Strikeforce’s Josh Barnett Is Talented. Can He Be Trusted?

Josh Barnett

Entertaining heavyweight perpetually vilified for previous scandals

Josh Barnett has tested positive for steroids on three different occasions.

The second occurrence cost him the UFC heavyweight title. The third resulted in a highly anticipated meeting with Fedor Emelianenko to be cancelled just ten days prior to the event, and is seen as the major reason for the collapse of Affliction as a promotion.

On the eve of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix semifinals in Cincinnati, Ohio, the are two constants when it comes to Barnett.

One is that he denies using performance-enhancing drugs, stating time and again that the tests were false positives or the samples were improperly handled by the California State Athletic Commission. He even suggested the second positive test could have been a set-up by the UFC, a dirty negotiating tactic geared towards giving them a way to offer him a lower salary.

The second constant in all this is that the majority of fans have never gotten over Barnett’s checkered past or forgiven him for his indiscretions. While countless other athletes who have bent or broken the rules have been welcomed back with open arms, Barnett remains the perpetual outcast, a fighter fans seem uninterested in really committing to for the long haul.

But in a sport where numerous fighters have tainted track records, why is Barnett the only one who is ostracized indefinitely, and can he ever escape his past?

The answer to the first question is the easier of the two.

If fool me once is shame on me, and fool me twice is shame on you, what is fool me three times? That’s the reality of Barnett’s situation right now; fans simply do not trust him enough to put their faith in him again, since he’s already let them down thrice before.

While myriad other athletes have tested positive in the past, the vast majority of them have admitted their mistake, accepted their punishment, served their time, and returned. They also have routinely provided clean urine when asked.

Barnett hasn’t ever taken all of those steps. In same cases, he’s done the exact opposite.

There are all kinds of people responsible for Barnett testing positive for banned substances on multiple occasions, but according to Barnett, he is not one of them. The constant refrain of “I’m innocent” in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is hard for people to accept.

In addition, Barnett has made no effort to actually address the last test and his subsequent inability to get licensed in the state of California.

When he was radioactive after the Affliction fiasco, Barnett went back to Japan, where testing is far less strict and he’s far more popular. More than two years after the fact, he still hasn’t appeared before the CSAC to the best of my knowledge.

The positive test prior to the Emelianenko fight is the real kicker though.

Despite being two of the premier heavyweights in Pride, Barnett and Emelianenko never met; that’s what made their Affliction: Trilogy encounter such a highly anticipated affair. They were the top two heavyweights outside of the UFC, with some arguing that they were the top two heavyweights in the sport, period.

Barnett’s positive test brought everything to a screeching halt, and most fans will never be anything more than indifferent to the catch wrestling specialist as a result.

Whether or not he can escape his past — or get beyond his prior transgressions — remains to be seen. If he continues on the same path, denying all charges and avoiding “The Golden State” entirely, he’ll be stuck where he is for eternity.

But what if he changed his tune? Would a full and complete mea culpa from Barnett clear the way for a fan acceptance renaissance?

When you set the steroid issues aside — I know, it’s asking a lot in Barnett’s case — you’re left with a fighter who is talented in the cage and on the microphone; a guy who truly gets the entertainment aspect of mixed martial arts.

In terms of skill, Barnett is without question a top 10 heavyweight. He might be the best grappler in the heavyweight division. While striking has never been his greatest strength, Barnett has shown he can throw hands when he needs to and has the power to finish an opponent.

He has some quality wins and has faced some quality opposition, and with the ever-present need for big bodies to fill out the heavyweight ranks, Barnett certainly has the qualifications to be a quality addition to any roster.

In terms of his mic skills, maybe he strays a little too far into the world of professional wrestling with some of his promos for your liking, but you have to admit — listening to Barnett’s soliloquies is far more entertaining than the constant cliches offered up by the vast majority of his colleagues.

Though it was hard not to laugh at his post-fight speech after finishing Brett Rogers, a big part of that was because fans — myself included — refuse to trust him, no matter how entertaining he may be when asking for their support.

I’m willing to bet that at least part of the MMA fan base would change their stance on Barnett if he changed his stance on the red flags in his past.

It’s not like he’d have to stop being the guy who talks about “the spoils of war” and adding another skull to his collection; that’s the role Barnett has carved out for himself. He just needs to escape his most well-known role first.

I doubt it will ever happen — Barnett seems too entrenched in his stance as the unjustly accused — but I’ve been wrong about Barnett before; I never thought he’d fight in North America again.

But here he is, headlining Saturday’s event, proving once again that when it comes to Barnett, there is no way to predict what’s going to happen next.

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