The UFC’s heavyweight division just got a lot more interesting.

With just days until a massive heavyweight double feature at UFC 160, where Cain Velasquez will defend his title against Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva and a new No. 1 contender could be established in Junior dos Santos’ fight with Mark Hunt, the UFC brass found a way to add another top-flight addition to their heavyweight roster. His name is Josh Barnett.

With one of the most impressive resumes in the division, Barnett is a welcome addition to a weight class that is in dire need of talent near the top of the heap. Velasquez and dos Santos have made a habit of taking out the rest of the elite competition in their division, leaving a rather barren landscape around the title. As a result, Barnett is not only entering the promotion as one of the most high-profile signings of 2013, he is instantly joining the short list of contenders for the heavyweight strap.

The sudden signing of Barnett came as a surprise to MMA fans, many of whom had given up hope when Barnett announced that talks with the UFC had broken down since Zuffa folded Strikeforce earlier this year. Although Barnett was one of the most high-profile athletes on the Strikeforce roster, “The Warmaster” already possessed a rocky past with the UFC due to performance-enhancing drug use, and it didn’t appear that UFC President Dana White and company were in any hurry to bring Barnett back into the Octagon.

After months of little to no news regarding Barnett’s MMA future, the fighter formerly known as “The Baby-faced Assassin” was suddenly announced as the newest member of the UFC roster earlier this week. The timing could not have been more perfect, with the spotlight firmly set on the heavyweights this week heading into the UFC 160 pay-per-view event on Saturday night.

Now that Barnett is officially part of the UFC roster, the number of intriguing match-ups for “The Warmaster” has quadrupled overnight, and the UFC shouldn’t have any trouble finding Barnett a high-profile opponent to take on in his UFC return. Popular fighters like Roy Nelson, Frank Mir and Alistair Overeem are all consensus top-10 heavyweights, and all of them would get fans buzzing if they were matched up with Barnett.

Kicking off his return to the UFC against Nelson or Overeem became a bit more unlikely over the last few days, with both fighters booked in upcoming bouts within hours of the announcement of Barnett’s signing, but a fight against Mir not only makes sense, it also represents one of the most anticipated fights the heavyweight division has to offer. Barnett and Mir have made strides in improving their striking skills over their long careers, but both men are still known best for their skills in the grappling department. Barnett’s catch wrestling style has made him one of the most dangerous heavyweight fighters in the world when the fight hits the floor, but Mir has the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu game to make things difficult for “The Warmaster” on the mat.

It’s not often that two legitimate grappling specialists face off in the UFC, but it’s even rarer in the heavyweight division, where technique and skill are often made less effective by something as simple as knockout power. That’s what makes a fight between Mir and Barnett so enticing for most MMA fans—the chance to see something as unusual as two effective grapplers going toe-to-toe in the UFC’s largest division.

While there are other opponents who would be equally entertaining opponents for Barnett in his UFC return, every top-ranked heavyweight outside of Mir is currently booked to fight at some point in the next few months. It’s possible that Barnett would prefer to fight another opponent, especially since Mir is coming off two straight losses, but waiting around isn’t going to get “The Warmaster” any closer to the heavyweight belt he had stripped from him over 10 years ago. However, a win over a significant opponent like Mir would represent a big step towards getting the title back.

Outside of Junior dos Santos, there’s no clear-cut options for Velasquez if he wins this weekend, but Barnett could easily slide his way into a title fight within the next 12 months with a win or two. If both Velasquez and dos Santos do what they’re expected to do this weekend, a trilogy fight between the two is inevitable. Both fighters dominated the other in their respective title wins, and there’s no fight in the heavyweight division that will draw in the amount of pay-per-view buys as Velasquez vs Dos Santos III.

But once the rubber match between Velasquez and dos Santos is settled, the door is wide open for any of the other ranked heavyweights, especially some new blood like Barnett, to jump into a title fight.

If Fabricio Werdum defeats Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira next month, he’ll instantly become the favorite to earn the next shot at the belt. But like Barnett, unless Werdum wants to wait another six months to fight, he may have to take another bout. A loss for Werdum at any point before a title fight would allow any one of the bulk of contenders sitting in the top 10 to step up and earn a title fight.

It may take a win or two, but Barnett is well on his way to becoming a major player in the UFC’s heavyweight division again. It seems impossible considering “The Warmaster’s” long-running feud with Dana White, but Barnett is back inside the UFC and his surprisingly large fan base is ready to see him prove his worth against the best in the world. Whether or not Barnett has it in him to win a few more fights against elite competition is unknown, but if he does, expect him to get a chance to earn back the belt he never lost sooner rather than later.

Photo: Josh Barnett (Jerry Chavez/The MMA Corner)

About The Author

Vince Carey
Staff Writer

Vince Carey has been writing about the sport of mixed martial arts since 2010. Although he is just 21 years old, the Omaha-based writer is looking to provide readers with interesting content on all things related to MMA.