Bryan Barberena didn’t think anything of the kick to the body he took in his final sparring round as he readied to fight Daniel Rodriguez on November 14, 2020. It was a solid kick, but nothing that he hadn’t dealt with before.
“It didn’t feel overly hard — didn’t knock the wind out of me, nothing like that — and I continued the round; took it and moved forward as I normally do,” recalled the scrappy welterweight, who returns to action this weekend opposite newcomer Darian Weeks. “I finished my rounds to wrap up camp and felt fine.”
He wasn’t fine.
Barberena ruptured two arteries in his omentum, which essentially makes up the lining of your abdominal cavity.
Doctors couldn’t say if that one shot was the one that caused things to give way, but by the time the Tennessee resident was on the operating table, he had more than 1.5 liters of blood in his stomach. Not only was he out of the fight with Rodriguez, but the collection of doctors that oversaw his procedure and organized his post-surgery recovery program assumed his fighting career was over.
“There was one doctor that said I could try, but most of the doctors I spoke to said they couldn’t recommend it because they didn’t know if it was possible,” said Barberena, who pressed forward and stepped back into the Octagon for the first time since his near-death experience in July, dropping a close, entertaining decision to Jason Witt. “Most people that have an injury like this wear a Kevlar vest kind of thing to help with the blows, but obviously I’m getting hit there, on purpose, and they didn’t know how it would hold up.”
The 32-year-old was content with walking away if that was the ultimate answer, but he wasn’t going to hang up his gloves without seeing if he could work his way back first.
He sat down with his wife and kids and discussed things, agreeing that if there were any issues, anything beyond the normal scope of bumps and bruises accumulated during training camp, he would pack it in and call it a day. He also presented the other side of the coin, affirming his love of the sport and competing, and how stepping into the Octagon and going to battle has provided them with the life and lifestyle they enjoy on The Barberena Family Farm.
“For me, the most important thing is my family, so we sat down, talked about it, and I told them how I felt,” explained Barberena, who debuted with a win over Joe Ellenberger in December 2014 and has built a reputation as an all-action combatant in the welterweight ranks. “If anything happened, I would be done, no problem, but I had to try.
“They were like, ‘Okay, but if anything happens, you’ll be done,’ and I said, ‘If this doesn’t work out, I’ll be done.’”
While his return to the UFC cage didn’t come as quickly as he hoped it would, the man simply known as “Bam Bam” worked his way back, returning to the Octagon with a completely different outlook on life.
“My mindset was that I was going to come back fast and be right back at it, but it took a little longer than I thought it would,” laughed the 12-fight veteran, who was initially scheduled to face Matt Brown this weekend before “The Immortal” tested positive for COVID-19. “We had some holdups and stuff, but after my last fight, I look back and it’s like, ‘Holy cow — it’s only been eight months and I’m fighting again!’
“Every day is a win,” he added, the genuineness of that sentiment radiating in his voice. “Every day that I’m waking up, getting to see my family and do what I love is a big win. Fighting is extra and it’s great that I still get to do this and provide for my family doing something I love, but man, I’m winning every single day just being able to be with my family.
“But how much of a blessing is it that I still get to do this?” he asked rhetorically, chasing his words with a laugh; a big kid thrilled to still be getting to chase his championship dreams inside the UFC cage. “I love to do it and if it didn’t work out, I’d find something else to do, but I genuinely love what I do and to be able to continue to do that and continue to provide for my family makes it that much sweeter.
“It’s definitely a different outlook on life, for sure. Every day that I wake up, I’m winning.”
While the mindset and outlook have changed since his medical emergency last year, Barberena’s approach in the Octagon has never wavered.
In trying to think of a way to describe his style and talk to him about it, the best I could come up with is this: Barberena exists, lives, thrives in the mud.
Watching him compete leaves you feeling like you’ve got dirt caked on your skin and buried under your fingernails, the byproduct of getting grimy with a tough-as-nails fighter who has a tendency to start slow at times, yet is almost always there at the end, still giving his opponents hell deep in the third round.
He’s one of those guys that can look like he’s on the brink of being put away and then shift to leading the dance without much more than a step back to reset and shake out his arms. He takes shots that would stop many others, and often gives back as good as he gets, which is how he’s logged three Fight of the Night bonuses in losing efforts and collected stoppages in all but two of his wins.
“I train for these hard wars and being in the mud, seeing who is going to crawl out,” he said, proud of his style and the reputation it has earned him. “I think it just tends to happen. I think it has a lot to do with my style; they call me ‘Bam Bam’ for a reason.
“People ask me, ‘Are you going to mix in wrestling?’ and it’s like, I know how to wrestle — I could do it — but I prefer to go toe-to-toe,” he added, laughing. “Let’s see who’s going to be standing. I’m going to test every part of you and what kind of heart you got.”
The slow starts are something he’s worked on over the years and talked about with his coaches, looking for ways to get loose and locked in quicker; to shift from low-key, easy-going Bryan into the club-wielding Flintstones character he’s named after in a more timely fashion.
They’ve rearranged his training schedule and contemplated doing more than a simple shake-out in the back before making the walk, but ultimately, Barberena thinks it comes down to just embracing that “in the mud” style as soon as he sets foot inside the cage.
“I think it’s just that I need to throw everything out the window and go get this guy,” he began. “Let’s not waste any time thinking — let’s just flip that ‘Bam Bam’ switch and go get him.
“Sometimes I’m able to find my groove a little faster, but when it comes down to it, it needs to be ‘throw it all out the window and let’s go.’”
Now a little over a year removed from his medical emergency and pondering his future as a fighter, Barberena is ready to step into the Octagon once more. He’s shaken off the rust from those 10 months on the sidelines and having fought just twice since June 2019, and is eager to taste sweet victory once more.
“Winning is the thing that matters,” he said flatly. “Winning moves you forward. Winning gets you the money that you want, the fights, so obviously I’ve got to go out there and win.
“It’s been almost three years of minimal fights due to injuries, so I’m super-excited and ready to really go out there and show my best form. I feel like I’ve had two comeback fights where I got to show what I’m all about — one went my way, one didn’t — and no matter who this fight is with, I need to get my hand raised.
“It’s a reward for me,” he added, “but it’s going to be an even bigger reward for everyone watching because this is going to be one for the fans, for sure.”
They always are.
Welcome to the mud.