Well over a decade after his last appearance in the Octagon, and more than 15 years and 38 fights into a career that has taken him around the globe and back again, Josh Barnett is back in the UFC.
If he were a Star Wars character, he’d be Boba Fett. If he were a Marvel comic book creation, he’d be Deadpool. Look at those fictitious individuals. The man known as “The Warmaster” is a mercenary – a hired gun tasked with doing a specific job, and paid an agreed upon price once the job is done.
While some fighters would bristle at the label, the 35-year-old veteran who has spent the last decade as a permanent fixture in the Top 10 of the heavyweight division embraced the title a long, long time ago.
“I’ve been in it long enough, been through enough companies and battles that it didn’t take long for that mercenary mindset to really set in,” says Barnett, the well-spoken, engaging heavyweight who takes on former champion Frank Mir in the co-main event of UFC 164 this weekend in Milwaukee. “That’s what we are – mercenaries; you pay us to fight, and that’s what we go do.
“I remember a recent interview – someone asked me (a question about being a mercenary), but where mercenary was used in a bad way – as if being a mercenary was a derogatory term. I just looked at him and said, `I am a mercenary. What the hell do you expect of me?’
“If you’ve got someone that needs taking out, I will go do the job. I don’t care who they are. I don’t care why, and I don’t care if they’re good or bad or indifferent. If the money is there, they’re as good as done.”
But Barnett isn’t back in the UFC just to collect another paycheck and do a job. This time around, the catch wrestling specialist has other motivations besides adding more money to his coffers.
Though he spent a portion of “The Aughts” competing against the very best the heavyweight division had to offer under the PRIDE banner in Japan, his first tour of duty in the UFC came long before The Ultimate Fighter brought the promotion to the forefront, and his place in the pantheon of heavyweight greats isn’t secured.
Since PRIDE closed its doors, Barnett has gone wherever he could to collect the biggest bounty. He competed for World Victory Road, Affliction, Dream, and the Australian promotion Impact FC before signing with Strikeforce, where he’d submit Brett Rogers and Sergei Kharitonov to advance to the finals of the World Heavyweight Grand Prix.
After coming up short against Daniel Cormier in the finals, Barnett rebounded with a victory over unheralded Nandor Guelmino in the company’s final event. The mercenary was back on the market, ready to be hired, and when you’re a heavyweight mixed martial artist, there is only one place you want to compete.
“If you are a performer – a dancer, an actor, what have you – you want to go to Broadway. You want to do a show out there in the biggest environment, with the highest level of competition to get the spot in the show, with the most recognition, and the most demanding schedule. As a fighter, that’s what the UFC is.
“Not that the UFC is Broadway with a bunch of people jumping around in leotards singing songs from Cats, but it’s not far from it,” he continues, laughing at his comparison. “Have you seen some of the fights some times? They look very Broadway-esque. It’s like West Side Story in a cage.
“If I’m not fighting in the UFC, I’m not cementing my legacy. I’m not going to the place where the battles are more constant and at a high level. I’m not giving the opportunity for the rest of the world to see what I’m doing, and I’m also doing myself a disservice because I’m not able to do what I want to do, and reap the benefits of the biggest promotion in the world, the best pay opportunities, the best recognition for all my other side projects that I’m involved with.
“There is really no better place to be. I started with the UFC, and I’d like to end with the UFC.”
Very few fighters can claim a career that started before “Y2K” was a concern and still be competing on the biggest stage in the sport today. As he said during the UFC 164 media conference call, “[He’s] the longest running big guy in this sport.”
It’s a point of pride for the man who has also dabbled in professional wrestling, but even more so, he sees it as a testament to those that he has learned from over the years.
“It’s a proof to not just being an athlete, but maybe even more so to the training I’ve received, starting with Jim Harrison, Matt Hume, Bill Robinson, Erik Paulson, Haru Shimanishi – the list goes on and on.
“I spent a lot of time obsessing and devouring as many techniques and skills as I could, and that is a big factor in why I’ve been able to be successful for so long, and continue to do so even as I get older. I’m still incorporating strategies and plans in the ring that are beating guys younger or bigger or whatever. When it’s all said and done, if you’ve got more tools than they do, you have a much better chance of winning a fight.”
Saturday night, Barnett will once again put those numerous skills and tools to use inside the cage, squaring off with Mir in a battle of two of the best heavyweight submission artists of all-time.
It is the first step in what the veteran who has faced off with icons like Pedro Rizzo, Randy Couture, Mirko Cro Cop, and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira hopes will be a journey back to the top of the division, and a chance to once again compete for the UFC heavyweight title.
Whether it’s Mir standing in his way on Saturday night or someone else somewhere down the line, Barnett approaches them all the same way, even if the veteran mercenary is starting to show signs of being nostalgic after all these years of taking jobs and collecting his pay.
“As long I have the ability to be a professional athlete, I’m going to make the most use of it. I won’t have these opportunities forever, so any chance that I get to get in the ring, train for a fight, and then follow through, I want it because these moments are few and precious.
“Old or new, fat, skinny – it doesn’t matter; you put them out there, I’ll fight them. If you have a job, put the money on the table, and I’ll handle it.”
The money is on the table.
All that’s left is for the last of the heavyweight mercenaries to complete the job.
Josh Barnett: The Mercenary
"If I’m not fighting in the UFC, I’m not cementing my legacy. I’m not going to the place where the battles are more constant and at a high level." - Josh Barnett