It's hard to imagine today's Josh Barnett as "the baby-faced assassin." With his scraggly beard, soul- crushing grappling, underrated striking and penchant for the darkest metal, there's nothing childlike about him—except, maybe, the glee he takes from destroying opponents like Frank Mir, the former UFC heavyweight champion Barnett exterminated in one brutal round at UFC 164.
But in 1999, when Barnett was just 21 years old, the baby-faced assassin moniker still made sense. He had the baby fat to go along with the baby face. If he could even grow a beard, let alone pull one off, there were no signs of it. Never genetically gifted, he carried rolls of extra fat around his midsection, often causing opponents to underestimate the solid muscle and superlative skill that lurked beneath.
Appearances can be deceiving.
To those who followed the game closely, Barnett was pegged as an obvious future star. He won a tournament in Hawaii that included future stars like Ricco Rodriguez and Heath Herring and thought himself ready for a one-way ticket to the big time—the UFC.
John Perretti, however, wasn't quite convinced. And, then the UFC matchmaker, it was his opinion that mattered most. And, so, on February 8, 2000, Barnett entered the most important fight of his young life. Standing across the ring, and still very, very relevant since losing the UFC title to Mark Coleman?
Dan "The Beast" Severn.
This was Severn at the top of his legendary UFC Hall of Fame game. A mustachioed wrestling stud, Severn had gone 21-0-3 in the three years since dropping the strap to Coleman and was still considered a fighter of consequence, even at 41.
With his wrestling heavy game, Severn could make even a good fighter look really, really bad. It was a dangerous and potentially career defining moment for Barnett.
"Dan was one of my favorite fighters from the early UFCs. He was a pro wrestler of course and when you rolling German suplex a guy, you tend to leave an impression on people's minds, especially mine," Barnett told me in an interview conducted in 2006 for my book Total MMA: Inside Ultimate Fighting.
"Besides me, Dan is the only person to pull it off in an MMA match. But he did it first. When I had a chance to fight him, he had already beaten Lance Gibson and Doug Murphy, two guys from my gym.
"So him being an idol wasn't on my mind. The only thing on my mind was to kick the living crap out of him. At the time he hadn't lost in years. And it was my chance to show everybody that I'm one of the best in the world."
Severn, indeed, made the fight a grueling ordeal. For three rounds he took Barnett to the mat, stifling the younger man's more diverse skills. But Matt Hume slapped life into Barnett, literally, prior to the fourth round.
With a renewed fire in his eyes, Barnett came out fresh, forgetting the fatigue and frustration of the previous 15 minutes. He stuffed a Severn lateral drop attempt and earned his place in the UFC with an armbar from the mount.
From there it was a storybook. Barnett, after an artistic setback in which he tried to match kickboxer Pedro Rizzo blow-for-blow just to see if he could, marched straight to the UFC heavyweight title, completly dismantling champion Randy Couture with startling ease.
But Barnett and the UFC were hiding a secret. After his UFC 34 win over Bobby Hoffman, Barnett had tested positive for two banned substances. The Nevada State Athletic Commission's drug program, however, was still in its pilot form. That meant Barnett's failure, as Sherdog's Mike Sloane explained, remained a carefully guarded secret:
...he tested positive for two types of illegal anabolic steroids. Dr. Homansky and the NSAC alerted everyone at Zuffa and all the parties involved agreed that steroid testing would be commonplace in the UFC, kickboxing and boxing in Nevada. Josh was slapped on the wrist and was let off with a warning.
Barnett was gifted a second chance—and immediately blew it. Against Couture he once again tested positive, this time for Boldenone, Nandrolone, and Fluoxymesterone. Stripped of the UFC title and suspended for six months, Barnett fought back against his accusers in the press and all but abandoned the American MMA scene for years.
What might have been a tragedy for anyone else was an opportunity for Barnett to live a dream.
A lifelong pro wrestling fan, especially of the Japanese submission-based "shoot style" wrestling popularized by stars like Karl Gotch and later Akira Maeda and Nobuhiko Takada, Barnett joined New Japan Pro Wrestling and Pancrase. Not only was he a bona fide pro wrestler, he got the chance to continue his study of catch wrestling under Billy Robinson, a master of the art.
"I feel really proud of a professional wrestling lineage," Barnett told Bleacher Report last year. "I feel pride in trying to connect those professional wrestling roots to the combat aspects of wrestling. But also the history and lineage of where professional wrestling came from.
"It's not fake...pro wrestlers used to be considered some of the toughest guys in the world back in the day. It didn't matter if they were out there working, their pedigree was otherwise. And anybody that wanted to step up to them learned the hard way."
Later, as Pancrase faded, Barnett would join the collection of talented heavyweights in Pride. Barnett seemed content in Japan. So content, in fact, that fans began to realize that we might never see him in the UFC Octagon again. But life has a funny way of working out. One by one, all of Barnett's options withered and died.
First Pride, the Japanese behemoth that was the first to take MMA mainstream, went by the wayside. K-1, the kickboxing giant, followed suit. Affliction was a victim of its own open checkbook, as was Strikeforce, the growing American promotion Barnett joined in 2011.
Soon enough it was evident that if Barnett wanted to fight at a high level, for big money and the acclaim he deserved, he would have to make amends with UFC President Dana White. The two had battled in the press for years, but when Strikeforce folded, Barnett made it clear, to him at least, bygones were bygones.
"It's a myriad of things," Barnett told Bleacher Report's Damon Martin, explaining why he wanted to return to the UFC. "It's the fans and how desperately they seem to want to see it has weighed on my mind in terms of making a decision towards going to the UFC.
"I can go to places in public and people come up and go are you going to fight in the UFC?...It's the place to be. If I really want to round out my career I should go back there and finish what I started and go directly after that belt."
Barnett, who had last fought the underwhelming Nandor Guelmino, started as close to the top as he could. Frank Mir, twice champion, was Barnett's American MMA doppelganger. While Barnett was busy establishing his submission bona fides in Japan, Mir was on the same path in the UFC. A fight between the two men just made sense.
But if fans were expecting a classic ground battle, they went home disappointed. Or, at least, as disappointed as you can be after watching one behemoth wreck another. Barnett, instead of testing his catch wrestling against Mir's vaunted jiu jitsu game, immediately charged Mir and didn't stop attacking until his foe was prone on the mat.
“My strategy was just to bring it from start to finish. Be aggressive, put the pressure on him and take the fight where it ends,” Barnett said at the post-fight press conference. “If I’m the one who’s dictating, no matter where the position is, I feel it’s going to be in my favor.
“...The submission grappling aspects always existed, but wherever the fight went, I adjusted and kept going. When we created separation, I came after him with big punches. When we clinched up again, it was Greco-Roman upper body stuff, with knees and elbows.
“You just have to be a well-rounded fighter, and you have to be prepared to use everything. Frank is also a well-rounded fighter. It’s easy to say one of our strongest aspects is our grappling and submission game, but if you look at it on the whole, it’s not surprising where the fight ended up.”
And, just like that, Barnett was back, once again a top player in the UFC's heavyweight scene. Eleven years after abandoning the promotion in disgrace, Barnett had sought, and found, redemption inside the steel walls of the Octagon. With another win he will likely be in position to challenge for a belt he never actually lost in the cage.
Josh Barnett: UFC heavyweight champion. How's that for a storybook ending to a storybook career?
Jonathan Snowden is Bleacher Report's Lead Combat Sports Writer and the author of Shooters: Pro Wrestling's Real Life Tough Guys. All quotes, unless otherwise mentioned, were gathered first hand.