As heavyweight title contender fights go, Josh Barnett vs. Travis Browne—which the UFC recently added to an already-stacked UFC 168 fight card—is one fans can be reasonably happy with.
Current heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez and former champion Junior dos Santos will roll to the Octagon in one month's time for the third dust-up in their trilogy; each man has won once, though some might say (and do say, in fact) that momentum and time and overall sense of well-roundedness are on Velasquez's side.
This is not to say that Dos Santos is a bad fighter, because he clearly is not. He is a terrifying force of nature, a physical demon made all more unsettling by the fact that he is, without a shadow of a doubt, the nicest and kindest person on the planet Earth.
Velasquez and Dos Santos are nice people. They're cordial around one another, just as Browne and Barnett will no doubt respect each other's space and, outside of a few borderline corny 1980's-laden war comments from Barnett, there likely won't be any of the kind of histrionic issues that plague those who genuinely hate each other or at least pretend they do when the cameras are rolling.
But as the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle once said:
"Our life is not really a mutual helpfulness; but rather, it’s fair competition cloaked under due laws of war; it’s a mutual hostility."
Or: Barnett and Browne perhaps will not be screaming obscenities or promising they will take home each other's arms and legs in a suitably-sized basket, but they almost assuredly realize they're in a competition with very real stakes. Namely, the winner will be putting himself in line (at the very least, they'll be NEAR the front of this mythical line) to face the winner of Velasquez vs. Dos Santos.
That means a heavyweight championship fight, a pay-per-view pay check and the potential of the many riches that go along with new billing as "the baddest man on the planet." Though, in fairness, the baddest man on the planet is a tiny boxer who turned back the most strenuous challenge of his career with such ease last weekend that it's impossible to imagine, with our feeble human brains, who might come along to defeat him.
The heavyweight championship is an important thing because combat sports fans have been told for years that the heavyweight championship is an important thing, and because we like to see big men with crushing power batter other big men with equally crushing power. And so any fight that features big men with crushing power will automatically pique the interest of the public, and especially so when one of the big men has already defeated Alistair Overeem.
Browne has a bigger stake in this fight, because while Barnett may get a title shot off a win based on the fact that he's Josh Barnett, "Former UFC Heavyweight Champion Who Never Lost His Belt 10 Years Ago," he's not as deserving as Browne based on what they've done lately.
He lost to Daniel Cormier in Strikeforce and then beat a guy I cannot remember in Strikeforce (apologies to the guy I cannot remember; I am sure you are very nice) before making his way to the UFC and beating Frank Mir. That's all fine and good, but beating Frank Mir is not the same as beating Alistair Overeem; after all, everyone is beating Frank Mir these days, and Overeem will be afforded his own opportunity to do so just a month before Browne and Barnett step in the cage.
Beating Overeem (by front kick knockout!) and Josh Barnett back-to-back? That's something. I don't know exactly what it is, but I do know that I like the looks of it.
If I'm Joe Silva or Dana White, I look at those two wins and go, well, that's our next heavyweight title contender. That's the man we'll put in the cage to be mauled and assaulted by Velasquez.
Oh, that's exactly what will happen, because Velasquez is an animal and a freak of nature and every single person in the heavyweight division should fear and respect him. But at least Browne makes for an intriguing option.
This is not to say that Barnett isn't intriguing as a title contender. He's a big name to Internet fans, even if the casuals never really heard much about him until he defeated Mir. He needs more selling, bigger wins and fewer promos ripped straight from the pages of Heavy Metal in order to truly make a title fight as big and weighty and awesome as it could be. But he'll do in a pinch.
Browne could be better than a pinch. If he somehow finishes Barnett just months after finishing Overeem, he's the next guy in line. There is no doubt.
He has one career loss (to Antonio Silva) that only came about because Browne blew out his knee in the fight and could not, as a result of having no ligaments remaining in his knee (these are important things, I'm told), move in the way that makes him such an intriguing and downright dangerous competitor unlike any other in the division.
Simply, this is the biggest moment of Browne's career. While Barnett could retire today and be perfectly content attending comic conventions and playing the part of "Huge White Wrestler in Japan" a few times a year, Browne is young and has much left to accomplish. He wants the heavyweight title, and he is closer than ever to achieving that dream. All he needs is a win this December.
It's easier said than done. But we'll tune in to watch, and perhaps we'll see something special.