It's not easy loving Josh Barnett. Whether it's the multiple failed drug tests, the steadfast relationship with Japanese culture, or the weird lurking about he does every time Fedor Emelianenko is on television, Barnett leaves a lot of people cold. Not me. While others remember the failed tests, I remember the ones he passed in the ring, especially that first glorious run in the Hawaiian Super Brawl promotion at the turn of the century.
In 1999 it still made sense to call Barnett the "Baby Faced Assassin." Just 21, he still had the baby fat to go with his baby face. But inside that fat suit lurked a hell of a fighter. At Super Brawl 13 he rampaged through an eight man heavyweight tournament - kind of a major deal because the T. Jay Thompson promoted show was still seen as a ticket to the big time. In the field were six future UFC veterans and a future UFC heavyweight champion (Heath Herring, Ricco Rodriguez, and Bobby Hoffman among others). When the dust settled, Barnett was crowned king.
His ticket to the UFC, however, still hadn't been punched - not quite yet. UFC matchmaker John Perretti didn't like Barnett's doughy look; getting a chance wouldn't be easy. He needed one more big win to secure his spot. Beating Bobby Hoffman was one thing. Dan Severn was another kind of test all together.
The "Beast" had been an early UFC standout and was still wreaking havoc on the independent scene all over the world. He had three losses on his record - to Royce Gracie, Ken Shamrock, and Mark Coleman, all cream of the crop athletes. Since his loss to Coleman, he had gone 21-0-3 over the next three years. In short, Dan Severn was still a force to be reckoned with.
"Dan was one of my favorite fighters from the early UFC's. He was a pro wrestler of course and when you rolling German suplex a guy, you tend to leave an impression on people's minds, especially mine," Barnett remembered. "Besides me, Dan is the only person to pull it off in an MMA match. But he did it first. When I had a chance to fight him, he had already beaten Lance Gibson and Doug Murphy, two guys from my gym. So him being an idol wasn't on my mind. The only thing on my mind was to kick the living crap out of him. At the time he hadn't lost in years. And it was my chance to show everybody that I'm one of the best in the world."
In typical Severn fashion, it wasn't pretty. The two men spent most of the first three rounds clinching against the ropes or charging each other like two bull elephants. Severn managed a takedown in each round and was likely ahead on the cards as they entered the fourth and final round. But when the tide turned, it turned quickly.
"He thought he was going to ride it out. But come that fourth round, (trainer) Matt (Hume) slapped the sh*t out of me and it really woke me up," Barnett said. "I just went out there berserk, swinging on him. He tried to lateral drop me and I blocked him. That was the end of the fight."
Barnett's dismantling of Severn, finishing the legend with a mounted armbar, launched a career that would take a kid from Seattle, Washington all over the world. He lived a dream, winning the UFC title and then moving on to Japan, joining his idols in New Japan Pro Wrestling and main eventing in the mammoth Tokyo Dome. Barnett was even able to claim the title belt that meant the most to him - the King of Pancrase.
"It was probably the highest point of my career," Barnett said. "The thing that is most memorable to me. Winning that title meant so much. It means more than anything else I've done in MMA. My coach Matt Hume competed for the original King of Pancrase. He didn't win it, but I got the chance 10 years later to go back and do it. It really made me proud to come home with that belt. And it really but the belt, in the eyes of people, at the level it should be treated."
Now 33, Barnett is writing the final chapters of his story. It's unclear what the future holds - even if he succeeds in winning the Strikeforce tournament, bad blood with UFC President Dana White may prevent him from ever returning to the UFC Octagon. Or maybe he will lose Saturday against Brett Rogers, essentially ending his career as a major player in heavyweight MMA. But nothing Josh Barnett does can take away those memories of his first foray into fame. When he was the fresh face taking the sport by storm. It was a rise to stardom I'll never forget - and one of the 52 things I love about MMA.