When people talk about MMA’s all-time great heavyweights, the names Dan Severn, Fedor Emelianenko, Randy Couture and Antonio “Minotauro” Nogueira are probably the first that spring to mind. And when they talk about today’s best heavyweights, they’re most likely referring to Cain Velasquez, Junior dos Santos and Alistair Overeem. Conspicuously absent from both of these lists is a man who over the last 15 years has amassed a 31-6 record and has won or competed for nearly every major heavyweight title in the sport’s history. He has defeated some of the sport’s legendary figures, including three of the men listed above, and even at age 35 remains a dangerous presence in the sport’s largest weight class. On Saturday, he’ll fight on Strikeforce’s final card, probably for a chance to get back to the UFC.

Josh Barnett has been around. He began fighting in the late 1990s and won his first nine pro bouts, including two single-night tournaments when those were still a thing. He broke into the UFC in Nov. 2000 with a win over Gan McGee before suffering his first loss, to Pedro Rizzo in his next match. After that, however, Barnett went on another winning streak, this one eight fights in length, which included a win over Randy Couture for the UFC heavyweight championship. He was 24 years old at the time and pretty much looked unstoppable. So why, some might ask, hasn’t anyone seen him in the Octagon since that win over Couture almost 11 years ago?

The answer, unfortunately, lies outside the cage. After he won the UFC heavyweight belt, Barnett tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Of course, he was summarily stripped of the belt and left the UFC for Japan, where he would compete both in MMA and pro wrestling. He captured and twice defended the Pancrase openweight championship before eventually making his way to Japan’s preeminent MMA organization, Pride Fighting Championships. Unfortunately for Barnett, his first two fights in Pride were against Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, who at the time was regularly turning his opponents into 200+ pounds of dead weight with his dangerous head kicks. Barnett lost both fights with “Cro Cop,” first due to a shoulder injury and then about a year later by decision.

Barnett would remain a fixture in Pride, despite his unspectacular debut. He reached the finals of its 2006 Openweight Grand Prix before losing, once more, to Filipovic and split a pair of fights with “Minotauro” before Pride’s demise. Barnett would eventually be paired up with Emelianenko in what was supposed to be a major pay-per-view event for the emerging Affliction promotion, but, unfortunately for Affliction, Barnett would once again get popped for PEDs, which forced the event’s cancellation (and ultimately led to the promotion’s closure).

Undeterred, Barnett has continued to fight on, competing twice outside of the United States before entering Strikeforce’s Heavyweight Grand Prix in 2011. Just like in Pride, Barnett reached the finals before being defeated, this time by current Strikeforce heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier. Which brings us to Saturday, when Barnett will take on the much lesser known Nandor Guelmino. In Guelmino, Barnett faces a man on a seven-fight winning streak who is looking to make a name for himself in the States, but don’t expect Barnett to simply allow the Austrian to get famous at his expense. After all, there’s probably more at stake for “The Warmaster” than just a payday.

With a win over Guelmino, Barnett should find himself back in the UFC for the first time since his ignominious departure so many years ago. Even despite his issues with PEDs, Barnett is simply too good a fighter with too rich a history in the sport to be denied a spot in the world’s premier MMA organization if he’s able to succeed Saturday. The four men who have defeated him either are or were some of the best heavyweights in the world, and he has strung together multiple lengthy winning streaks against consistently stiff competition. Unless he loses in spectacular fashion to Guelmino on Saturday, it just doesn’t make sense not to bring him, once more, into the UFC fold.

Sure, there’s the potential risk of Barnett testing positive for PEDs once more, given his history, but Barnett has tested clean since that infamous pre-fight screening in 2009. What’s more, the UFC’s current attitude about past transgressions in that area seems to have softened a bit, as its treatment of Alistair Overeem (who will almost certainly receive a title shot upon his return from his PED suspension, assuming he defeats Antonio Silva at UFC 156) and Chael Sonnen (who in April will inexplicably fight for a title outside of his natural weight class) indicates. The upside is simply too great with Barnett to leave him in the lurch.

Despite his longevity in the sport, Barnett remains a threat in the heavyweight division. He is currently in seventh position on The MMA Corner’s heavyweight fighter rankings, and has lost just once (to Cormier) since 2006. Think about the match-up possibilities for Barnett in the UFC. A fight with Junior dos Santos would be a classic striker/grappler showdown between two elite fighters, as would one with Overeem. The UFC could always book the rubber match between Barnett and “Minotauro” as a way to send one or both fighters into retirement, or it could put Barnett against fellow heavyweight ground specialist Frank Mir. Those are four terrific fights right there, and that’s just the beginning of the list.

Now, these lofty ideas would be brought crashing down to Earth if Guelmino is able to best Barnett on Saturday, but even with a loss, the UFC will probably still pick Barnett up, if only to match him against an up-and-coming heavyweight on a preliminary card as a test run. In addition, there’s always the possibility that Barnett will simply choose not to attempt entry into the UFC following his fight with Guelmino. He is 35 years old, after all, and could easily return to Japan for another pro wrestling stint and the occasional MMA bout against a fighter of similar veteran status.

Assuming the UFC and Barnett are similarly interested in one another, however, expect the two to come to terms after Saturday. Should that happen, Barnett will finally get the recognition among fans on a widespread basis that his career has yielded. Furthermore, if Barnett is able to find late-career success in the UFC, a la Couture, he could find himself on that list of legends above, and be remembered by everyone as one of MMA’s greatest.

Photo: Josh Barnett (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.