MMA in 2016 is in a very interesting place. Over the past couple of years, veterans of the sport have made quite the resurgence. That has made for some matchups that we never thought we’d see, matchups we thought had fallen by the wayside, and plenty of moments that warm the nostalgic cockles of the heart. Now, Josh Barnett isn’t exactly a fighter whose name evokes pleasant feelings from MMA fans. From being one of the first fighters to test positive for PEDs, to being stripped of the heavyweight title (after a second positive test), to being the straw that broke the camel’s back for Affliction (after a third positive test), the man hasn’t exactly endeared himself to his chosen public. Add to that his pro wrestling roots, and there can be plenty of things that could rub someone the wrong way about Barnett. If we can take the time to look past those transgressions — numerous that they are — Barnett has done an admirable job of providing entertainment to the MMA masses over the past 15 years. He’s also taken part in some fights recently that the MMA world thought we had missed out on (most notably against Frank Mir). He’ll check another name off that list on Saturday when he takes on another former UFC heavyweight champion, Andrei Arlovski, in the main event at UFC Fight Night 93. There may not be enough time for Barnett to work his way back into the good graces of MMA fans, but hey, if we can be happy Michael Bisping finally busted through the glass ceiling and became UFC champion, isn’t anything possible? With that in mind, put whatever negativity you have towards Barnett aside, and enjoy some of his finest work over the past 15 years. Heck, I’ll even start it off with him getting punched in the face really REALLY hard.
February 23, 2001 UFC 30 vs. Pedro Rizzo Fight Pass Link: Josh Barnett vs. Pedro Rizzo – UFC 30
Just 23 years old and with only one UFC bout to his name, Barnett was tasked with former title contender Pedro Rizzo. The Brazilian was just eight months removed from losing in a title bout to Kevin Randleman over a tedious 25 minutes. He had rebounded with a dominant victory over 42-year-old Dan Severn — who would still go on to fight for another 12 years from that point — and seemed destined to hold a UFC belt at that point in his career. Barnett brought momentum into the fight, holding a 10-0 record (including his own win over Severn prior in the year) and seemed to have the grappling that could give Rizzo problems. However Barnett wanted to prove a point in the fight, that his game was well-rounded enough to compete with anyone anywhere. While that strategy provided a fast-paced and highly entertaining bout (especially considering these are heavyweights), the end result was not something Barnett wants to remember, if he even could. It is a highlight that has lived on in UFC promo reels for 15 years though, and a fight that remains towards the top of my list when I think back on great heavyweight bouts.
June 29, 2001 UFC 32 vs. Semmy Schilt Fight Pass Link: Josh Barnett vs. Semmy Schilt – UFC 32
Sometimes I miss the good old days when guys would compete on every other UFC event. I wasn’t quite into the sport when this particular fight took place, but even into the UFC 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s, you could generally count on seeing some of the same guys regularly. Of course, the events weren’t taking place every week like they are now, so it was a bit different. At any rate, Barnett was looking to bounce back from his first career loss, and he was facing another striker in future K-1 legend Semmy Schilt. (Sidenote: I know I said to leave the negativity behind, but I had to chuckle when Frankie Shams was talking about the transformation in Josh’s body from his last fight to this one. Hmm, I wonder what could have been the difference?) Showing his well-rounded game, Barnett quickly took Schilt down, pass guard, and after getting comfortable on top started to open up (both men ending up bloodied in the exchanges that ensued). With Schilt’s massive limbs flailing away, Barnett looked for the armbar, but it was defended nicely by Schilt (people forget because of how his career evolved, but the big man could actually grapple pretty decently). Ending up on the bottom, Barnett was not deterred, and continued to hunt for the armbar until he sunk it in and forced the tap. It was an excellent rebound, and another entertaining performance.
March 22, 2002 UFC 36 vs. Randy Couture Fight Pass Link: Josh Barnett vs. Randy Couture – UFC 36
Fun Fact: Josh Barnett in 2016 is the same age that Randy Couture was when they fought in 2002. Randy has eternally been old. That aside, several years ago I coined a term “Randy Couture Syndrome” to describe a subsect of what one might refer to as a “grinder”. It goes as follows, said fighters are known for being in exciting fights, but upon further examination tend to be relatively mundane when they’re winning, and exciting when they’re losing. The affliction was almost renamed after Clay Guida, as he exemplifies it perfectly, but sometimes you just have to stick with the originals. Couture actually had a run of exciting fights in the UFC 30’s (headlined by his battles with Rizzo, which were anything but boring at any point), but in this fight Barnett does all the heavy lifting. When Couture gets top position Barnett doesn’t let him rest, looking for sweeps and submissions, and on the feet he does a good job of not getting trapped with his back to the cage. When Barnett finally finds room to scramble and gets on top, he just pours it on for the stoppage in what was a special moment until those infamous test results came back.
May 5, 2006 PRIDE Total Elimination Absolute Fight Pass Link: Josh Barnett vs. Alexander Emelianenko – Total Elimination Absolute
This is another example of Barnett’s resilience. He was being outstruck soundly by Aleksander Emelianenko through the first ten minutes of the bout. Barnett got some licks in, but couldn’t get much going, and his attempts to get into the clinch or work to the ground were rebuffed easily. Heading into the second round, Barnett was able to maintain his pace and Emelianenko began to slow just a bit. That was the only opening Barnett needed, as his first real clinch of the fight resulted in a takedown and instant side control. Barnett took full advantage of PRIDE’s rules, landing knees to the head of Emelianenko on the ground before securing a keylock for the most heavyweight of submissions. It was Barnett’s first big win in PRIDE, and set him on his way in the 2006 Openweight Grand Prix.
September 10, 2006 PRIDE Final Conflict Absolute Fight Pass Link: Josh Barnett vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira – Final Conflict Absolute
Quite simply one of the best heavyweight fights that has ever taken place, the first meeting between Barnett and Nogueira was a complete MMA fight that perhaps only could have been put on between these two men. All through the 15-minute bout the pair was trading strikes, swapping positions, and attempting submissions. Most heavyweights even in MMA today can’t even fight at a decent pace in one discipline for 15 minutes, and these two ran the full gamut of MMA. Many believe that Barnett finishing the fight with the kneebar applied is what won him the decision, and in doing so he became just the third man to defeat Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (and everyone knows that Dan Henderson’s win was a terrible decision). Unfortunately for Barnett, Mirko ‘CroCop’ had a significantly easier semifinal earlier that same night, and was the fresher fighter heading into the Grand Prix final. Barnett couldn’t overcome two of the greatest heavyweights ever in the same night to win the Absolute Grand Prix, but at least he provided another classic match to add to his resume.
Regardless of how the remainder of Barnett’s career plays out, his legacy will be twofold. The drug test failures will no doubt play a big part, but Barnett was not alone at that point in the sport’s history in using steroids, he was simply the one who got caught at the worst possible time. What should be remembered when it comes to Barnett is his ability at the highest level of the sport to put on exciting fights — and win — in nearly any style of fight, and to do so for longer than any other heavyweight we’ve seen in MMA thus far.