Thirteen years since he last stepped foot inside the UFC’s world-famous Octagon, former heavyweight kingpin Josh Barnett returns this Saturday at UFC 164 in Milwaukee.
One of the more controversial figures in the sport, the 35-year-old Barnett will battle fellow former champion Frank Mir in the co-main event, marking the unlikely return of one of the most vocal critics of the UFC throughout the last 10 years.
Barnett got his career off to a perfect 9-0 start before his eventual call-up to compete at UFC 28 in November 2000, where he stopped Gan McGee in his first appearance for the promotion.
A catch-wrestling specialist and protégé of Erik Paulson, Barnett suffered his first career setback at the hands of Pedro Rizzo in February 2001, a loss he avenged eight years later under the now-defunct Affliction banner.
Barnett rebounded from the loss by making quick work of kickboxing legend Semmy Schilt and King of the Cage champion Bobby Hoffman, earning him a heavyweight title shot against Randy Couture at UFC 36 in March 2002.
The Seattle native finished Couture at the 4:35 mark of the second round, but he was stripped of the belt after testing positive for three banned substances and subsequently released from the sport’s ultimate proving ground. Although the consequences overshadowed his win, it was a monumental accomplishment in his career, as he became the youngest champion in UFC history.
Since his departure, Barnett has been immersed in a bitter dispute with UFC president Dana White, leading many to doubt whether he would ever return.
Meanwhile, Barnett went on to achieve mixed results competing in Japan, defeating the likes of Aleksander Emelianenko, Mark Hunt, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Jeff Monson, while dropping three fights against Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic, as well as losing his rematch against Nogueira in December 2006.
Barnett was a primary culprit behind the eventual demise of Affliction as a fight promoter, as he once again tested positive for anabolic steroids before a highly anticipated bout against Fedor Emelianenko could come to fruition as the main event of the third show.
After overcoming licensing issues from the California State Athletic Commission in the aftermath of his positive test, Barnett would ultimately sign with Strikeforce in 2011 to compete in the organization’s heavyweight grand prix.
Barnett rattled off impressive back-to-back arm-triangle choke submissions of Brett Rogers and Sergei Kharitonov, but his eight-fight winning streak was snapped against Daniel Cormier in the tourney final.
Now known as "The Warmaster," reflecting a more mature Barnett since his early nickname of "Babyfaced Assassin," he notched another arm-triangle choke finish against Nandor Guelmino on the final Strikeforce card this past January.
Despite an impressive professional record, Barnett has endured his fair share of criticisms and obstacles over the years. Although Barnett may be past his prime, he can finally right some wrongs in his career when he returns to the Octagon on Saturday night.
Barnett won’t be getting any easy adjustment fights, however, as Mir is one of the most dangerous submission specialists in the heavyweight division, including two runs as champion and victories over the likes of Tim Sylvia, Brock Lesnar, Cheick Kongo, Roy Nelson, "Cro Cop" and Nogueira.
Mir has fallen on harder times as of late, as he tries to rebound from losses against Junior dos Santos and Cormier. However, Mir remains one of the most seasoned heavyweights in the game and he’ll continue to improve training at Jackson’s MMA in New Mexico. It goes without saying, Mir will test the returning Barnett in all areas.
It’s worth noting Mir has been consistently fighting the sport’s elite heavyweights over the past 10 years, while Barnett’s level of opposition has been considerably less accomplished.
Barnett is a sublime submission specialist with a valuable wrestling acumen. Neither heavyweight is a particularly world-class striker, so this fight could really be up in the air.
For Mir, losing isn’t an option. After all, a third straight defeat could send his stock plummeting, a significant fall from grace for a fighter who challenged for the heavyweight title just one year ago.
But there’s even more on the line for Barnett, whose bravado over the years has often been perceived as arrogance. He’s made some strides to improve his image in the last year or two, but a spirited performance in his UFC return is an absolute must.
Barnett is still widely regarded as one of the world’s top heavyweights. But in the wise words of pro wrestling legend Ric Flair: "To be the man, you have to beat the man."
Mir isn’t quite the man, but he’s a hefty test for a returning pioneer like Barnett. With a triumphant performance, Barnett would take the first meaningful step in re-establishing his legacy as an all-time great heavyweight.