Bryan Barberena started raising his hand for short notice opportunities just a handful of days after his loss to Rafael Dos Anjos in December.
“I was bitter,” admitted the veteran welterweight, who takes on Gunnar Nelson at UFC 286 at The O2 Arena in London on Saturday. “I know I’m better than that. I wasn’t happy with my performance, and I’m sure the UFC wasn’t happy with my performance, and I wasn’t able to give fans the performance they were expecting.”
Entering off consecutive wins over divisional stalwarts Matt Brown and Robbie Lawler, Barberena anticipated his early December meeting with Dos Anjos to follow a similar pattern, as the former lightweight champ and welterweight contender had expressed how excited he was to be fighting in the 170-pound weight class again and looking to deliver entertaining fights.
In his mind, that meant a standup battle — the kind of knockdown, drag out battle in the mud that has become Barberena’s signature style — but instead, the crafty Brazilian switched things up.
“I think I over-prepared for one style of fight and got caught up in thinking it was going to be another Matt Brown, Robbie Lawler style fight,” said Barberena, who volunteered for numerous openings and was actively trying to put together his own matchups on social media before getting the chance to replace Daniel Rodriguez against Nelson this weekend. “I knew he would wrestle, but I didn’t expect him to wrestle, grapple so hard and flow through as much as he did; be as persistent on it.
“I’m not mad at him for the way he fought or the way it went — I’m mad at myself that I came up short and that I was one-sided on preparations and thoughts, not fully into things because it is MMA.
“I came up short but, on the flip side, I grew a ton in that fight,” he added. “I learned a lot from it and went straight back into the gym and began drilling and drilling and drilling exactly what I needed to do. I believe I’m ten times better and more dangerous now than I was on December 3.”
That constant quest to improve and passion to deliver exciting fights to fans is what has made Barberena a fan favorite over the years and, at his core, is what pushes him as a fighter.
Like all of his contemporaries, the 33-year-old father of three wants to climb the divisional ladder, chasing and competing for championship gold, and one day sitting atop the welterweight ranks, but there are also smaller, more simplistic targets that push the man known as “Bam Bam,” and as long as those are being met, he’ll be satisfied.
“I want to be the best version of myself,” began Barberena, who has never shied away from looking inward and sharing his true feelings on his fighting career. “Maybe I never do get to the belt. Maybe I never get to title contention. That’s okay as long as I’m improving myself every time and I’m a better version of myself every time I step in there.
“If the title never comes, I’m okay. My life outside of fighting is great — I have a lovely family, caring friends, I have my farm and I love it. I love what I do on the fighting side, and I’m doing my best to be the best version of myself, and if that comes up short of making it to a title, I’m okay with that.
“I want to challenge myself,” continued the Tennessee resident, who runs the Bam Fam Farm alongside his wife, Diana. “I’m not afraid of losing. I don’t care who the fight is against, whatever name it is, how dangerous they are; I don’t care. I’m in this business to challenge myself, and I always have been, so I don’t care who they are, where they are in the rankings or not in the rankings at all — that’s fine, because when they step in there, they have to go against someone that has no fear of losing, and no fear at all.
“I’m here to test myself.”
That is why he was quick to raise his hand for every opportunity and matchmaking on social media following his loss to Dos Anjos, and why he’s pumped to make the trek to London to square off with Nelson this weekend.
“I’m stoked; I cannot wait,” said Barberena when asked about competing abroad for the first time since facing current welterweight champ and UFC 286 headliner Leon Edwards in Rotterdam in the fall of 2017. “It’s an awesome crowd at The O2 — the fans are amazing; they light up for the fights. I’m going to enemy territory to take on one of their own, and that’s what I do best.
“To get the Gunni fight, to get the call for that on short notice — I think it falls perfectly into exactly what I want right now, especially coming off the December fight because this is a perfect example to show I’m a better fighter than what I showed.”
Nelson is likely coming into the fight with a similar mindset, despite arriving off a win.
After more than two years on the sidelines, the veteran from Iceland collected a unanimous decision victory over Takeshi Sato at the first of last year’s two London events, using his superior grappling skills and precision striking to outwork his Japanese counterpart across three rounds.
It was a solid effort to snap a two-fight slide and get Nelson moving in the right direction again, but Barberena expects him to be even better when they step into the Octagon together on Saturday evening.
“Being familiar with coming off layoffs, I thought he looked good; he did what he needed to do to win. I think he played it more on the safe side, reserved, and now that he’s got his feet wet, I think he’s going to coming out more ready to fire, but it’s hard to tell with him. I’ve followed him for a long time — he’s a great fighter, but he’s extremely quiet and reserved.
“I think he’s going to be better than his last showing,” he added. “I know that, and being matched up with me, I think it plays into what his game plan was already going to be, but I think I’m a completely different fighter than ‘D-Rod’ and he’s going to have to make some adjustments on the fly.”
After the disappointment and frustration of his fight with Dos Anjos last year, Barberena was chomping at the bit to get back into the cage and redeem himself — for the fans, for the UFC, and for himself.
It took constantly volunteering whenever an opening was presented and being persistent in his desire to get back in there quickly, but an opportunity finally presented itself, and now the blue-collar worker has once again packed up his overalls and shipped off to do what he does best — get into a fist fight.
“People know what to expect when I get in there; I think I’ve solidified that,” he said, proudly. “People know and I think the UFC knows that I’m a guy that is gonna throw down, and that I’m some guaranteed fireworks. I’m going to challenge every person that stands in front of me, and whether I win or lose will be decided in there.
“But I think everybody knows that’s who I am and that I want to go in there and have a fire fight, a slugfest; make it something everybody loves to watch and I enjoy doing.”
And once this one is done, he’ll be right on the farm, right back in the gym, and right back to raising his hand for each and every opportunity that comes up because that’s simply who he is.
“I’m looking forward to continuing to put on entertaining shows, and with that comes opportunities,” he said. “When opportunities arise, it’s best to jump on them as fast as you can, that way I can shine and show what I’ve been working on.
“So you can bet that after I spend a little time with the family, I will return very quickly. There is always someone out there that I will fight.”