Back in the early days of the Zuffa era in the UFC, Josh Barnett may have been the King of New Jersey, fighting in the Garden State three times in 2000-01.
Just 9-0 as a pro at the time of his Octagon debut against Gan McGee at UFC 28, Barnett was intrigued by the prospect of fighting in front of what he perceived were the bright lights of Atlantic City.
“I remember thinking ‘Oh, Atlantic City, gambling, the Vegas of the east coast, that place was supposed to be real happening.” Then I got there. It was a real eye opener.”
He laughs, but it was in New Jersey that the man then dubbed “The Babyfaced Assassin” made his bones, defeating McGee and Semmy Schilt and losing a classic war to Pedro Rizzo. Two fights after the Schilt bout, Barnett was UFC heavyweight champion. His New Jersey days were over for the moment, but he has fond memories of the place as he gets ready for his return in the UFC Fight Night co-main event against Ben Rothwell.
“I’ve been to Jersey plenty of times for different stuff, and I’ve always done all right out there, so it will be good to get back to the east coast overall,” Barnett said.
A lot has happened for the man now known as “The Warmaster” in the 15-plus years since those early UFC fights, and while there have been some rocky roads along the way, he’s still standing, still relevant in the heavyweight division, and possibly a win or two away from getting another shot at the belt he once held. Did he ever think he would still be here at 38?
“I hadn’t thought that far ahead, but I knew that I wanted a long, fruitful career,” he said. “I just didn’t know how long of a career it would end up being. It’s kind of full circle in a way since I started off in the UFC in Jersey, and now I’m coming back again, this time in Newark, to fight on FOX.”
The sport and the man have changed over the years, but that’s not a bad thing; it’s called evolution. Yet one thing Barnett has kept intact through all the ups and downs is his charisma. That doesn’t just go for life outside the Octagon, but in it as well. When Josh Barnett is on a fight card, you want to see him fight. When he does an interview, you want to hear what he has to say. And even when he does a media workout, you want to watch it, because you never know when he will channel Dusty Rhodes’ “Hard Times” promo or be attacked by a masked intruder, leading to an impromptu pro wrestling match. In other words, there’s only one Josh Barnett, but he’s not about to claim that crown as an undisputed one.
“I think there are still people out there that are capturing the attention of the public at large, although I don’t know if there’s more of that or less of that overall,” he said. “Not everybody is really made to be in front of a camera, cracking wise. Not everybody has the want or even the capabilities of being that person, and that’s fine. I’d say the biggest thing is, whether or not you’re a bit of a character in how you present yourself, everybody’s a character to some degree. It’s just a matter of letting whoever that is be out there for the fans to see it and potentially identify with and like or hate.”
That’s a fair assessment, but not many are pulling Bo Diddley song lyrics on their pre-fight bio update forms like Barnett.
“I know I can skew a bit older than I really am, but I’m old enough, I think,” he laughs. “I’m just myself, as much as I can be anything, and I don’t really set any limitations for myself on what I like, what I’m gonna get into, or where I’m going.
“I’m just having fun,” Barnett continues. “I don’t feel like it’s so much a responsibility to broaden people’s horizons as much as it is that I feel joy in spreading the sources of inspiration in my life that I think are cool to other people. I’ve been hip to so much cool stuff from other people throughout my life from so many different avenues that I feel like there’s probably other people out there that feel like I do or like I did when I was younger.”
That’s important. In the age of 140-character Tweets and frames of reference that go no further than what happened in the last week, someone like Barnett can do more than just win a title and defend it until the next fighter takes it. Why? Because he respects the history of the sport and he is well aware that the heavyweight boxing title was once the most coveted in the world. So why not MMA as well, and who better than him? But at the moment, this is a more personal journey to take the crown once more.
“It would be massive,” he said. “To come back around and reclaim my belt would be a real fantastic achievement, and it would really help cement my legacy. It would also be a pretty nice financial boost, but really, it’s about making what you put your efforts into come to fruition. We’re training to win these fights and I’m training very hard to win this next one, but you would like to think that the culmination of all the work put together would equal the greatest opportunity or the highest pinnacle when it’s all said and done. So to go up there and eventually win that title again would mean that the path that I’m walking now and the effort I’m putting in and the time spent in training and in the ring is paying off and is delivering the best of my potential out there, and I’m executing.”
Would it mean more the second time around?
“Yeah, I think so,” Barnett said. “Although I was pretty happy when I won it the first time. (Laughs) Being older gives you a different vantage point from which to view the events in your life, and I know that having that belt, it’s not about appreciation, but my ability to use that belt. You really are being given a tool when you win a title as well, and knowing how to best use that tool, to leverage it and have it be able to do something more for you than just be a trinket, that’s something that takes a bit of knowhow and an open mind.”
“So here we go, I can launch my line of male cosmetics if I can win that belt.”
Never change, Josh Barnett, never change.