For both Josh Barnett and Andrei Arlovski, the end is near. There’s no denying that. Both UFC heavyweights are pushing 40 and have gone through tough recent stretches. Those factors, along with their past histories as former UFC champions, made a matchup between them a perfectly reasonable idea, even though it also meant only one of them could walk out of the Octagon in Hamburg, Germany, with a belief he had put things back on track.
From the beginning, those were the only stakes here. A fight built for two.
Sometimes we get too caught up in the search for big stakes to accept these kinds of fights until ... well, until fights like this come along.
Sometimes it’s these kinds of nights that remind us the personal stakes are often more important than the bigger picture. The kind of nights that end with fighters saying things like what Barnett said in the post-fight press conference (NSFW language).
“It’s not just winning and losing out here,” he said. “Look who he’s fought and who I’ve fought. We have wins against all-time greats. It’s not so trivial. One of his recent losses was [Alistair] Overeem, who’s in a title fight, or Stipe [Miocic], who’s the champ. It’s not like we’re going out there fighting the bum-of-the-month club. We’re going out there and we’re fighting the best the world can provide. If we lose a few, that happens, but who else besides us is capable of going out and meeting that kind of opposition time and time again?”
“Great speech,” Arlovski said, and the two reached out and shook hands.
In other words, it was a match based on the respect of what they’ve done and where they’ve been—a pairing of kindred spirits forged through the parallel lives they’ve led.
For the record, it was the older of the two who left with something of a reprieve. Two months from his 39th birthday, Barnett (35-8) became the first man ever to cause an Arlovski submission. It came via rear-naked choke, and it came in the latter’s 39th professional fight.
Those are big numbers, ones that came only with time and success. No one survives this long amid MMA’s merciless environs without ever touching greatness, and Barnett and Arlovski (25-13, 1 no-contest) can both lay claim to reaching those heights.
And even amid these hard times—Arlovski walked in on a two-fight losing streak, while Barnett had dropped two of three—on Saturday, the fight between them was everything it would have been nearly a decade ago, when they had first been scheduled to pair off.
At the time, Barnett was living the ronin lifestyle as a gun-for-hire, while Arlovski had wiggled his way free from the UFC. Both were clearly among the best heavyweights in the world when the short-lived Affliction promotion attempted to put them together—a pairing that ultimately fell apart before they could square off.
All this time later, the two are still as game as the wildest of pit bulls, with no surrender wired into their DNA.
The fight didn’t quite have the right elements to be called “epic,” but maybe “vintage” is a more apt description. Everything they had flashed in their early days was on display. From Arlovski’s power to Barnett’s clinch work to a sudden ending forged in courage.
The finishing sequence came when Barnett seemed to be in the most trouble, after taking an illegal but accidental eye poke. The referee missed it, and Barnett turned his back as he retreated to the cage. Arlovski chased him into the corner and cracked him with a clubbing right hand. Barnett, however, was able to initiate a clinch and ultimately take him down, ultimately working his ground advantage into the choke.
“He gave a lot to me tonight,” Barnett said. “He came out here to win, and I really appreciated him being there and trying to give the fans out there a great fight.”
It was like that from the beginning. Both heavyweights wobbled each other within the first minute of the open, and the pace remained relentless throughout.
“He comes at you wild, a bit savage,” Barnett said, describing a sequence where Arlovski refused to concede his opponent’s defensive effective, expending energy with a series of uppercuts he described as “absolutely apes--t.”
But Barnett survived the moment and pressed his advantage on the ground when he got it, nearly finishing Arlovski in the second with a hail of ground strikes near the end of the round. In total, he landed 66 strikes in during the five-minute frame, according to FightMetric, and by the time it ended, Arlovski was bloodied and hurt, taking about 10-15 seconds to rise to his feet after the horn.
Still, he fought on. Of course he did.
Tomorrow, it will be no different. Despite losing three in a row, Arlovski wasted no time in declaring his career would continue forward, saying he would take time off “and come back stronger.”
At 37, there can only be so many tomorrows left for him, and for Barnett as well. Whether they spend those days chasing a title or simply staving off retirement is no longer particularly important to either one of them.
And for us? Well, sometimes, a fight doesn’t have to mean much in the grand UFC scheme to mean much to us. And sometimes, it’s nice to be reminded of that.