At 37 years of age, Josh Barnett wears the mantle of veteran warrior very well; indeed, given his experience in the sport, his entire career can be linked to many different periods of significance in MMA.
He has been fighting since 1997, defeating Randy Couture for the UFC heavyweight crown in 2002 at UFC 36. He is a PRIDE FC veteran and now he is fighting in the UFC once more, coming off a loss to Travis Browne in 2013.
Although his time as coach for the Japanese fighters who were the focus of the UFC’s “Road to Japan”—a TUF-esque reality show — wasn’t given nearly as much attention as it deserved (which makes it seem as though breaking through in Japan isn’t nearly as important to the UFC as it claims), his 33-7 record was developed primarily in Japan, so his inclusion as a coach was only natural.
With 20 of his 33 victories coming by way of submission, the fact that he is dangerous on the ground is a given. What still remains unknown to many supposed MMA fans is that his ground game is not the sum total of the conventional skills fans generally ascribe any fighter with a high submission-win ratio.
Barnett is not just some BJJ devotee who happens to be able to strong-arm submissions into place due to his size; he’s a subtle and crafty grappler that is ruthless in his application of leverage toward the end of wreckage.
The man almost tapped out a prime Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira with a leg attack just before the bout ended; this was well before Nogueira aged and was defeated in the UFC by Frank Mir.
Since his last fight in the UFC, Barnett has defeated two names of note in the grappling world: Dean Lister and Ryron Gracie, by choke and toe hold, respectively.
Simply put, when the fight hits the floor, it doesn’t matter who Barnett is facing, they are in danger.
Pretty impressive for a guy who looks — at least outside of the cage — like an easy-going fella you might run into at the local comic book store.
Then again, with Barnett, looks have always been deceiving.
When he bested Bobby Hoffman at UFC 34, he looked fantastic, but then, during the post-fight interview, he looked less that utterly confident about the topic of taking on then-champion, Randy Couture.
“That belt is mine and they’re going to give it up to me, I hope.” He said.
Of course, that was over 13 years ago, when he had a modest 12-1 record. He was still a youngster back then, exploring all the various areas of a sport that provided so many ways to win, and lose.
Since then, he’s proven himself more akin to a dogged professor in the field; an archaeologist of pain and applied leverage, digging up the bones of the past in order to see how the bones of the present can be broken.
It’s an ironic contrast, given that he’s never given up being a student of the sport, in all its forms; still trying to learn from both the standpoints of a purist and a realist.
Now, this coming Sept. 27, he will enter into the Octagon again, to face the heavy right hand and under-valued submission game belonging to Roy Nelson in Japan.
Anytime a fighter of Barnett’s age enters into competition, the fight at hand is always important. With Barnett at UFC Fight Night 75, this is especially so given that he can still make a run at the title. Yes, he has two losses on his record via harsh KO/TKO, but the first was against Pedro Rizzo back in the day, while the latter was over 20 months ago; plenty of time to heal up and get that razor’s edge back on his blades.
The idea that he is too old to honestly contend against the likes of fighters such as Junior dos Santos, Cain Velasquez or current champion, Fabricio Werdum, is simply not realistic.
He could beat any of those men on any given night, if he is on point and ready.
But such a comeback rests completely on how he fights against Nelson, who is a fighter that cannot be underestimated, no matter his current standing as gatekeeper.
This is a great fight on paper, given how game both men have proven to be when the rubber hits the road.
Pacing and strategy could prove the difference in the bout, as it is hard to imagine Nelson being as sharp in Rounds 4 and 5 as he will be in the beginning of the bout. If Barnett is in shape, the fight is really his to lose.
When his return to the UFC was announced, he entered back into the Octagon as “The Warmaster,” with all the grit and harsh determination said moniker entails. He fought like it as well, taking Frank Mir apart with a wisdom that was deliberate and cold in its calculation.
That’s exactly what the sport needs right now, given that many of the other fighters in the division have proven to be somewhat inconsistent in their preparations for the fights that matter.
Thus far, there has never been a heavyweight champion in UFC history that has ever been able to defend the title more than twice. Just when they seem unstoppable, they fall into some kind of error and the title is lost.
Could a fighter like Barnett — who attends all areas with the sport with the eye of a veteran and the heart of a hungry challenger — be the exception to the current rule of diminishing returns?
I certainly hope so, because the division needs such a fighter, now more than ever.