I remember watching Josh Barnett back at UFC 34, outworking, outmaneuvering and outfighting Bobby Hoffman. He looked less like a monster and more like a man in touch with his inner child, and that boy was covered in blood and having a blast in the cage.
Hard to believe that was nearly 26 fights and 12 years ago.
Throughout his storied career, Barnett has gathered unto himself a record of 33-6, with eight wins coming via KO/TKO and 20 wins by submission.
He’s defeated Randy Couture, Semmy Schilt, Mark Hunt, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Hidehiko Yoshida, Sergei Kharitonov and now, Frank Mir.
Just seeing Barnett back in the Octagon is oddly fulfilling.
He left the UFC at a time that was very exciting for the fans; Dana White and Zuffa were really making a strong push, the events were available on PPV and the sport didn’t actually look like it was going to die tomorrow.
It was a promising time, and Barnett was a promising fighter; as optimistic about his future as we were about the sport.
And now he’s back.
Barnett always seemed to be building toward something during his time as a MMA’s most notable nomad; a reckoning of sorts. He may be the closest thing the sport has to a Rhodes Scholar, having fought in the UFC, Pancrase, Pride FC, Affliction, Dream and Strikeforce, and now back to the UFC.
Given the current landscape of the UFC’s heavyweight division, his return is not only interesting, it’s exciting.
Alistair Overeem looks to be one step from imploding, and Frank Mir is tumbling down the rankings. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira is faltering, and Antonio “Big Foot” Silva is looking more and more like a gatekeeper every day.
Roy Nelson is still viable, and Travis Browne looks promising, but the true stars of the division are former champ Junior dos Santos and reigning king Cain Velasquez.
With dos Santos and Velasquez scheduled to fight a third bout for the title, whoever wins is going to need a serious contender.
And Barnett is really only one win away from a title shot.
Many are going to scoff at the notion due to Barnett’s documented problems with testing free and clean of banned substances, and they have a point.
But there is a seriousness about Barnett now; a wisdom that comes with experience that makes me think those days are behind him.
At 35 years of age, Barnett is one of those rare fighters that knows how to win; he’s incredibly cunning and savvy, adaptable and dangerous almost anywhere.
When you add to this the fact that the top of the UFC heavyweight food chain is comprised of fighters who use predictable styles, Barnett could be well-rounded enough to beat them.
But he might not, which makes his return all the more poignant.
As great as Barnett is, he was never able to defeat Mirko "Cro-Cop" Filipovic. They fought three times and Barnett was defeated three times.
In Junior dos Santos, Barnett will be facing another dynamic striker with KO power and good takedown defense.
Then, there is the tale of his most recent loss against Daniel Cormier via unanimous decision. Should Barnett end up facing Cormier’s teammate Velasquez, he will be up against another great grappler who has nearly unlimited cardio and is aggressive as the day is long.
If Barnett’s return really is akin to a reckoning, it’s a reckoning of styles.
Has Barnett found an answer to beat men like these? Dos Santos and Velasquez implement both styles better than anyone else in the sport right now, and they’re young and bold.
With Barnett, it’s hard to assume, one way or another. He dismantled Mir and made it look shockingly easy. When he’s focused, all he needs is one little opening to turn the tide and win any fight, be it against dos Santos or Velasquez.
If either dos Santos or Velasquez face Barnett, a loss for either man seems predicated on the fact that anyone can lose in MMA because there are so many ways to do so. It really is a chess game, and Barnett is a very good player.
Will his experience and unflinching confidence see him reclaim the title that was stripped from him so many years ago?
I’m not so sure, but I do know that anyone who faces Barnett has to be at their very best, taking nothing for granted. If not, then they don’t really realize who they’re fighting.
And when Barnett steps into the cage, he fights like a man with nothing to lose.
When a man fights like that, anything is possible.