There's no doubt about it: Josh Barnett needs a jacket, and that means Josh Barnett needs to go shopping.
"I don't like the look of these bridges," Erik Paulson says as he steers us around Covington, Kentucky, looking for a path across the river into Cincinnati.
Paulson is here because he's Barnett's friend and trainer of nine years, and because on fight week they're practically joined at the hip. They have compatible senses of humor, which means they're both cracking jokes from the time they check in to the hotel until the time the cage door closes. When you have hours and hours to kill and interviews and photo-ops to sit through, it helps to have a Paulson in your corner. And sure, he knows a thing or two about fighting as well.
I'm here because I'm always curious how different fighters spend the agonizingly slow days in the lead-up to a big fight, and because going shopping with Barnett sounded like a fine way to spend a rainy Wednesday afternoon. Strikeforce opted not to do open workouts this time around, which was a shame, since Barnett had big plans for how to follow up on his pro wrestling routine from the last event, he says. There was even talk of flying in fellow pro wrestler Bobby Lashley, but it wasn't to be. Instead, he gets to go shopping. If we can get across the river, that is.
"What's your problem with the bridges?" Barnett asks Paulson, not because he believes there's a legitimate concern there, but more because he senses another one of Paulson's idiosyncratic theories or phobias lurking under the surface.
They look old, Paulson says. Dilapidated. They look like they might be on the verge of collapsing any time, possibly right as we drive across one of them. And okay, sure, he can admit that this concern is at least partially related to having seen The Mothman Prophecies not so long ago.
The bridges are fine, Barnett tells him. Clearly, Barnett didn't see The Mothman Prophecies, Paulson mumbles. It goes on like on this for most of the ride into Cincinnati. Like a couple that's been married for so long that they can't remember whether they love or hate each other, bickering becomes a form of entertainment. You have to do something to pass the time on fight week.
"I watched some tape on Kharitonov," Paulson tells him as they drive.
"Oh yeah?" Barnett says, sounding as if he couldn't be less interested. "I saw him the other morning, shook his hand."
"Did you feel like you were looking at yourself?" Paulson asks.
"No," Barnett scoffs. Even though he and Kharitonov are both big, blond, pale white guys, he doesn't see any resemblance. In fact, he isn't terribly interested in talking about the fight at all, nor is he concerned with the stakes of the fight, or lack thereof.
"There's a belt," he shrugs at one point, referring to the newly created Strikeforce Grand Prix championship belt. There's also some money to be made. But then, he can make money in Japan as a pro wrestler. He has options. He fights because he wants to fight, he says, and doesn't want to get distracted by the other questions, like whether he'll end up back in the UFC, and whether that's conditional on him winning this fight, this tournament.
"That's the business of fighting," he tells me. "And the business of fighting has nothing to do with actual fighting whatsoever."
And really, it's hard to blame him for taking this stance. After all, he's been at this for more than 14 years as a professional. He's had 35 pro fights. He doesn't need his hand held. He doesn't get nervous before a fight. He doesn't stay up late thinking about his opponent. He knows what he has to do, and he sets his mind to doing it.
For now, all he has to do is find a jacket, which is why he heads straight for Saks Fifth Avenue, where he will attempt to pull exactly one supposedly XXL jacket over exactly one of his arms before becoming briefly stuck and attracting the attention of Ian, our friendly sales clerk.
"Something in particular you're looking for?" asks Ian, who seems delicate and polite and is pretending to be not the least bit disturbed by this big, Nordic-looking guy walking among his racks of fine men's apparel, yanking expensive jackets on over a T-shirt featuring an image of the grim reaper.
A jacket, Barnett tells him. He just needs a jacket. Preferably one that will fit over his arms.
"Because he pumps iron," Paulson says, almost to himself, then points absently at Barnett. "Me, I only use cables."
No one is exactly sure what to do with this remark, which is the case with most of Paulson's remarks. Blond and in his mid-40s, with scar tissue bunched up around his eyes, he has a way of tossing off disarming statements that could be attempts at humor, but could just as easily be serious declarations that you can't quite trace the reasoning behind. Normally, Barnett would at least give it a shot, either because he's naturally curious or because following Paulson's line of thinking leads him down some entertaining, if bizarre rabbit holes at times. But not now. Now Barnett needs a jacket.
"Are you looking for something nice? Or something that, if you forget it here, it's no big deal?" Ian asks when he sees Barnett eyeing a Burberry coat with a $1,000 price tag. Is he trying to find a way to direct us out of his store and toward somewhere cheaper? Unclear.
"No, if I'm going to buy a jacket I'm going to buy a jacket," Barnett says. "I came here on purpose."
Then something magical happens. Though one of them is wearing a bow tie and the other is wearing a T-shirt with a drawing of the crucifixion on the back (though, later, Paulson and Barnett will disagree over whether it is the crucifixion or simply a crucifixion), Barnett and Ian find common ground by discussing fashion. Barnett mentions that he needs something he can wear with a suit, since he's headed to Fashion Week in New York soon and the last time he was there the wind was brutal. Ian points out a black peacoat-type number that dresses up nicely.
It's not cheap, he points out to Barnett, but "no one can argue with black."
"And sure, something like that," Barnett says, holding it up, "you buy it once and that's a foundation to build your wardrobe on."
While this conversation is going on, Paulson has slipped off and found the cologne samples. When he comes back he has at least four different scents sprayed on various parts of his arms, and he wants me to smell them all.
"Okay, now this one," he says, jabbing first his wrist then his forearm and then his other wrist and other forearm under my nose. "How about that? I think that's the one."
Meanwhile, Ian seems to have talked Josh into the black top coat (made specially for Saks Fifth Avenue), and hey, as long as he's here, he might as well look at these sweaters.
"This is what he's doing," Paulson says to me, casting an invisible fishing line into the air. "Whoa! We got one! Just reel him in now."
While Barnett is off trying on sweaters, Paulson regales Ian and I with the story of the time he played a drug smuggler on "Baywatch." They had him choreograph the fight scene (Paulson later also coordinated the fight scenes for the MMA-themed teen movie Never Back Down), and they gave him a green jacket to wear that he thought was much too nice for a drug smuggler.
"Like something you'd find at this place," he says, and Ian blinks.
His plan of a nine-move fight scene got scrapped when David Hasselhoff came out of his trailer to film the climactic battle at the end of pier. Nine moves? The Hoff wasn't feeling it.
"He said, 'You kick me, then I'll kick you and knock you off the pier," Paulson recalls. And that's pretty much exactly how it went down. They got it in the first take.
When, at last, Barnett returns to swipe his credit card for the coat and a few sweaters, Paulson is relieved that we can finally escape Saks and get a bite to eat. Only once we step outside we see the rain has picked up considerably.
"You don't want to go out there in your new jacket, do you?" Paulson asks. It is not entirely a sincere question. Over the next hour, his feigned concern for Barnett's new jacket will grow immensely. Careful of your jacket when you cross this street. You should sit next to the empty seat at the restaurant so you have a place to put your jacket. Why not pose for a picture next to this fountain, and oh, make sure you get the jacket in the shot.
It's the same when Paulson talks about how much the jacket cost. The first time, it's $900. When it comes up again 10 minutes later, the price has gone up to $1,200. Before long, Paulson will insist with a straight face that Barnett went out and bought himself a $3,000 jacket today in Cincinnati. Barnett will just nod along and try not to give himself away with a smile.
"Go back in and see if your friend will loan you an umbrella," Paulson says to Barnett as we all stand stupidly outside the store, staring at the rain.
Barnett shoots him a look. Loan me an umbrella? But fine, he goes back in while we wait under the eaves.
"I know what he wants," Paulson says. "He wants me to go get the car. I'm not doing it."
When Barnett comes back with a large black umbrella, Paulson asks him if the people at Saks gave it to him or simply let him borrow it. Again, it's impossible to tell whether he's joking or whether he thinks a store that sells umbrellas might actually be in the business of handing them out for a few hours. I start to get a sense for why Barnett enjoys his company so much, particularly on fight week.
Who wants to spend all week thinking about Kharitonov and his blistering right hand, stressing about all the things that can go wrong? It's so much easier to relax when all you have to think about is whether Erik Paulson is crazy or just messing with you. It's also a puzzle that's just difficult enough to solve that it's still fun, even after all these years.
And when you're Josh Barnett, particularly on a week like this, when you may be fighting for something or you may be fighting for nothing (other than a paycheck, of course), isn't that what you want? When you don't know where you'll be this time next year, or who you'll be fighting for, aren't there worse things than being distracted by a good friend who makes just getting to the end of the next block its own little adventure?
At least now he has a coat on his back and an umbrella over his head. At least those problems are solved. Now he can turn his attention to the next thing, whatever that is.