was a directionless college student at the University of Montana when someone first mentioned the name Jim Harrison to him. It wasn't exactly a recommendation. It was more like, here's someone you might get along with, now leave us alone.
"I was just studying general college bulls--t," Barnett says now. "I hadn't really figured out what I wanted to do, but I knew for a fact that I wanted to fight. That had been something I intended to do since I saw UFC
4. I told myself I was going to do that. I didn't know how or when, but I was going to make it happen."
He'd wrestled and studied a little bit of kickboxing before leaving his home in Washington to come to Montana for school, but he was having trouble finding anyone in the small town of Missoula or in the university martial arts clubs who were as serious about fighting as he was.
Or, as Harrison, puts it: "He was just meaner than everybody else. One of the instructors [at the University of Montana] told him, 'Why don't you go workout with Harrison? He's a barbarian too.' We shared a laugh over that."
If you're looking for the 75-year-old Harrison now, you can find him any night of the week inside Sakura Warrior Arts at the base of the south hills of Missoula. He doesn't move quite like he used to, thanks to knee surgeries and a life full of combat sports. His face bears years worth of scar tissue, and when he puts his hand down flat on his desk, his gnarled fingers all seem to point in different directions -- leftover reminders of the days when he trained on thin, horsehair mats in makeshift gyms, he says.
Sakura is a small gym with a distinctly Japanese feel to the architecture, but just inside the front door is a yellowed reminder of the school's most famous student.
"Congratulations Josh Barnett," reads an ad that Harrison placed in the local newspaper, the Missoulian, back in 2002, after Barnett defeated Randy Couture
for the heavyweight title. "World UFC champion. United Fighting Challenge."
By the time Barnett first walked into this gym in 1996, Harrison had already done enough living for several lifetimes. As a child in California during World War II, he saw a judo demonstration where a little girl threw her older, bigger brother around the mats, and he decided that he had to learn whatever it was that this little girl knew.
"I went to all the gyms around there and they all told me, 'No round-eyes,'" he chuckles now. Though his family moved around during the war, following one manufacturing job after another, Harrison always made it a point to find a local YMCA where he could pick up some new martial arts skills, often from teachers who had themselves only just learned the techniques. They learned judo from Japanese populations that had been moved around by the American policy of internment, and learned karate out of a book.
Or at least, they thought they learned it, mostly by imitating the pictures.
"One day this big guy walked in and said, 'Does anybody here do karate?'" Harrison recalls. "We said, 'Hell no, we can't even say it right.' We'd been calling it kay-rate
, because that's what it looked like in the book."
He eventually settled at one gym in St. Louis, but in order to become a black belt the school required him to go down and help out at a local biker bar where the head instructor worked as a bouncer. There, Harrison says, is where he learned to put his martial arts skills to practical use.
"You can imagine, I was about 19, skinny kid, walking up to a table full of bikers and telling them that they had to quiet down. I finally learned you had to hit two guys first, quick as you could, then hope the rest of the bouncers got there in time to pull the others off you."
Because of his martial arts background, Harrison got a job as a bodyguard for the mayor of St. Louis, which later led to him joining the police force as a member of a special felony warrants squad.
"Our captain told us, 'When we send you out on a warrant, we want you to bring them back. You can bring them back on their feet or you can bring them back feet first. Just bring them back, and be careful because some of you will get brought back feet first too.'"
Harrison didn't know how serious he was until one day when he and several other officers went to serve a warrant on a particularly dangerous suspect. He was said to be taking refuge in a bar, but they couldn't find him anywhere as they searched the place. Harrison went to check the bathroom, and as he reached to turn the doorknob four .45 slugs came tearing through the door and into his chest.
Harrison was slammed against the wall behind him and slid down as four more slugs flew just over his head. As he lay bleeding on the floor, he saw the dim shadow of a second suspect coming to finish him off.
"I couldn't get to my .38, but I had my .25 backup over on my hip," he says. "As he came in, I just saw a blur and I caught him in the throat and right below the eye."
The other suspect ran out the back door and was shot down by one of Harrison's partners. Once the paramedics arrived on the scene, Harrison seemed all but dead already.
"I can remember kind of an out-of-body experience, looking down and watching them work on me. I remember hearing them say, 'Well, the cop's had it. Wheel them both down to the morgue.' I was trying to say, 'Hey, I'm not dead you sons of b----es!' But of course I couldn't say anything."
Harrison woke up in the hospital later, alive "but not exactly kicking," he says.
Harrison would eventually find notoriety on what he terms the "blood-and-guts era" of the American full contact karate circuit. He was a three-time national karate champion and a light heavyweight kickboxing champ before he eventually relocated to Missoula to open his own gym. That's where in 1996, he first met Barnett.
"We really connected, almost the very first night," Harrison says. "He came to watch class and afterwards he told me, 'I can't afford to pay for your classes, but I'll mow the grass, mop up, clean toilets, do whatever I have to do to train here.'"
Barnett trained with Harrison "as much as I possibly could," he says. When he went back to Washington over winter break, he managed to get his first MMA fight through AMC Pankration in Seattle. He was still one of the least experienced fighters there, but he won via rear naked choke and raised a few eyebrows in the process.
"I went back to school and started fighting anyone I could find under any circumstances -- of course, an agreed-upon fight -- but basically bare-knuckling it up at the [University of Montana] Rec Center."
The school gym had some old mats laid out next to the indoor basketball courts, mainly for the school's judo club to use.
"I would just sit there and fight people on those mats all the time. People would stop playing basketball and would just hang on the nets and watch. Surprisingly, no one ever said anything. ...For some reason, no one thought twice about guys picking up and slamming each other and landing 12-to-6 elbows to the back of the head. Just university athletics, I guess. I just wanted to fight as much as possible and get as much experience as possible."
But as school held less and less interest for him and he got more offers to fight, Barnett stood at a crossroads. If he wanted to be a real professional, Harrison told him, he needed to train with other professionals. Harrison recommended Matt Hume and Maurice Smith in Seattle, and Barnett eventually took his advice.
"He told me that if I wanted to be a professional fighter, that's where I needed to be," Barnett says. "I needed to be in a gym with other like-minded people, learning those techniques and making those connections. So I went there with his blessing and started training in Seattle."
Once there, Barnett took his training and his fighting career to the next level. He had three fights in his first year as a pro, winning them all, but he never forget what he'd learned at Sakura, he says.
"Mr. Harrison has been so influential on me as a fighter. It's the mentality. The training mentality, fighting mentality. Just that focus and, I hate to say meanness, but yeah, he's a guy people are scared to death of, and he's also an amazing person. He's a person I really look up to."
Harrison followed Barnett's career as best as he could while still being "computer ignorant," he says. "I'm still using smoke signals and the pony express," he jokes.
He watched Barnett through the ups and the downs, including the failed steroid test after his victory over Couture, which Harrison still insists on taking some responsibility for.
"I had all my guys taking DHEA [supplements]," he explains. "That can come up positive in steroid tests, but I didn't know that then."
Recently Barnett reconnected with Harrison when he was back in Missoula for a friend's wedding, and the two shared an emotional reunion.
"It was a very personal moment for me. It had been so long since I had been back there, and so much had happened," says Barnett.
As they sat down to dinner one night, what Harrison wanted to know was what had happened in Barnett's second fight with Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic in Pride.
"He looked at me and said, 'You know,'" Harrison says. "I said, 'Yeah, I know. But you tell me.' He said, 'I got my shoulder fixed, trained real hard, worked hard and came back, didn't take any warm-up fights. Then I got my ass kicked for real.'"
Ever the sensei, Harrison couldn't resist telling his former student where he'd gone wrong.
"You don't take a fight like that with no warm-up," he says. "You just don't do it."
With Barnett set to fight in the Strikeforce heavyweight Grand Prix on Saturday night in Cincinnati, Harrison says he'll watch "even if I have to break into a TV store."
And while he likes Barnett's chances to win the whole tournament, he's still not sure if that will land Barnett back in the UFC, considering the rocky relationship between Barnett and UFC president Dana White, who Harrison has very few kind words for, even now.
Wherever Barnett's career leads him, Harrison says, he's proud to have played a role in his development. He just hopes he remembers the mix of humility and brutality he tries to instill in all his students.
"Like I tell my guys, if you're good, you don't have to go around telling everybody," he says. "You can let them tell you."