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When Josh Barnett steps into the Bellator MMA cage at Bellator 235 on Friday in Honolulu, it will have been over three years since his last professional mixed martial arts fight. A few months after that fight—a rear-naked choke submission of Andrei Arlovski at UFC Fight Night 93—“The Warmaster” was notified by the United States Anti-Doping Agency of a potential violation stemming from an out-of-competition drug test. Barnett fought the ruling, and the case went to arbitration. When he emerged, Barnett had won vindication in the form of a 21-page decision that confirmed his claim that one of his nutritional supplements had been contaminated, absolved him of any intentional wrongdoing and explicitly stated the arbitrator’s conclusion that Barnett had not knowingly cheated. What he had lost was time, and lots of it.
A 39-month hiatus from competition is not the sort of thing any fighter wants, much less one who turned 40 during the layoff in question. However, Barnett claims that at no point during the process did he think he might not fight again.
“I think if it was up to [USADA], my career might have been over,” Barnett told Sherdog.com, “but it wasn’t up to them. I knew the truth. I didn’t give a s--- about them, and I was going to keep fighting until the truth came out.”
In light of Barnett’s history of PED violations—throughout which he has consistently and steadfastly maintained his innocence—and the fact that he requested his release from the Ultimate Fighting Championship after that ordeal while citing his lack of faith in USADA, one might think he would feel an additional twinge of vindication given the agency’s recent announcement of policy changes designed to prevent fighters from being wrongly sanctioned due to tainted supplements and false positive test results. He does, but only to a point.
“Sure, it’s nice to be proven right, but why did it even have to come to that?” Barnett asked. “I had the will and the resources to fight them, but those changes only came when a big-money fight was threatened and [Nate Diaz] called their bluff. Is there any restitution for all the other fighters who lost time out of their careers?”
After securing his UFC release, Barnett entertained offers from several promotions before settling on Bellator, having previously worked with Bellator CEO Scott Coker under the Strikeforce banner. Before he could fight in the Bellator cage, however, Barnett had some unfinished business with another longtime pursuit: professional wrestling. The April announcement of his Bellator signing came just days before the debut of Josh Barnett's Bloodsport, a wrestling event featuring mixed martial artists and pro wrestlers in worked matches that harken back aesthetically to proto-MMA, no-holds-barred fighting and catch wrestling. It was a fitting reflection of Barnett himself, a man who has been working in pro wrestling for nearly as long as he has been fighting and a man who is probably the most famous catch wrestling exponent in MMA history. When asked for the driving force behind Bloodsport’s unique vibe, Barnett does not hesitate to clarify who owns the vision.
“Why do you think it looks the way it does?” he asked. “It’s my show.”
Barnett’s Bellator debut had to wait for the second Bloodsport event, which took place in September and was already in the works at the time of his signing. It was then delayed further as the promotion sought an opponent for him, and when an opponent was announced, the choice was surprising: fellow new signee Ronny Markes, who had competed most recently as a light heavyweight in the Professional Fighters League after coming to prominence as a middleweight in the UFC. Barnett admits he was taken by surprise.
“I knew next to nothing about Ronny Markes until his name came up [with Bellator],” he said, “but Bellator told me they were having trouble finding me an opponent, and here’s a guy who was calling me out—respectfully. He’s a younger guy who wants to make his name off me, and I can respect that.”
Once the callout became an official offer, Barnett performed his due diligence. Asked what threats the 31-year-old Brazilian brings to the cage, the veteran’s tone conveys the offhanded confidence of a man who has been fighting some of the best heavyweights in the world for over two decades. It is not that Markes presents no unique dangers; it is that best practices stay largely the same regardless of opponent.
“Well, you never want to get caught with something crazy, some bolo punch,” Barnett said, “and I probably don’t want to end up with him on my back.”
Whatever the result in Honolulu, Barnett appears eager to make up for lost time. It seems fair to ask what motivates him to wish to do so. After all, he is 42, has multiple other ventures—including Bloodsport and his MMA gym, UWF USA—and his fight résumé already includes UFC and Pancrase titles, as well as runner-up finishes in Pride Fighting Championships and Strikeforce heavyweight tournaments generally considered the two greatest of their kind in the sport’s history. What makes him come back after three years away to take on a tough opponent of relatively low name value compared to some of the legends already on Barnett’s ledger? Barnett’s tone in responding makes two things clear: There was never any question in his mind that he would be back, and even at this stage, he is still hungry for achievement in the sport and intoxicated by the possibilities.
“I have a limited amount of time to do this thing I love,” Barnett said. “Even more limited now. There are still things I want to do while I can. Adding another belt to my collection would be nice. I’d still like to fight [Fedor Emelianenko] before it’s all said and done, but it all starts with this fight.”
Barnett admits that one reason Bellator was an attractive option is the potential to fight again in Japan, where many of his greatest career moments have taken place. Bellator is holding an event at Saitama Super Arena on Dec. 28, as well as supplying several fighters for Rizin Fighting Federation’s New Year’s Eve show in the same fabled venue. While he admits to disappointment at not being on either card—“They knew I wanted to fight in Japan, but I’m not in charge of those things”—he appears more than anything to be happy to be fighting again anywhere and focused on the job ahead of him. About that job, the upcoming fight with Markes, Barnett offers up a tongue-in-cheek vision of how he would like things to go. Like his wrestling promotion and his career in general, it marries MMA, sports entertainment and catch wrestling seamlessly.
“Stick him with a hard left jab, then a huge right clothesline, into a Boston Crab, which he escapes from,” Barnett said, “then a gut wrench for the finish and call it a night.”