Josh Barnett: Catch Wrestling and Old-School Boxing

Jack SlackLead MMA AnalystDecember 22, 2013

USA Today

This is the second in a two-part series on Josh Barnett. Please check out the first part here.

The main theme that you will have noticed in our discussion of escapes in Part 1 is that Barnett does not waste time mucking around on the bottom if he doesn't have to.

BJ Penn was the first to point to the three objectives of the man on the bottom: submit, sweep or stand up. Too often we see the best jiu-jitsu players in MMA focus almost entirely on the first two ideas and forget about the third.


Often the act of following the bottom player up to the feet will cause the top player to expose openings. Both Pablo Popovitch and Marcus "Buchecha" Almeida succeeded in using a simple technical stand up to create a neat turnover at ADCC 2013 in Beijing. 

Here, Roberto "Cyborg" Abreu is in the guard of Buchecha. Almeida creates space and then performs a simple technical stand up. As Cyborg follows him up, Buchecha catches Cyborg's back leg and attempts a simple knee tilt to turn Cyborg over. Cyborg drops Buchecha's leg, but Buchecha switches to a single-leg takedown and lands on top.

And here it is again in super slow motion courtesy of the super inspiring ADCC 2013 highlight from the brilliant Stuart Cooper:

Getting back to the feet is a huge part of the ground game in mixed martial arts. No matter how good a fighter is off his back, it is unlikely to be enough to offset how much it sucks to get hit with gravity working against him.

Plus, holding a fighter down if he is repeatedly getting up is hard work—just look at Cain Velasquez vs. Brock Lesnar. Barnett, who was influenced by catch wrestling legend Billy Robinson, is exceptionally good at getting to his base position and standing from there.

It is similar to turtle position in jiu-jitsu, in that one is posted on four points belly down. The difference is that while the turtle is held tight with the elbows on the mat, the wrestler's base is on the knees and hands. The reasoning for the closed nature of the turtle in Brazilian jiu-jitsu is to defend oneself from the opponent throwing in his hooks and taking the back.

In the wrestler's baseas used by Billy Robinson's students, notably Kazushi Sakurabathe intention is to return to the feet. Here's the great Billy Robinson talking through it himself:

Now a more traditional jiu-jitsu approach from the turtle would be to Gramby roll back to guard, as Matt Serra famously did against Georges St-Pierre. The catch wrestling tradition is more about getting to base position and then separating the wrists and standing up. This stems from wrestling rules, wherein one can lose by pin, so what would be the point of rolling to guard and placing your shoulders on the mat?

As the top player tries to keep his opponent on the mat, he can expose himself to switches or Robinson and Sakuraba's most famous technique: the double wrist lock.

Sakuraba's match against Kevin Randleman demonstrated how attempting to keep Sakuraba down allowed him to attack with his kimura. Each time Randleman attempted to break Sakuraba down into a turtle position, Sakuraba got back up onto his hands and worked to separate Randleman's hands.


Now, here's Josh Barnett countering an underpass from Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. He rolls to turtle, gets to his base, pops a leg up and returns to his feet. As Nogueira fights to keep Barnett on the mat, Barnett is able to work for a kimura. 

The double wrist lock, a term used interchangeably with kimura and gyaku ude-garami, is a staple of the catch wrestling arsenal and a technique that Barnett has had success with. He has submitted Mighty Mo, Mark Hunt and John Marsh with it, and he has threatened it in combination a great many more times.


A brilliant example is the final sequence from Barnett's first fight with Nogueira. Barnett lands in Nogueira's half guard and threatens the kimura rather than looking to force a pass. Jeff Monson, Paulo Filho and many other strong top players have used the threat of the kimura to improve the effectiveness of their half-guard passing game.


Nogueira rushes to move to his deep half guard, but Barnett underhooks the Brazilian's leg with his right arm, clears Big Nog's head with his left and moves for a kneebar.

Leglocks are a staple of Barnett's game, and it's hard to think of a heavyweight who uses them better. As Nogueira attempted to come up on top of Barnett, he allowed the wrestler to straighten the leg and was saved by the bell from a submission.


Barnett on the Feet

Barnett is not an elite striker, but as heavyweights go, he is good enough on the feet to hold his own with most of the division. Having been trained by Erik Paulson, a pioneer in MMA and a man who consistently comes up with interesting ideas, Barnett has a good deal of interesting techniques on the feet.

Something that you will see in almost all of his fights is his attempt at a skipping right hand. That is when he uses a parry or hand trap with the right hand, and then he proceeds, as if skipping a stone, into a punch with the same hand.

Here is Barnett demonstrating the technique in answer to a jab from Daniel Cormier.

Archie Moore

Above is the late Archie Moore, a walking textbook on boxing technique, showing the same technique in more of an offensive capacity.

Barnett has never been a brilliant striker; he's more of a smart one who hits hard. That being said, he has shown enormous improvement since the days when Alexander Emelianenko and Pedro Rizzo made him look clueless on the feet. He avenged his loss to Rizzo by knocking him out in 2008, whatever that's worth. But more importantly, he now shows a more confident and intelligent approach to striking.


In the Cormier bout, Barnett repeatedly returned to an old-school elbow block, attempting to catch blows on the points of his elbows. When this works, it can be a nightmare for an opponent and discourage power punching. Notice how close Cormier comes to a broken hand on the left hook.

Barnett projecting his elbow like this also gave him a good chance of Cormier running onto an elbow strike if he attempted to dive into a clinch. Here, Barnett slips inside and uses this elbow to keep space before landing a nice low kick:


Projecting the elbow like this can also leave the right temple exposed to a left hook, especially if the opponent can hook off the jab as Cormier can.

What is more important than form and technique, though, is that Barnett can recognize what is working and what isn't. He tries his best to get his favourite techniques going, but he isn't stubborn or pigheaded enough to ignore things that are working better.

For instance, in his bout against Cormier, Barnett recognized early that his knee strikes to the body were affecting his opponent, and he found numerous ways of attempting to land them.

My favourite attempt was this switch knee as Cormier came in. That's not something you see the biggest men in the heavyweight division do often.

Barnett's most recent bout against Frank Mir might well be his most impressive performance to date. Understanding that Mir's wrestling is not his strong suit and having seen Shane Carwin abuse Mir along the fence, Barnett knew what he had to do. Pushing Mir onto the fence, he abused the former UFC champion and stopped him with a hard knee to the dome inside the first round.

Proving that he can take a technical approach to almost any area of the fight game, Barnett put together some of the most fluid clinch boxing work I've ever seen. Take for instance this grip-changing flurry, when he went into an angled left hook followed by a chasing left hook to keep Mir on the fence.

That would raise an eyebrow from Randy Couture or Cain Velasquez.

Barnett even found a chance to use the Jack Johnson uppercut, an uppercut thrown across the body so that it can be used with full hip rotation extremely close in. Just beautiful stuff.

There's a ton to talk about when it comes to Barnett, as we haven't even looked at his murderous mount and signature arm triangle or the decent kicks and elbows he's showed more recently.

When he steps into the ring with the exciting, dynamic and durable Travis Browne on Saturday, pretty much anything can happen at UFC 168, but it has the potential to be a cracking bout.


Pick up Jack's eBooks Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking from his blog, Fights Gone By.

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