In looking back at the early years of Josh Barnett’s career, it is remarkable to note how quickly everything happened, as well as how young Barnett was. In mid-2002, the man then known as “The Baby-Faced Assassin” was just 24 years old but had already won the Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight belt, then lost it in MMA’s first major performance-enhancing drug violation. Coming off of three straight finishes over Semmy Schilt, Bobby Hoffman and Randy Couture, Barnett was quite possibly the best heavyweight on the planet, but lacked a clear direction forward.
After a one-off fight in New Japan Pro Wrestling, Barnett signed with Pancrase, where he would fight for the openweight title that had coincidentally been vacated when Schilt departed for the UFC.
Barnett’s debut took place at the Pancrase 10th Anniversary Show on Aug. 31, 2003, in Tokyo. Ensuring that the title fight would be a very open-weight affair indeed, Barnett faced Yuki Kondo. Already a Pancrase legend by that point with over 50 fights in the promotion, Kondo had actually fought three times in the UFC, including a shot at Tito Ortiz’s light heavyweight title, but was physically a welterweight.
As might be expected, Barnett’s tremendous size and strength advantage played a key role in the fight, especially since Barnett was also a tremendously skilled grappler. Most of the first round was spent in the clinch, where Barnett punished Kondo with powerful knees to the body. In the second, the American landed the first of many takedowns, and began to work Kondo over. By 2003, Pancrase had updated its rules to match those of most other organizations, and ground-and-pound was no longer severely restricted, but nonetheless Barnett focused primarily on advancing position and looking for the submission.
By the third round, as an extremely game Kondo continued to fight, looking for offense off of his back, Barnett began unleashing harder strikes on the ground, including some brutal punches to the ribs. Finally, a flurry of punches to the head caused Kondo to turn his back, whereupon Barnett quickly sunk in a rear-naked choke for the tap. A little over a year after he lost his UFC title in controversy and disgrace, Barnett was the open-weight King of Pancrase. He would defend that title twice before the promotion retired the open-weight title and Barnett moved on to Pride Fighting Championships.
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