fabricio Werdum, has gone on record as saying he is content to wait on the sidelines until the champion returns. More recently, rumblings from the UFC offices in Las Vegas suggest the winner of this fight will meet Werdum to decide the identity of the true number one contender. Then there are comments out of Brazil from former champion Junior dos Santos, claiming he thinks he deserves the Barnett-Browne winner.
How will it all shake out? As always, it largely depends on the performance of the two fighters inside the octagon. A spectacular win by Barnett or Browne could lead to a swelling of support for their names to be included in any talk of a top contender’s fight next. The throwback warrior that he is, Barnett wants nothing more than a clear, concise winner. His brain is not wired to revel in merely getting his hand raised.
“Don’t stop it,” are the words Barnett claims to always tell referees who visit his dressing room with pre-fight instructions. “I don’t care. Let me die. I’m not here to do anything but.”