There was a time, and it wasn't all that long ago, that I believed Josh Barnett would never sign with the UFC.
After Strikeforce was finally put in the ground once and for all, Barnett opened negotiations with the UFC. It seemed like the perfect fit for the former UFC heavyweight champion; after all, there are no other MMA promotions in the world that can pay Barnett the kind of money he wants, and all of the world's best heavyweights are in the UFC's heavyweight division.
For mysterious reasons, however, the negotiations failed. Barnett remained a free agent, and those of us who want to see him back in the Octagon were left disappointed once again.
But good things come to those who wait. On Tuesday night, word came down from the UFC that Barnett had signed a multi-fight agreement to return to the promotion where he once dominated and then left in a cloud of steroid-induced shame.
Barnett is expected to make his return to the Octagon later this year, but it's time for me to start speculating as to who his first opponent in the UFC might be. Today, I take a look at five potential UFC heavyweight opponents for "The War Master," in order from least to most intriguing.
Travis Browne is the least-intriguing potential opponent for Barnett on my list, but he's not a terrible choice.
The problem with putting Browne in the cage with a veteran like Barnett? You're potentially sacrificing a marketable and very talented heavyweight prospect in order to build up a veteran that won't get much of a boost from beating Browne.
But if Joe Silva thinks Browne has a chance of beating Barnett? He may just make this fight. Beating a name like Barnett would do wonders for Browne's UFC stature. It would vault him up in the rankings, but it would also legitimize him to both hardcore and casual fans.
For that reason alone, I suspect the UFC won't make this fight. Barnett isn't a gatekeeper, and he's not likely to be used as one in his return to the Octagon. It doesn't mean the fight isn't an intriguing one.
I realize that the winner of the UFC 160 fight between Dos Santos and Hunt could be in line for a title shot.
But I also believe that Fabricio Werdum is deserving of consideration as a title contender as long as he beats Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira next month in Brazil, which means that the winner of Dos Santos vs. Hunt will need (in my mind, at least) another win before getting in the cage with the heavyweight champion.
Barnett is a perfectly reasonable next opponent for both men, but more so for Hunt than Dos Santos. Barnett is the opponent who started Hunt's six-fight losing streak at PRIDE Critical Countdown 2006; what better way for Hunt to complete his stunning career turnaround than by beating Dos Santos and Barnett back to back?
Yes, Nelson already has a fight booked against Stipe Miocic at next month's UFC 161. But with all due respect to Miocic, that fight is a gimme for Nelson, and so it's perfectly reasonable to start looking at Nelson's opponent for later in the year.
"Big Country" is an interesting style fight for Barnett in two different ways.
1. Nelson is a fighter who relishes going out and putting on a good show for the fans. He wants to win his fights, but entertaining those who paid their hard-earned money to come and see him fight also weighs on his mind, which is why he's consistently one of the most entertaining fighters in the UFC. The fans love him for it.
Barnett is the same way. He considers himself an entertainer first and a fighter second.
2. Nelson vs. Barnett is a fantastically intriguing grappling match-up.
Nelson vs. Miocic? Not excited for that one.
Nelson vs. Barnett? I'm getting tiny goose bumps just thinking about it. Is that wrong?
Barnett vs. Frank Mir is a bout we've wanted to see for nearly a decade.
Back to 2004 when Barnett was competing in PRIDE, Mir was winning the UFC heavyweight championship from Tim Sylvia. Hardcore fans desperately wanted to see Barnett and Mir step in the cage with each other, mostly because of the intriguing style match-up the fight brings: both are American grapplers, with Mir's focus on jiu-jitsu and Barnett specializing in Erik Paulson's version of catch wrestling.
Both have had their ups and downs over the years; Barnett didn't always capitalize when facing PRIDE's crop of excellent heavyweights, and Mir suffered his horrendous motorcycle crash that derailed his career for a few years.
But now, both are back in the Octagon, and it's time to finally make the dream fight that should've happened many years ago.
Apologies to Frank Mir, but Alistair Overeem is the most logical opponent for Josh Barnett's return to the UFC.
Overeem is coming off a loss, but that doesn't matter; he's still one of the most marketable stars in the UFC's heavyweight division, and the bloated nature of his contract means that Joe Silva won't be matching him up with the Stipe Miocics of the world. Overeem will face the heaviest hitters (in terms of star power) the UFC has to offer; Barnett fits that description perfectly.
Overeem is also training for a fight against an unscheduled opponent at UFC 164 in August. Barnett is scheduled to return to the UFC "later this year." Seems like perfect timing, and it also feels like the UFC may have been planning this all along.
If you need one more reason to watch this fight, consider this: Barnett and Overeem are both PRIDE heavyweight veterans. The fabled Japanese promotion has been dead many years now, but I still get a twinge of nostalgia when I see two "PRIDE fighters" step in the Octagon to face each other. I don't know why, but it will never get old.