On March 22, 2002, Josh Barnett challenged Randy Couture for the UFC heavyweight championship.
The event also featured a welterweight title fight between Matt Hughes and Hayato "Mach" Sakurai and the final UFC appearance of Pat Miletich.
But the real attraction—as is often the case in combat sports—was the heavyweights.
Barnett had defeated Dan Severn to earn his shot in the UFC. He debuted at UFC 28 on November 17, 2000, beating Gan "The Giant" McGee. Four months later, Barnett would lose to Pedro Rizzo but rebounded by beating Semmy Schilt and Bobby Hoffman (from the "where are they now" files) to earn his shot at Couture's championship.
Barnett beat Couture that night, finishing him by TKO in the second round. After the fight, Barnett would test positive for performance-enhancing drugs. The UFC stripped him of his newly won title belt and he was exiled from the UFC, spending years fighting in Japan while also dabbling in his first love, professional wrestling.
UFC 36 was also notable for the second UFC fight of another promising heavyweight. Frank Mir had defeated Roberto Traven in his debut at UFC 34. At UFC 36, Mir submitted Pete Williams with a shoulder lock in just 46 seconds.
It's been 11 years since that eventful night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. Barnett began a very public feud with the UFC's new ownership in Zuffa that lasted until the moment he and Dana White met and shook hands with each other during a Zuffa fighter summit in Las Vegas. For a time, it was believed that White would never bring Barnett back into the UFC, that the years of bad blood between the two would prevent Barnett from returning to the largest promotion in the world and cementing his legacy.
Last week, Barnett returned to the UFC, signing a multi-fight contract and promising the rest of the UFC's heavyweights that he was out for blood. His first fight? It's one that we've been waiting to see ever since UFC 36: Barnett will take on Mir at UFC 164 in August.
For me, this is a dream fight. Or, at least it was, once upon a time. It doesn't carry the same anticipation it did back when Mir was ruling the UFC's heavyweight division and Barnett was one of the top stars in PRIDE. Mir has faltered in recent years, losing his previous two fights to Daniel Cormier and Junior dos Santos. Barnett made it to the finals of the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix but was absolutely mauled there by Cormier.
Both men are older, and maybe they aren't as good as they used to be. But I don't care, and I'll tell you why.
The intrigue behind this fight, at least for me, is the stylistic matchup. Mir might be the best grappling heavyweight to ever compete in mixed martial arts. He's a dynamic jiu-jitsu player and a master of the style.
Barnett is a proponent of catch wrestling, the American answer to jiu-jitsu. He's long proclaimed that "catch," as it is so often dubbed, is far superior to jiu-jitsu. And for much of his career, he's shown his style to be an effective one.
But we aren't just getting jiu-jitsu versus catch wrestling; we're getting two American heavyweight veterans who have had long and successful careers. They've been champions and they've been superstars, and now they're finally meeting under the brightest lights available.
But there's one more thing to look forward to with Barnett vs. Mir: the promotional aspect. If you asked me to name the top 10 "talkers" in mixed martial arts—the ones who are the absolute best at building up fights using their verbal skills—there's zero chance that both Barnett and Mir would not be included.
Who wins this fight?
Barnett has years of professional wrestling experience to draw from. Sure, he goes over the top from time to time, but it's still entertaining and endearing. And Mir is a master at portraying himself as the smarmy, cocky heavyweight who thinks he's better than everyone else. Just take a look back at his interviews building up the second Brock Lesnar fight for a perfect example of what I'm talking about.
There are plenty of fights to look forward to this summer. Anderson Silva vs. Chris Weidman. Jose Aldo vs. Anthony Pettis. Benson Henderson vs. T.J. Grant, even. All of them are highly anticipated fights, and rightly so.
But for me? Give me Josh Barnett vs. Frank Mir any day of the week. I'll be there with bells on.