When the UFC announced its intention to return to Japan again this year, it only made sense to have veteran heavyweight Josh Barnett filling one of the main event slots on the fight card.
Along with three-time opponent Mirko Cro Cop and Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto, there may not be another fighter on the roster with ties to Japan that run as deep as Barnett, the former UFC heavyweight champion who enjoyed a lengthy and successful run competing in the country.
In addition to his time in PRIDE, “The Warmaster” also fought under the Pancrase, K-1 MMA and World Victory Road banners, not to mention stepping into the squared circle with New Japan Pro Wrestling on numerous occasions, which made positioning Barnett atop the marquee for this weekend’s UFC Fight Night event at the Saitama Super Arena the matchmaking equivalent of a lay-up.
On the eve of returning to compete as a mixed martial artist in Japan for the first time in more than five years, does the 37-year-old get nostalgic for the halcyon days of the heavyweight division in PRIDE?
“Absolutely,” Barnett, who returns to the Saitama Super Arena to face Roy Nelson on Saturday, begins. “For me it’s even about going further than that and remembering the original New Japan Pro Wrestling formation days; the shoot wrestling and shoot-style companies that emerged with the UWF and UWFi and Fujiwaragumi and Pancrase, of course.
“And all the companies and the lineage that I derived from with professional wrestlers of old and people like my great coach, Billy Robinson.”
But while he reflects on glory days of Japanese combat sports and professional wrestling, the catch wrestling specialist doesn’t necessarily spend time taking stock of his own performances and picking out favorite moments from his greatest hits collection because the time to look back is when your career is over and Barnett isn’t done cracking opponents and collecting bounties just yet.
“I’m not really too hung up on thinking about my past all that much,” says the returning veteran, who hasn’t stepped into the Octagon since UFC 168 and carries a 33-7 record into the cage on Saturday night against Nelson. “The way I look at it, I’m still creating it, even in regards to my fight career, so onwards and upwards and one foot after the other.”
Barnett’s return to action comes while the heavyweight division is in the midst of a renaissance, one being led by a collection of accomplished veterans. While they may not be able to trace their careers back to one-night SuperBrawl tournaments the way Barnett can, several of the competitors currently making noise in the big boy ranks have been around this business for more than a minute and have traversed some of the same roads as the Combat Submission Wrestling product has over the years.
Included in that group are two other former UFC heavyweight champions, Andrei Arlovski and Frank Mir, who locked horns earlier in the month in a “turn back the clock” matchup ten years in the making. With both men entering off consecutive first-round knockout victories, many expected a barnburner, however the resulting fight was anything but. Arlovski ended up edging out Mir on the cards in a tepid affair.
“For me, it’s not enough to just go out there and win,” offers the man with 28 finishes in 33 victories, including stoppages in each of his last eight wins. “Arlovski and Mir just went out there and had a fight where a guy just won, but people don’t talk about the fight because of what a knockdown, drag ‘em-out fight it was and one fighter had to endure difficulties to get his hand raised; they talk about how it was a terrible fight and watching two people that were out of shape and didn’t really want it.
“I’m sure they still both wanted to win and were pushing with what they could; they just didn’t give themselves the gas tank they needed,” he adds, his disappointment with the effort turned in by his contemporaries having clearly irritated him.
“I just sit back and think, ‘Why couldn’t I have gotten one of those guys on that night?’” he says with a laugh when probed for his feelings on seeing such an anticipated heavyweight clash fall flat. “I wish that was my night where I could have had some dude that was out of shape and sloppy so I could just abuse them and make them look like a total and utter rookie.”
Heading into his collision with Nelson, Barnett has every intention of giving the fans the memorable heavyweight battle they hoped to see at UFC 191.
“In this case, I’ve trained incredibly hard, not just to go out there and defeat Roy, but to do so in the manner I believe in – to go out there and finish him and finish him in exciting fashion.
“Roy has said what our fight is going to represent. He thinks our fight is going to be setting an example for the rest of the division; that if you want to go out there and call yourself a fighter, you better show up and do it like you mean it.”
That’s one thing you can count on from Barnett every time he steps into the cage, just as you can be assured that if he emerges victorious, the eloquent and articulate heavyweight will commandeer the microphone and cut a quality promo in the center of the Octagon.
“That’s kind of my M.O. isn’t it?” he asks rhetorically. “The way I see it, when I’m out there, it’s my 15 minutes. I don’t want to talk about what happened in the ring; I don’t care about any of those questions. It’s my time and I’m going to say what I want to say.”