Josh Barnett is not a fighter for people who like black and white. Barnett's checkered history played off against his technical brilliance and fascinating personality never allow you feel too comfortable writing him down as either a face or a heel, and that's particularly interesting given Barnett's second career as a professional wrestler.
For Barnett the heel, the argument is a strong one. He's failed drug tests one three separate occasions, and we're not talking about the Nick Diaz wacky baccy here, but actual performance enhancers—most recently drostanolone. It's almost impressive that he's been caught that much when you consider that Barnett fought the majority of his career—from 2003 to 2008—almost exclusively in Japan, where the attitude to steroids was always one of 'knock yourselves out'. Furthermore, his third failed drug test bankrupted the promising Affliction promotion and scrapped a highly anticipated fight with the still seemingly unbeatable Fedor Emelianenko.
But on the other end of that equation he always comes back and charms you. He's just the big kid who loves muscle cars and Magic: The Gathering. He even called out Fedor Emelianenko at the PRIDE Open Weight Grand Prix with a line from Hokuto No Ken, 'omae wa mo shindeiru' or 'you are already dead'. He even appeared in Katamari!
Moreover, he's a man who loves history and the roots of the game, and who spent much time picking the brain of the late, great Billy Robinson back when Robinson could barely walk with a cane. He helped Megumi Fuji put together her own incredible streak of submissions (including many Barnett-esque leg attacks). And Barnett's connection with his own coach, Erik Paulson has lasted over a decade when so many fighters leave camp the first time their coaches become a convenient excuse for a loss.
But really, all of that is just window dressing. You could be the blandest man in the world—Fedor Emelianenko might well have been—it only matters what you can do in the fight. It is the chess match which fascinates. Barnett, despite being a heavyweight—where at times technical ability can seem optional—remains one of the most thoughtful and unique fighters on the planet. At a point in time when constant rematches and sloppy brawls have me quite ready to stop watching the heavyweight division were I not tasked with writing about it, a man who hasn't fought in MMA since a loss in 2013 has me excited to tune in. That's weird to think about.
And it's largely what Barnett has been up to in his time off which has me excited. We always knew Barnett could grapple, but since his match with Dean Lister at Metamoris IV, Barnett's catch wrestling chops are getting him recognition. If you are rooting for a side in the catch wrestling versus jiu jitsu 'rivalry', in this age where the best learn whatever works from anyone who shows it, you're a little behind the times. With that said, Barnett's staunchly no-gi, catch wrestling centric approach to grappling has left him with some interesting habits which are well worth examining for every grappler, be they ninety pounds or three hundred.
Barnett has always loved leg attacks, which has always been a very catch way to approach the problem of an opponent's guard. And in truth, Jiu Jitsu's rules regarding various leg attacks through most belts probably goes some way to making leg attacks so effective against even high level opposition. If you don't train with the threat of them all the time, of course you're going to be uncomfortable against a guy who hunts them constantly.
Barnett's biggest win in MMA probably to date was his victory over a prime Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in PRIDE FC. In a barn burner of a match, Barnett found himself inside Nogueira's half guard as the bout drew to its end. Threatening the double wrist lock / kimura, Barnett occupied Nogueira's mind before shoving the Brazilian's head back to the mat and swinging his leg straight over to attack Nogueira's far leg. Just as Nogueira screamed out in pain, the bell sounded to end the fight.
But most recently, Barnett showed his leg attacks against Ryron Gracie in Metamoris. The reverse mount is starting to get trendy in mainstream grappling because it can be achieved pretty easily with speed and the element of surprise on the pass or even from north south, but without leg attacks it's pretty much a dead end. For Barnett, however, it's a place for kneebar attempts and toe holds.
When Ryron Gracie threw up his legs to triangle Barnett's head from side control, Barnett crawled over top of Gracie, shucked his shoulders out, and immediately tapped Gracie out with a toe hold. In Gracie's defense, he was a last minute replacement and was giving up over sixty pounds to Barnett, but two hundred and fifty pound men are pretty weak at the end of their feet too.
Against Dean Lister, Barnett constantly grabbed what Billy Robinson referred to as the opponent's "shoelaces", the top of the foot, and put the threat of the toe hold constantly in Lister's mind.
What has really impressed lately is Barnett's passing game. So often when you see a guy insist that he's a catch wrestler, he doesn't have much else to deal with the guard except the leg locks. Barnett is a certifiably brilliant guard passer and that is what has carried him to his two Metamoris victories. From his emphasis on hand fighting on his over under passes, to his slick passing combinations.
Against Gracie, Barnett began in his usual position, threatening the over-under pass, before hopping to his feet and pinning Gracie's free leg to the floor as if to perform a variation of knee slide. Like an elastic band, Barnett built up the tension before letting it go and pinging around to pass with an underpass on the opposite side. Not quite Rodolfo Vieira, but to use that old football cliché, 'neat feet for a big man'.
Similarly, Barnett's old school Baret Yoshida shin pin pass to an underpass against Dean Lister was a slick change up. As Lister freed his left leg, Barnett underhooked it and forced Lister over the other way. Lovely stuff.
The problem with Barnett's game generally has always been his stand up. He doesn't have the best pure wrestling in the world, so when he can't take an opponent down he is stuck on the feet. While he can hit, he's not a tremendous threat there. Most recently, Travis Browne rattled Barnett with a punch, forcing a rushed takedown which Browne immediately capitalized upon by raining down his trademark elbows and knocking Barnett out.
In Barnett's bout with Daniel Cormier, he was obviously going to struggle to get the world class wrestler to the mat (though he did do admirably using his trademark elbow escape to try to stay off of his back), and subsequently broke both hands, but did a decent enough job playing with unusual techniques on the feet. Projecting his right elbow, Barnett would attempt to spike the blows of Cormier, catch Cormier's face, or drive through and follow with low kicks.
Barnett was also the first to demonstrate Cormier's intense distaste for being kicked in the body—which reappeared against Frank Mir and ultimately left Cormier winded and weakened against Jon Jones.
What I was most excited for, before Travis Browne derailed Barnett's momentum, was Barnett's new found love of the dirty boxing game. Against Frank Mir, who has always had trouble with the cage work, Barnett was absolutely ruthless. Switching grips constantly, Barnett put Mir exactly where he wanted him half of the time, and went to something different whenever Mir thought he was finding some respite.
While Barnett's focus has been all over the place in the last few years, a genuine career rebirth would be something wonderful to see because as a grappler in the UFC's heavyweight division, he's one of the absolute best. Certainly, it's hard to see him being afraid of Fabricio Werdum's vaunted guard when it's a position from which he's equipped to do so much harm.
This weekend Barnett meets the UFC's heavyweight gatekeeper, Roy Nelson in Japan, and one has to think that if he can withstand Nelson's usual round one bombs, Barnett can position himself in the title picture now that Andrei Arlovski and Frank Mir are not the talking points they were a month ago. But equally, a victory over Barnett would probably be the most significant of Roy Nelson's career, and he's catching Barnett with plenty of ring rust. At any rate, it's one to watch.
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