Josh Barnett: The Forgotten Heavyweight
There was a time not that long ago when Josh Barnett was a Top 5 heavyweight.
Even today, as the 32-year-old fighter prepares to step into the cage in Brisbane, Australia this weekend, “The Baby-Faced Assassin” still checks in somewhere between 10 and 15 on many heavyweight rankings, despite having competed just once since late January 2009.
In those last eighteen months, a lot has happened to drop Barnett off the radar and onto the Impact Fighting Championships card on the other side of the world. Can Barnett orchestrate a career renaissance or will he end up as a photo on the side of a milk carton, the forgotten heavyweight who disappeared? Maybe the better question is whether fight fans want to see a Josh Barnett comeback tour or not?
The Fall of Affliction
Before hypothetical heavyweight showdowns between Brock Lesnar and Fedor Emelianenko became the must-see MMA event of all-time, the Russian superstar was schedule to face Barnett, his long-time friend and former PRIDE FC colleague in the headlining attraction to Affliction’s third show, Day of Reckoning.
While UFC acolytes could care less about the battle, many fans looked forward to the meeting, the one remaining heavyweight showdown from the time when the best heavyweight division resided in Japan. Both Barnett and Emelianenko had faced the likes of Cro Cop and Nogueira, but they had never faced each other, until now.
Ten days before the event, Barnett tested positive for anabolic steroids. In the wake of losing one of their headlining acts, Affliction could not stem the tide and was swept under, canceling the show and taking their leave from the fight promotion business.
What made matters worse was this wasn’t the first time Barnett had tested positive.
A Dubious Distinction
On March 22, 2002 at UFC 36, Barnett defeated Randy Couture to capture the UFC heavyweight title, making him the youngest heavyweight champion in UFC history. That honor would be replaced by a more dubious distinction just four months later.
Barnett was stripped of the title on July 26 of that year after a post-fight drug test came back positive for not one, not two, but three banned substances. His four-month reign as champion is the shortest title reign to date, and his championship victory was the last time Barnett stepped inside the Octagon.
Tell it to the Judge, er, Commission
Since his positive test in June 2009, Barnett has had four hearings scheduled with the California State Athletic Commission to appeal for re-licensing. Each of those hearings has been postponed for one reason or another.
The first two delays came at the request of Barnett’s legal team, while inclement weather prevented his attorney from attending the third hearing. For the fourth hearing, Barnett simply failed to show up, pleading ignorance to his presence at his own hearing being required.
While Barnett is clear to fight anywhere except “The Golden State,” his only opportunity prior to this weekend came in Japan, where he defeated “Mighty Mo” Siligia at DREAM 13 in March. Rumors have circulated on numerous occasions that the former UFC champion was in contract negotiations with Strikeforce, but nothing has ever materialized.
If Barnett does want to compete States-side again, attending the fifth attempted hearing with the CSAC would be a good start, because while everyone frowns at the news of each prominent positive test in the industry, many of those fighters have been given the chance to compete again after serving their penance.
Does Barnett Deserve Another Chance?
Nathan Marquardt, Stephan Bonnar, Sean Sherk and many others have all tested positive at some point in their careers. They served their suspensions, paid their fines and were given an opportunity to resume their careers with the UFC.
Bonnar remains a wildly popular pugilist, while Marquardt is a mainstay in the middleweight division, and Sherk was given an automatic shot at the lightweight title he vacated upon his return. No likes the hearing about positive tests, but after some finger-wagging and too many questions over too long a time period, people move on. But Barnett’s situation is different.
People identify with contrition. After all, we all make mistakes, and admitting so only makes you more like the rest of us. Josh Barnett doesn’t seem to want to be one of us.
He maintains that both the Affliction test and his previous positive after winning the UFC heavyweight title were mistakes and that he’s never taken a banned substance in his career, despite the fact that a third positive test that resulted in only a warning is a widely known fact amongst the MMA community.
Anything can happen once. Twice would mean you have the absolute worst luck in the world and the people around you are filling your water bottle with banned substances. But three times?
C’mon man… even Pete Rose ended up telling the truth.
Right now, the answer is no, Barnett does not deserve another chance, but that changes with a mea culpa.
What Does the Future Hold for Josh Barnett?
Saturday, Barnett has a reasonable test against a tough opponent; Geronimo “Mondragon” dos Santos is 18-9 a win over Assuerio Silva, a set of heavy hands and a place on the radar of both Strikeforce and the UFC.
Moving forward, Barnett will surely continue to compete in Japan, where his time in both MMA and professional wrestling has made him a bankable name and a reasonably good draw. As for fighting in the United States, I wouldn’t doubt it.
He’s still just 32-years-old and while California may remain a no-fight zone, there are plenty of other options available, and someone is bound to take a chance on the former UFC champion. A strong showing this weekend will certainly help his cause, as despite the three strikes against him, Barnett is still a talented fighter and capable of competing with the top tier of competitors fighting outside of the UFC universe.
That may not be saying much to some, but it’s better than the alternative – being the forgotten heavyweight.