It's unsettling how quickly things can change in professional sports, particularly in a realm as visceral and unforgiving as mixed martial arts. In nearly two full decades of fighting, a period of time that spanned 39 official contests and god knows how many unofficial ones, Josh Barnett had only been truly knocked out twice, and never before the seven-minute mark.
But when Travis Browne brutally shrunk that mark down to a mere 60 seconds at UFC 168, derailing Barnett's title fast track with a stunning hailstorm of elbows, even Barnett, the most grizzled of veterans, couldn't explain exactly what happened.
"Honestly, it wasn't about what went wrong. Sometimes you just don't appear, man," Barnett said on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour. "After 17 years, I can't say that I've had tougher nights, or you've had nights were you didn't perform as well as you'd like to. But this was the only time I'd ever had where it was just... I just didn't show up at all.
"I really feel like I didn't even have a fight. Me, ‘the Warmaster,' Josh Barnett, he didn't show up. Some other guy walked into the ring and sort of piddled around a little bit., but that's not me, and it was very strange. But I figure after being in so many fights and being through this whole process for so long, it's really not too surprising that it could happen."
Although the abrupt and violent end to the fight was surprising, Barnett was not the first victim to such an attack. Gabriel Gonzaga felt his own consciousness ripped away by a salvo of elbows to the head from Browne last April. Afterward Gonzaga appealed the loss, claiming that the technique was illegal.
The Nevada State Athletic Commission ultimately denied Gonzaga's appeal, but for his part, Barnett doesn't share Gonzaga's feelings of concern.
"They looked questionable, but at the same time, I'm an old-school guy. I figure, if people are going to be teetering on the edge so much, might as well just let it all be legal anyway," Barnett said. "Soccer kicks, stomps, knees. I'd rather that, personally, than have all these really near-arbitrary rules about the location of an elbow and where it should hit, what angle it has to be. It's just kind of ridiculous. I'd do the same (to Browne), so that's the way it is, and you've got to work within that system."
Regardless, the lopsided nature of the loss, along with the "surreal" way Barnett says he checked out of the fight before it even began, led Barnett, who turns 37 this year, to embark on some soul-searching to try to uncover why he felt so disconnected on fight night.
"Even the wins that I've experienced, I've spent a lot of time reflecting on everything that went into it: where I could've improved, where I did well, what was expected and how that came out, what was unexpected and why did it occur," Barnett said. "With this, it's no different than any fight. You've got to look back and you have to look through all the data to try and find the opportunities to make yourself better, because if you're not improving, no matter what you're doing, you're just dying. Inflation goes up, but your dollar's still not worth the same.
"After 17 years, you just can't do everything the way the way you used to. I mean, you can to a degree, but you have to make changes."
And so with that, one of MMA's most colorful characters flipped open his notepad and unveiled his homemade 12-step program to return to UFC fighting dominance.
Step 1: Remove outside distractions, focus solely on fighting
"My life is entirely busy with things other than just fighting. I'm not a kid anymore, nor am I a kid in terms of when it comes to the sport of fighting. Travis is a kid when it comes to fighting. He's been doing this five years, he says. When I was five years in, I was the UFC heavyweight champion, and all I could think about was fighting. I know what that's like, but now I'm not a child anymore. I am a bustling young teenager full of all kinds of weird feelings and hormones fighting, and as soon as I figure out why the hair grew there, I'll move along.
"It's too easy to get sidetracked, and I am well aware of all kinds of opportunities that are opening up for me now and I'm trying to take advantage of them. But when it comes to fighting, you really need to keep fighting first. I've been involved in this sport for so long -- don't take the fighting for granted. Make sure to cut those things out that can take away."
Step 2: Move camp away from home, narrow focus, remove convenience
"I really think that this is something that is specific for fighters in general, depending on their personality types, but also as you've been fighting for a very long time, you have to make slight adjustments. Normally this is not a necessity for me, but I think it could be a help because it could bring me back to that time when I was just a little kid and fighting.
"I think that maybe moving the camp from a different location (away) from home will make a big difference in keeping that focus. Again, removing distractions, and just making me hungry. Or, if anything, just really pissed off that I don't have all the stuff that I really like."
Step 3: Pre-camp harder
"I think that for me, as I'm older, (I need to) spend more time prepping beforehand. I hate that. I don't want to spend more time fighting than I have to often. I really enjoy doing it, but you know, (I'm) 36 (years old), so easing into camps will be a plus. Spend most of my time prepping for camp and staying ready, instead of getting ready."
Step 4: Increase flexibility
"I've always been flexible enough, but I think that over the years I've tightened up in some areas. Scar tissue here and there, and blah, blah, blah. Reduction of inflexibility means reduction of injuries. That just means being able to move a lot easier and, you know, not looking like Abe Vigoda when you get out of bed in the morning."
Step 5: Work more on weaknesses
"We all have ‘em, we all know what they are. I do spend time working on my weaknesses, but this could be also more part of that pre-camp thing -- spend a ton of time working on weaknesses, because you're only as strong as your weakest link. I'd prefer not to have any weak links at all. If at all possible, I'd like to keep my links nice and tight. Real tight links. Really super tight. Made of gold if possible."
Step 6: Spend more time on recovery
"This is super important for all fighters, but especially so for old dogs like myself. When you think of fighting, you think of the work that you put in at the gym. Well, recovery is part of that work process.
"You think, oh, you worked out hard, you stretched out, whatever. You hydrated, you got some food -- oh, I'm done. No, you're not done. You probably have another hour of chiropractic potentially. Or maybe you've got massage, or hyperbaric chamber. Any of that kind of stuff. It's a necessity. You've got to keep yourself in top physical condition and stay in peak shape, because you're going to have... well I won't say necessarily [that you'll incur] injury, but you have a lot of hurtin' and boo-boos, and things like that. Little owies and raspberries."
Step 7: Work on learning a new language
"I don't know exactly (what this has to do with fighting). Maybe so you can insult your opponents no matter where you end up in the world? But, it just sounded kind of like a thing you should do anyway, and I was making a list, so I thought I would include stuff that I thought was important."
As you probably guessed, that was about it for Barnett's grand plan. Steps eight through 12 read simply: ‘Kill.'
"I kinda started to run out of other things to put down," Barnett joked.
At 36, the light at the end of the tunnel is undoubtedly drifting closer and closer to Barnett. Yet for one of MMA's few remaining stalwarts from the dark ages, such an unceremonious final chapter would not be befitting to the career "The Warmaster" has worked to build over the better part of two decades.
So although he has yet to finalize a timetable for his return, Barnett vowed that this latest setback won't be the end of his journey.
"I still want to fight," Barnett said. "Even if I thought to myself, I want to retire. Well, how are you going to retire now? There's no way I could stop fighting after that. I felt a lot of humiliation and just regret. I just couldn't sit with that. There's all the fans that believe in me, all my coaches, all my friends and family.
"I couldn't ever let anything end like that. There's no way. I know that I have so much more to give, and I'm so much better than that. (I just have to) make sure to keep from any repeat appearances of that kind of crap, and go out there and do what I'm supposed to do, the way that I'm supposed to."