An underlying theme permeates throughout the legends: They fight for neither money nor fame. They do it because they love it and always have. Guys like Josh Barnett were forged in the furnace of the unappreciated. He went anywhere to find a fight, one time circumventing a brief family “intervention” about his passion. They were concerned about his future.
Barnett did everything from cleaning and mopping a dojo in exchange for training to traveling hundreds of miles to some obscure place, not knowing whether or not there would even be a fight at the end of the journey. An interesting turning point came when he was sophomore at the University of Montana, around the age of 20. He was approached about his calling, which eventually transformed “The Warmaster” into an all-time great mixed martial arts heavyweight.
“I don’t know if you would call it an intervention or not, but it kind of felt that way from my grandfather, my dad and mom basically encouraging me to stay in school,” Barnett said. “The meeting was something organic. My grandfather is a lawyer and a very bright man. By then, I had decided to forego higher learning to beat up my brains cells that I managed to accumulate in the first place. They felt the thing I was pursuing wouldn’t yield the kind of dividends that you could build a life off of, at best. At worst, they feared I’d be maimed or crippled. “I told them that I could go back to school in a wheelchair: ‘I can’t be a fighter without taking advantage of the physical window I had and I was going to take it now,’” he added. “When it came time for me to travel the world, they knew I had a talent for [fighting], and they decided to support me. Then, I didn’t know whether MMA would be a full-blown career, but I knew it was something that I wanted to be heavily involved with. A good reason for fighting was because I wanted to see the world and I got to punch someone’s lights out at the same time.”
He did see the world, and the world has seen him. Barnett battled injuries about which he never spoke, beaten legends, like Randy Couture, and defeated real-life giants, like the 6-foot-10 Gan McGee and 7-foot Dutch kickboxer Semmy Schilt. Nothing, apparently, has ever been too big for Barnett.
Peel through the hair, the bluster and, sometimes, the rage, and one finds Barnett to be a cerebral, patient, calculating, witty guy who is nearing age 40 and can still kick your ass. At the base of that ability comes simplicity: a natural desire to fight.
“That’s the thing more so about today, if you ask for respect, you’ll never get it, but if you don’t care what other people think about you, then they seem to respect you more,” Barnett said with a laugh. “If you fight for just the money, the motivation is not going to be enough. Some people that love MMA find money as a great motivator. I won’t discount that fact, but I believe that fighting is something that you have to give your whole heart to be even a mediocre fighter. No one knows how far that they’re going to make it.
“Not all of us are as talented as the other guy,” he added. “There are bad breaks, injuries, bad luck -- there’s a lot of things that can happen. It’s just such a difficult thing to be a professional fighter of any discipline. You have to give it your all. It’s the only way you’ll find any mode of success in this. If you’re going to be a world champion, you have to approach it in the same way. It’s not a forgiving sport. It can lead to a lot of fulfillment, I believe, if you just have the right mindset.”
Barnett continues to be active in the Ultimate Fighting Championship and has been training fighters for the last 10 years. He has three acting credits to his name and will appearing in the movie “Never Back Down: No Surrender,” with Michael Jai White, set for release on June 7. He also remains involved as a commentator for New Japan Pro Wrestling on AXS-TV, calling matches alongside Jim Ross.
“I like to keep my hand in different things, just to keep life interesting and not limit myself,” Barnett said, “but fighting and the world of combat sports still holds -- and will hold -- a major part of my life. You really have to commit [to the idea] that it’s a lifestyle. It does become a part of you. I didn’t decide to fight as a career for any debt of gratitude. I fight because I love it and I had to do it my way, and fighting is something that I believe in. Bringing MMA to the masses was, and is, important to me. The young guys are a lot different in many ways. They’ve had it easier than the older guys. In the end, it doesn’t matter. Today or yesterday, it’s about loving what you do.”
A Most Memorable Victory
Barnett still views his rear-naked choke submission on Yuki Kondo under the Pancrase banner in August 2003 as one of his most memorable victories. Kondo tapped 3:26 into the third round at Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo, as Barnett captured the open weight King of Pancrase championship.
“The full circle of history of that, which is significant to me, is that Matt Hume won at the first Pancrase, and here I am, one of his students, back around nine years later to win the title while I was still involved with New Japan Pro Wrestling,” Barnett said. “I had my whole cadre of New Japan pro wrestlers in my corner that night and saw that flag of New Japan Pro Wrestling raised high that night.”
The setting was not lost on Barnett.
“It was big to me that it was on the Pancrase 10th Anniversary show, even though they had been doing fights for 10 years,” he said. “What was somewhat unusual leading into that fight was I was on the road on tour with professional wrestling. I had brought up wanting to fight for the title, and I had a connection to the president of Pancrase at the time through one of the New Japan office guys. Word got to him, and they hit me up about it. We sat down and negotiated this whole thing, and I brought up the fact that I beat Semmy Schilt, who wasn’t one of their guys but was a titleholder in Pancrase. I told them I was as worthy as having a title shot as anyone.
“I trained for three weeks after my pro wrestling tour, but I trained while I was wrestling, too,” Barnett continued. “I came in prepared and walked away with one of the Holy Grails of mixed martial arts. It also meant a lot to me because it was the first time I had been there in Japan for a number of years. In Japan, they did far more 40,000-plus shows than any UFC show. They still have attendance records that far eclipse anything that we have ever done here. They were the first to have a real media market, where you can turn on any TV station and see an MMA fighter on a commercial. In Japan, they recognized MMA fighters as professional athletes before anything in the United States. They love a great fight. It’s a different culture over there and a different culture for fighters of any sort.
“That adoration has had a difficult effect on me at times,” he added. “I’ve had women and men shaking and crying when they’ve met me. It’s a very unusual thing that no one can prepare you for, though no woman ever came up and asked me to sign her breast. Knowing my luck, the first one that would do that would be a guy.”
Mean Mug Benefits
No one questions that Barnett is massive. He is listed at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, but he has had a tendency to battle much larger guys than himself. Barnett once accepted a one-off bout in Brisbane, Australia, against Geronimo dos Santos, who had huge arms and a menacing glare. The matchup headlined an Impact Fighting Championship event. That was about all Barnett knew going in.
“I didn’t know much about [Dos Santos], and to a degree, it was like the old days, when you wouldn’t get the scouting reports that much; you would just show up and fight,” Barnett said. “You had to find someone willing to fight you, and that’s all it took. I had a contract that allowed me to fight abroad, and someone approached my management. The only downfall at the time was that I got stiffed on half the money that they owed me. Otherwise, I had a fantastic time down there.
“We were there a week, and I knew dos Santos’ record and who he fought,” he added. “I was told that he liked to strike, but my thinking was, ‘Let’s see how he acts once he’s in front of me.’ The first time I ever saw him was at the weigh-in. We weighed in and faced off. I didn’t get a whole lot of read off of him at that point. My first impression was that he was massive, with hardly any fat on him. He also looked like he sure liked to do a lot of curls. They used a cage. I didn’t have a whole lot of expectations. I was expected to win, but in the back before the fight, I kind of made contact with him and I think I psyched him out, so when we got in the cage, I looked across at him and he didn’t seem that particularly fierce.”
Barnett took immediate control; and though dos Santos managed to get out from under him, it did not take Barnett long to pull him down again and land a barrage of punches to stop it.
How did Barnett psych out the monstrous Brazilian?
“I just looked at him backstage before we fought,” he said. “I’ve been told that I have a pretty ugly mug.”
Battling a Giant and Other Issues
Barnett fought Schilt for the first time at UFC 32, submitting him with an armbar. Their rematch took place on New Year’s Eve at Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye 2003 in Kobe, Japan. Schilt, who went on to become a four-time K-1 World Grand Prix winner, was on a two-fight losing streak at the time and had payback in mind. The encounter was not as explosive as “The Warmaster” anticipated.
“I do remember the second Schilt fight, and this time, he was around 286 [pounds] and he’s around seven feet tall,” Barnett said. “I had caught food poisoning a couple of weeks prior to the fight. I got there and went after his legs, but I wasn’t able to get them. He’s throwing all of these kicks at me and hitting the sides of my gloves, causing a cut on my face. He was giving me hell, and I was still reeling from the effects of having food poisoning.
“Nonetheless, this man wanted revenge from beating him years before,” he added. “I kept after him and kept after him and scored another takedown in the third round. I snagged his arm again to beat him by armbar for a second time.”
‘Such a Killer’
Barnett faced Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic three times, and it gnaws at him that he was never at his best against the Croatian kickboxer. Filipovic -- whom Barnett considers the best opponent he ever fought -- beat Barnett in 46 seconds the first time they fought in 2004, decisioned him in a rematch almost a year later and won their trilogy bout when “The Warmaster” submitted to first-round punches in the final of the 2006 Pride Fighting Championships open weight grand prix.
“Mirko Filipovic was such a killer,” Barnett said. “I hurt my shoulder in training the first time we fought. I tore my labrum during camp, and in the first round of the first fight, I kind of caught his leg, took him down and out my shoulder goes. I was completely unprepared for that to happen. I had to tap out because I blew out my shoulder.”
Barnett had to undergo reconstructive surgery on his left shoulder. It took him 11 months to return.
“I shouldn’t have ever fought Filipovic the second time, but the Pride people wanted the rematch and I should have listened to my body,” Barnett said. “My body was screaming, because I had hardly done anything at a high level for nearly a year and they expected me to be in top shape for Mirko. It was a really bad camp, and in some ways, it was the worst performance in the ring that night. I did manage to land some good shots on him and took some good shots. I needed more time to be prepared, and I’m kind of lucky that Mirko didn’t land a killer shot.”
Competing at less than 100 percent has become a Barnett hallmark. He fought with a reconstructed knee against Couture, a torn labrum against Filipovic and food poisoning in the Schilt rematch.
“You do it because you love it,” Barnett said. “I wasn’t going to back down.”
Dr. Barnett to the Rescue
Most of Barnett’s early experiences came from the years he spent in Japan. Around 2008, there was one lasting memory that came outside of the cage.
“Being in Japan was an experience that made me feel like you weren’t in Kansas anymore,” Barnett said. “It was part of what I was looking for, trying to see the world in the first place, competing over there and the way MMA was treated and how it was run. It was my first introduction to the big time. This was serious business. There was a lot of people involved over there at the time, and the stakes and production was significantly better than anything I ever experienced at that point. It doesn’t mean that we didn’t have any fun. We’re all out after a fight in Japan, and I’ll leave names and specifics out to protect to innocent, but we were all having a good time. Everyone is throwing down beers, and we decide to go to a karaoke bar. We head over there and I’m singing Motorhead and Styx, and we’re all ingesting a fair amount of alcohol. One of the fighters there is absolutely trashed, but I have to say, to this day, he’s one of the people I have come across that’s been able to stay somewhat coherent, even though he’s essentially a walking alcohol-filled zombie.
“It amazed me that the guy was still on his feet still attempting to have a conversation with people. It was something else,” he continued. “We’re all hanging out, and there was this shower room attached to the karaoke bar. One of the fighters decides to jump in there like he’s taking a shower and rubbing his butt against the window of the shower stall. Everyone is there. This place is wacky. Japan can be wacky, especially for us Americans. I was talking to this guy who invited this all-girl singing group when I heard this crash. I was looking around [to see] where it came from, and I see this fighter kneeling on the floor and there is this huge puddle around him. I thought someone got a little too drunk and spilled a ton of red wine. Oh, that’s not red wine. That’s blood. I jumped up, and this guy has blood pouring out of his wrist and his hand. I grabbed him immediately and reached for an oshibori, which is one of those Japanese wet towels that they give you.
“I tied it to his hand and his wrist and I stood him up,” Barnett added. “I looked at the wound and there was this huge, ragged gash in his palm. I tied off one towel around his wrist and another around his hand. We took him to the hospital, and I sat with him. A few hours later, he came out with this whole mass of bandages over his hand, and he was still drunk. As he came out, there’s a path of blood drops following him. He was so drunk he couldn’t stop bleeding. Thankfully, I was able to cut off the flow of blood early on. It turns out, I found out later, the guy was so inebriated that he fell into someone with a wine glass in their hand. The glass shattered but the stem of the glass was intact, and this guy landed right on the stem, ripping into his hand.”
The Early Days
Sometimes people forget how long MMA has been considered a mainstream American sport: not very long. It is not lost on Barnett. In the late 1990s, early 2000s, fighters took the call and went, no questions asked. Each time you sat in your car, turned the ignition and began rolling to who-knows-where, doubts sometimes crept in. While attending the University of Montana in 1996, Barnett sought out anyone who was bragging about martial arts, perhaps someone in the weight room who had seen a UFC event.
The next question: “Wanna fight?” Barnett was actually able to get some people to fight him. There was an open area in the Montana rec center, with three full-length basketball courts and a rock climbing wall. A cargo net separated everything, so the basketballs did not go bouncing into the other areas.
Barnett set down mats and fought all comers. It generated so much curiosity that the kids playing pick-up basketball would climb the nets and watch. The rules were talked out, and to anyone watching, it was apparent the combatants were not angry at each other. This was not a street fight. It was just a bunch of guys in assorted attire -- some in shorts, T-shirts and wrestling shoes, like Barnett, others in their gis -- all with an eccentric common interest. That was the beginning for Barnett, and it was comforting to find like-minded people who were willing to engage.
This spurred on other adventures.
“Back in the beginning of NHB (no-holds-barred fighting), it was about whatever you could do and whenever you can make it happen,” Barnett said. “You had to jump on the opportunity if it could possibly pan out. I remember one time, when myself and a bunch of guys all loaded up in two cars and ran all the way out to Nampa, Idaho, from Seattle, Washington, probably around 2000. We drove all of the way out there and got to our hotel room. That part was covered, but we started to see the signs that the fight wasn’t going to happen. Then we show up to the venue, and they didn’t have a ring, a cage or anything. They were trying to find some kind of net. We met some of our potential opponents, who I think were quite thankful that they didn’t have to fight us in the first place. I don’t even know what their thinking was. These guys looked at us like we were from another planet. I hesitate to call the guy who put it together a promoter, because he had no idea what he was doing.
“Matt Hume tried to salvage the thing, telling the promoter we could just go down to the local park and whoever is there, we could set up a fight for ourselves, but there weren’t any takers,” he added. “I don’t know if we were able to shake some money out of the guy for at least some travel expenses. We had to travel back to Seattle empty-handed, I believe. That was what you sort of dealt with back then.”
Opportunities were uncovered in obscure locations.
“You did what you could to find fights,” Barnett said. “I remember meeting a guy online in an AOL chat room -- that’s how long it seems -- where a lot of us would meet and talk about fighting, other than the Combat List, which was an original full-contact website where The Underground was started. People were fighting whenever they could. You talk to a guy, and if they’re in the area or are traveling through, you would meet and talk about fighting. They’d list their matches -- they had so many Pancrase-rules matches -- or who they sparred and they’d give you their resume. It was like Tinder for ass kicking. I met a guy one time at the Washington Athletic Club, here in downtown Seattle, where I’d never been. I was somewhat familiar with it, but here I show up with my backpack, this kid from college possibly coming up on 20.
“I showed up and told the desk people that I’m so-and-so’s guest,” he added. “This is a pretty ritzy place, not just some place you go to work out. You go to this type of place to hob knob with other successful people who have graduate degrees: lawyers, bankers, those types. So I go to the judo room and I met this guy, and once we got past the introductions, we worked out what the rules were going to be and we fought it out. We went two or three times or so and trained a little bit afterwards, then spoke about fighting. Looking back, it was a surreal thing, but that’s what we had to do. We had to find our way of being and fighting. We wanted to fight, we wanted to train, we didn’t want to sit in a dojo and have a grand master tell us some things and do a bunch of fancified movements without any purpose behind them. We looked for anything we could. We wanted to be fighters; we wanted to get out there and use what we felt worked and felt we could find something that worked better. It was an interesting era.”