There has long been discussion about fighters that should be fighting in the UFC, but, for one reason or another, weren’t.
Over the years that list has dwindled, as the purchase of MMA promotions Strikeforce and Pride FC (among others) by the UFC brought many of those fighters into the fold.
Fighters like Shogun Rua, Wanderlei Silva, Rampage Jackson, and the Nogueira brothers all made their way from Japan to the inside of the world famous Octagon.
However, over the past decade, one fighter had escaped the promotion.
Seeing as he was once the UFC’s youngest heavyweight champion, fans have been perplexed as to why heavyweight catch-wrestler Josh Barnett never returned to his fighting home after defeating UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture at UFC 36 in 2002.
Barnett tested positive for steroids after winning the UFC gold over a decade ago and was subsequently stripped of the title.
Obviously that didn’t help his stock in the eyes of the UFC brass at the time.
Fast forward almost eleven years and 20-some fights – and after the UFC purchased many of the major MMA promotion across the globe – the two parties eventually struck a deal.
Barnett was brought back to the cage to face fellow former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir in the co-main event of Saturday’s UFC 164 in Milwaukee.
No longer “The Baby Faced Assassin,” “The Warmaster,” made his UFC return in highlight reel fashion when he destroyed the former champ with a bevy of brutal knee strikes that left Mir in a heap just minutes into the opening round.
At the UFC 164 post-fight press conference, Barnett spoke about his longevity and elation at the prospect of finally returning to his fighting home after years toiling in rival promotions across the globe.
“It’s cool, man. It’s great,” said the 35-year-old veteran. “I love to fight, period. You could put us out in the parking lot like we used to do and go at it and I’d still be happy to get out there and try to bash somebody’s brains in.”
He continued, “The non-Viking Neanderthal side of me – even though those are two different things – enjoys the fact I started with the company right before it turned over.
“I go from last fight at UFC 36 in 2002 all the way to 2013 and UFC 187,000,” he said with a smile.
“So it’s been a long journey, but I think in the grand scheme of it all, that the people who believed in me and trained me from the get-go, put the right time and effort into me. The staying power is here. There is no other fighter, really – 16 years in this game – and still going out there in the Top 10 consistently. I’m glad to be a part of it. I’m also glad to start where I did, in the dark ages, and then end up here in this fantastic turnaround that the UFC is now.”
Barnett is not only one of the longest tenured heavyweights in the sport; he’s also one of its most well traveled and trained. From catch wrestling to old school jiu-jitsu, kickboxing, boxing, and even some pro wrestling, Barnett has learned from the best and soaked up every own of each training session.
It’s something the grizzled vet credits to his now legendary staying power as an MMA commodity.
“Essentially, my first (coach), Bill Robinson, said, ‘You need to learn how to learn,’” recalled The Warmaster.
“Just to go out there and be shown techniques and go through the motions doesn’t mean you’re getting the full picture. And I think through the great trainers I’ve had like Matt Hume and Haru Shimanishi, Bill Robinson, Karl Gotch and Erik Paulson, and the list goes on, of people working with me over the years, I’ve taken in as much as they could give me and then some. But I’ve also trained my mind to be ready to understand the big picture of all the techniques I’m seeing, and how they apply to different situations.
“I’m still a guy fighting in the Top 10, but I’ve also trained world champions. I’ve already coached world champions and become a world champion myself and you don’t do that unless you have a full understanding of the game. I know that is why I’m here 16 years and who knows how much longer I’ll be at it. I still feel great.”
From America to Japan and back. From the “Baby Faced Assassin” to “The Warmaster” and all stops between, the former champion is back where his fighting career started, and there is little sign of him slowing down.
(Follow @RyanMcKinnell on Twitter)