There are plenty of divisive figures in the heavyweight division. Alistair Overeem looks better than everyone he fights, then throws away matches through arrogance. Antonio 'Bigfoot' Silva won everyone over with a fight of the year performance, then got popped in the post-fight drug tests. But nobody in that division has quite the history that Josh Barnett does with performance enhancing drugs.
Now I don't want to get into performance enhancing drugs talk too much. But if Nick Diaz can pass drug tests most of the time and be as avid a marijuana user and advocate as he is, you can quickly come to the conclusion that it's not too hard to hide a banned substance if you know what you're doing. Plenty of fighters are on PEDs, most of them don't get caught, and frankly there's a good case for turning a blind eye to it.
What we're really here to talk about, however, is the phenomenal, dynamic and unique game of mixed martial arts' premier catch wrestler, Josh Barnett.
Catch Wrestling versus Jiu Jitsu
Now when we're talking tendencies, it's important to note that nothing is absolute in the fighting business. It is very easy for me to say "jiu jitsu guys tend to excel at passing the guard and using the guard, but they don't have the best takedowns". Ricardo Arona was a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu phenomenon, and took down anyone he wanted, wrestler or not, at will through his ADCC run. As another example, Rambaa Somdet is a Muay Thai world champion who transfered to MMA very late into his combat sports career, only to develop one of the most inventive guard games in the business.
Stylistic tendencies are just that: tendencies, not absolute rules as to what a fighter can do. People are people and styles are just the gateway which got them into the martial arts business.
With that being said, the competitive focus of an art will affect its emphases. Wrestlers don't train the guard generally (or the double body scissors as it's called in old wrestling manuals) because it is essentially a pinned position. Jiu Jitsu players can pull guard, and many roll from the knees in the academy, so takedowns don't always get trained so much.
Guys who spend a good amount of time training wrestling then transfer to the ground game or mixed martial arts tend to not be as good in the guard as the guys who start playing guard from day one. Josh Barnett is a brilliant example of this.
That is not to say that he is bad in bottom position but that he does not play the guard like other great grapplers in the heavyweight division can. One of Barnett's great strengths, and this is something which you will see in wrestling a lot because of its roots and emphasis on takedowns, turnovers and pins, is in getting out of bottom position, not chilling out there and looking for submissions or sweeps.
The Elbow Escape
One escape which Barnett uses particularly well from his back is to place a hand behind his opponent's triceps, generate some momentum by swinging his legs up and dropping them, or by bridging, then exploding out.
My description of that was pretty ham-fisted, and I am certainly not the guy to get your grappling knowledge from, but here's a GIF from his fight with Jeff Monson.
Any time a fighter can get the arm which his opponent would normally be using to crossface across to the other side of his body, the man on the bottom can create space to turn away and either shrimp back to guard or come up to the knees.
Here is the great Marcelo Garcia demonstrating it. Of course it is a good deal harder without the gi for friction or as a handle.
The fight with Monson was pretty largely panned by MMA journalists, partly because it seemed like Barnett wasting yet another match of his incredible career potential in not fighting an elite heavyweight. But as Monson and Barnett are both ground fighters with a wrestling base, it provided some interesting moments. Both men used the guard simply for kicking away and looking to come up on a single, which is something you don't see that often.
This same elbow escape has helped Barnett to get out of bad spots against some very dangerous fighters. Against Daniel Cormier, Barnett controlled the triceps to hinder DC's attempts to elbow him, then attempted to make space through the elbow escape several times.
Failing to achieve this end, Barnett attempted one more time to stiff arm the triceps, before turning back in and coming up to his knees. Where many Brazilian Jiu Jitsu players will try to sit through to the half guard when they come up to their knees, Barnett worked his way up to the feet and broke away.
Similarly Barnett was able to get out from underneath the great Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, as the latter attempted to pass from half guard to side control, by using a similar technique. Exploding out to his feet, Barnett picked up a tight guillotine, something he threatened several times through his two excellent matches with Nogueira.
Barnett was also able to use a nice bridge to escape from the underside of Nogueira's considerably dangerous mount. A basic escape no doubt, but to get away with it against a grappler of Nogueira's caliber is certainly worthy of applause.
This is part one of a two-part series on Josh Barnett. The second part can be found here.
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