Josh Barnett, the former UFC heavyweight champion who was exiled to Japan after a failed drug test at UFC 36, made a triumphant return to the Zuffa fold with a dominant win over Brett Rogers last night in Dallas. Barnett polarized the MMA internet in the week leading up to the fight. Some fans enjoyed his incredible pro wrestling style hype speech that saw the beleaguered fighter run down the hard times he'd faced in recent years. Others fixated on failed drug tests.
No matter where you fell in the great Josh Barnett debate, it's safe to say Barnett was the focus of an incredible amount of attention coming into the bout. Many critics questioned Barnett's ability to compete against a top flight heavyweight. He answered that question definitively, demolishing Rogers with disturbing ease. Here's a look at the fight, minute by minute:
5:00-4:00: After introductions by the classy Jimmy Lennon Jr., the bell rang to start the fight everyone had been waiting for. Did Barnett still have it? Announcer Mauro Ranallo asked if Barnett, a pro wrestler, might try to pull off the dreaded Von Erich claw. No one bothered with an answer but it was clearly "no, no he won't. Mostly because it is a fake pro wrestling move."
At 4:44 Rogers throws a hard right leg kick, but Barnett still has the cat quick reflexes that helped make him a star. He somehow manages to grab Rogers's foot and pushes him into the cage. Barnett, who has outwrestled the likes of the great Randy Couture in MMA competition had promised he would "take Brett Rogers to the moon." The inevitable slam was almost that good. He lifts Rogers overhead and slams him hard to the mat. The brilliance here wasn't just the big slam - it was Barnett's presence of mind to assume side control. He didn't just take it to the mat. He made sure he started working there from a tremendously advantageous position. Great fight IQ on display early by Barnett.
4:00-3:00: Barnett grinds his forearm into Rogers's face while the announcers discuss how aggressive he's going, outlining catch wrestling's supposed preference for "submission over position." I'm not sure what catch wrestling they've been studying, but in reality a pinfall was the most common way to lose a catch wrestling bout - so position was most certainly paramount. Submissions were actually very rare in a catch wrestling match. But, hey, whatever works for television I guess.
Barnett appears to consider a number of holds - a goofy Gene LeBell style neck crank using his leg, a top wristlock, but in the end decides to hold position and make Rogers work. At 3:21 Rogers scrambles for the first time, escaping to his knees. Barnett is quick enough, however, to maintain control. Rogers ends up back on the mat, but has improved to half guard. It should be noted that the three man broadcast booth barely seems to notice this action, concentrating on whether Barnett is more likely to use Frank Gotch's toehold or the Iron Shiek's camel clutch. No, I am not making that up.
3:00-2:00: Barnett manages to pull his leg out of half guard, not into side control, but directly into the mount. Rogers seems so far out of his league it's almost embarrassing. Rogers is holding on to Barnett's back for dear life. Someone should ask announcer Frank Shamrock about the excruciating minutes he clung to Enson Inoue's back, keeping the Shooto star from working in the mount during their legendary fight. Sadly, no one is likely to.
Rogers has both hands up in the air, begging to be armbarred. Barnett seems intent on making the announce team look foolish, as he continues to hold his position rather than look for a finish.
2:00-1:00: Rogers tries his best to push off the cage, but Barnett has tremendous balance. Lost in the furor of Barnett's drug scandals are what a brilliant fighter he is. Barnett lands some perfunctory ground and pound, but it isn't of the variety that will end the fight. It allows Rogers to buck wildly, and he escapes back to side control. Barnett, to his credit, is able to almost immediately resume mount.
1:00-0:00: "Barnett is sucking the life out of him," Frank Shamrock says. He's maintained control on the ground for almost the entire five minute round. Rogers threw one hard leg kick. The rest has been all Barnett. Unfortunately, he hasn't been super aggressive from his dominant positions, and the fans let loose a handful of boos as the round comes to an end.
5:00-4:00: Every fight, the pundits say, begins on the feet. That means Rogers has a chance. He throws a couple of jabs and one combination, before Barnett explodes with a leaping left hook that lands solidly. Rogers grabs double underhooks and looks for a throw of his own, but Barnett reverses him in mid throw to land in the full mount. Rogers is holding on tightly and Barnett looks to make space with some elbows to the big man's shoulders.
4:00-3:00: The crowd begins to boo again, despite Barnett's dominant position, but the end looks near as he prepares for a potentially fight ending arm triangle. As Frank Shamrock calls the action, Rogers taps to the pressure. Shamrock acknowledges that the choke doesn't usually finish a fight until the attacker moves to the side of his victim's body, but assumes Rogers was tired.
In the post fight banter, Ranallo accidentally refers to Frank by his adopted brother Ken's name. That created more tension than Rogers managed the entire fight. Barnett dominated here for all but 20 seconds of the fight. It was a truly amazing performance, one that showed Barnett is still a force to be reckoned with in the heavyweight division.
In the main event, Alistair Overeem beat Fabricio Werdum in a tepid rematch of a 2006 Pride bout. Overeem will move on to face Antonio Silva, while Barnett takes on Sergei Kharitonov in the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix's semi-finals. Both will be the favorites, once again, but I expect Barnett has the easier road into the finals. Barnett may not go on to win the entire tournament, but I think he answered some important questions against Rogers. He still moves well and his skill and smarts have never been in question. Already a darkhorse, Barnett, with another impressive performance, may move into a new role - favorite to win the whole tournament.