Tunnel Vision

By Yael Grauer Sep 5, 2011
Josh Barnett has his sights set on winning the Strikeforce grand prix. | Photo: Daniel Herbertson

After submitting Brett Rogers in the first round of the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix in June, Josh Barnett turned his attention to the semifinals. To say his eyes are firmly fixed on the goal ahead would be an understatement. Although he typically brims with witty anecdotes and humorous, if controversial, statements, Barnett was unusually reserved as he approached the next round of the tournament.

“He’s way more serious because he knows that this is a crucial moment in his life,” says Erik Paulson, Barnett’s longtime coach of nine years. “He’s a lot more focused.”

Though Barnett has been filling his non-training time by working through the box set of the anime television series “Last Exile,” playing video games -- including “Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team,” “Limbo” and “Shank” -- and listening to his usual blend of heavy metal, especially Toxic Holocaust’s new album, the heavyweight fighter seems anything but distracted. In fact, he is getting ready to square off against Russian kickboxer Sergei Kharitonov, who he agrees represents the most difficult competition he has faced in a while. His training for the bout -- which will anchor the Strikeforce event on Saturday at the U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati -- involves more of the same.

“There’s no reason for me to change anything I’m doing,” Barnett says. “I feel all I need to do is show up doing the best that I do and in shape, and I’m ready to go.”

In wake of the Zuffa, LLC, takeover of Strikeforce, the MMA climate has become a little more volatile, especially with Golden Glory standout and former Strikeforce heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem getting cut, not just from the grand prix but from the promotion altogether -- even after he defeated Brazilian jiu-jitsu phenom Fabricio Werdum in the quarterfinals.

“It was really shocking and very disappointing to find that, now, the champion is out and will not be in the tournament, but you’ve got to take care of business either way,” says Barnett, who has not lost a fight in nearly five years. “It was also seemingly sort of a wakeup call to anyone who thought they had any potential leverage that they could use against the UFC. It shows that if you think that anybody is too important to be let go, that’s not so.”

Russian legend Fedor Emelianenko was also released from the promotion after losing three fights in a row, the latest to reigning Strikeforce light heavyweight champion Dan Henderson in July.

“I guess they do have their reasoning in terms of the fights that he lost and whatnot, and that’s kind of the difficult thing with the UFC,” Barnett says. “If you lose a couple of fights -- hell, if you lose one fight -- you can get cut, and I can imagine he comes with quite a heavy price tag, you know, so perhaps in their eyes, at least from a business standpoint, it’s better to cut him and then renegotiate [and maybe] bring him back for less.”

Speculation abounds about potential roster cuts after the grand prix is completed, but Barnett seems unfazed.

“I guess anything is really possible, but I’m not really wasting any time at night worrying about it now,” he says. “I’m doing OK so far. I’ve got my fights lined up and I’m ready to go, so we just move on.”

Barnett describes his training for Kharitonov as basic, meat and potatoes-type stuff.

“It’s all pretty rudimentary,” he says. “It’s just a lot of hard work. I could say, ‘Yeah, this s--- made me want to pass out today,’ [and you’d ask,] ‘Why would you do that to yourself?’ Well, either you do, or the other guy does, so figure it out.”

Sergei Kharitonov File Photo

Kharitonov is a hardened finisher.
“The Warmaster” has been outspoken about his belief that training protocols do not matter. From his perspective, either you are a fighter or you are not.

“There’s now so many different methodologies and protocols and all this other stuff, and some people are going around thinking CrossFit’s going to make them the greatest fighter or they think doing this thing or that thing ... there’s always, everywhere you go, all these hairbrained schemes and fancy schmancy ideas and supplements and everything and [people thinking] all this stuff is what’s going to make them the best, but the fact of the matter is that you can take all the stuff out there, you can train with all the different styles and systems and protocols and do all this stuff, but none of that s--- matters if you’re not a fighter,” Barnett says. “It just comes down to mentality, and that stuff isn’t really all that useful if your head ain’t right. You’re not a fighter. You’re just not meant to go out there and smash someone’s face in until they stop moving and just walk onto the next guy. If you’ve got that doubt and that fear in the back of your mind, if you think you’re going to just outcompete somebody,
well, I just don’t see it happening.”

Paulson, who has coached Barnett for the better part of a decade, has seen major improvements in the often-controversial fighter’s takedowns, ground game and aggression over the years.

“I also encouraged him to go to a bunch of jiu-jitsu tournaments, and he completely tore through everyone, because he’s angry,” Paulson says. “In the gym, he fights through anger, but when he fights, most of the time, I don’t see that angry side, but he has that; his mom even said when he was born he was an angry baby. He was angry when he came out, which is funny because he hasn’t changed.”

Barnett will face Kharitonov, a powerful puncher who knocked out former UFC champion Andrei Arlovski in the tournament quarterfinals. The 31-year-old Pride Fighting Championships veteran has proven a potent finisher throughout his career, with 17 of his 18 professional victories coming via knockout, technical knockout or submission. Kharitonov has 17 first-round stoppages on his resume.

“We all know that Kharitonov loves to slug and, when he hits the ground, he likes to grapple but would rather stand up and punch,” Paulson says. “So we’ve got strategies to strike with him, to take him down and to keep the fight in Josh’s favor, and then, obviously, either [get the] knock out or submission.”

On the other end of the bracket stands wrestler Daniel Cormier, who defeated Jeff Monson by unanimous decision in the grand prix alternate bout at Strikeforce “Overeem vs. Werdum.” He squares off against heavy-handed Antonio Silva, who ousted Emelianenko from the tournament in a second-round technical knockout. Although Silva is heavily favored to win the bout, Barnett sees it going the other way.

“I just think that styles make matchups, and I just think for “Bigfoot,” every fight that he’s won usually comes down to him getting the takedown,” he says. “And I just don’t see him taking Cormier down.”

Barnett, a former UFC champion and 2006 Pride open weight grand prix finalist, will enter his semifinal matchup with Kharitonov on a seven-fight winning street.

“I just know I got a fight coming up and I’m ready to kick somebody’s ass,” he says. “Training is going well and I’m looking forward to [pushing] through this one so that I can figure out when this next round’s going to come and who I’m going to be fighting so I can prepare. I want to win the tournament.”


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