Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
It’s hard for Josh Barnett to wrap his head around the fact that he hasn’t fought in four years.
The last time he competed came in 2016 when the former UFC heavyweight champion defeated Andrei Arlovski by third-round submission while earning a Fight of the Night and Performance of the Night bonus. What followed was a nightmare scenario where Barnett was literally fighting for his career after the United States Anti-Doping Agency revealed that he had tested positive for a banned substance as part of the UFC’s anti-doping program.
A long fight ensued and Barnett was eventually exonerated of any wrongdoing but it took almost two years to actually clear his name. He then signed with Bellator MMA but an unexpected illness cancelled his debut and then he was not medically cleared to compete in his next scheduled fight, which ultimately didn’t matter because the event was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Needless to say, Barnett was frustrated.
“When I really sit and think about getting in the ring, that four-year gap is just untenable,” Barnett told MMA Fighting. “I can’t believe it. A big victory in 2016, getting absolutely railroaded over something that was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt was not my fault yet having a bureaucracy go above and beyond to try and be punitive was nothing I ever expected.
“Then after that, getting sick the freaking night before my fight and just being a shivering wrecked husk. Then it’s like there’s no way I’m going to let things go this way, let’s turn this around as soon as freaking possible. Everything seemed to be working just fine and then a decision made in regards to medicals and it’s off again. Only to then look at it as you even get past the fight date, and seeing that the whole event got cancelled anyways.”
By the time his last fight got canceled, Barnett was really beginning to wonder if he was somehow doomed when it came to competing in combat sports again.
“It’s like what the hell,” Barnett said. “What god do I have to pray to, what needs to be sacrificed, something’s got to happen because there is no way I could have predicted this.”
With Bellator still delayed this summer, Barnett was looking at options that would allow him to fight again and that’s when he got in touch with KSW in Poland with a unique opportunity being offered.
The promotion was looking to expand into the realm of bare-knuckle boxing and Barnett was contacted about potentially facing off against Marcin Rozalski, a hard-hitting heavyweight who previously took out noted strongman Mariusz Pudzianowski in a MMA fight.
With a nickname like “Warmaster,” Barnett was intrigued by the idea, especially because it would test him in a way that was technically outside his normal comfort zone where he’s best known as a grappler and submission specialist.
“It reminds me when we all started this whole thing but again, there’s no grappling in this. No kicking or kneeing,” Barnett said. “I’ve trained boxing for many years. It’s one thing to go out there and use striking skills in an MMA sense but that’s more of a specific discipline in its own.
“Because you’re taking into account the clinching and the takedown element. Whereas boxing for example, it’s got a different rhythm, a different timing. There’s been a few people in MMA with high level boxing experience that weren’t always necessarily able to make their boxing shine. There are instances but what I mean by not being able to show their boxing is getting knocked out by non-boxers because MMA is just different.”
While there’s no exact science to prepare for a bare-knuckle fight, Barnett understands the vast differences between that sport and what he’s done for so many years in MMA or even traditional boxing.
In recent years, bare-knuckle fighting has exploded in popularity with the rise of Bare Knuckle Fighting Championships in the United States, which promoted a massively successful pay-per-view card last year pitting former UFC fighter Artem Lobov against boxing champion Paulie Malignaggi.
To get ready for his first experience in bare-knuckle competition, Barnett had to adjust his training while fully understanding that things will likely get “bloody” in a hurry come Friday night in Poland.
“I treat every punch like it’s real,” Barnett said about his preparation. “Like it’s a real blade. Even the way I do my bag work and how I hit, making those punches score and realizing it’s not always about landing a big shot here.
“Some of it is just being accurate and catching him right on the end of the knuckles, on the soft tissue and opening him up.”
Assuming all goes well in his bare-knuckle bout this weekend, Barnett hopes to finally make his Bellator debut in 2021 while keeping a more active schedule than the last four years has afforded him.
Barnett is a savvy enough businessman that he’s no longer dependent on fighting to pay the bills but he still loves the sport, which drives him to compete. That’s why he’s anxious to get as much done in the remaining years of his fight career so he can walk away from combat sports knowing he gave everything before hanging up the gloves for good.
“I don’t actually have to fight but I want to,” Barnett said. “But as long as I want to and the body is still willing, I’m going to do it. Because you can push certain things further ahead, you can put them on hold but you can’t do that with your athletic career.
“The clock is very vicious and time is unforgiving with this thing. I’ve got to make the most of it while it’s available still.”