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Josh Barnett reflects on a past era: Guys now ‘fight for glory,' we fought for blood and honor

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Esther Lin

For a while, it seemed like Josh Barnett would never make it back home. A former UFC champion who lost the chance to defend his belt, Barnett wandered the landscape for a decade, jumping from Pride, to Affliction, to Strikeforce, and several stops in-between, all the while maintaining his stature as one of the top heavyweights in the world.

Even when Strikeforce folded last January, leaving Barnett with just one option if he wanted to fight the best in the world, a homecoming couldn't come easy. Barnett declined the UFC's initial offer, citing one outlying issue in particular, before eventually accepting a multi-fight deal a few months later.

"Honestly, it's just negotiations like anything else. There's really nothing special to it," Barnett said of the process on Tuesday's UFC 164 conference call.

"It all gets worked out eventually in the end. A lot of paper gets pushed around, pencils are moved, some are dropped if there's hot chicks in the room and you want them to pick ‘em up. But either way, you just go to the business table and you do what you gotta do. It's been so long, honestly, all I know at this point is how to punch stuff, sweat, and scream in pain from excessive workouts. That's it. That's all I know how to do, suffer and be murderous, because all I do is train right now. Negotiations, they're a thing of the past."

That Barnett minimizes his drawn-out Zuffa talks with a sardonic flair isn't surprising. It's simply part of his charm -- the reason why moments later it's hard not to chuckle as Barnett waxes poetic about a tentative dinner date he has planned with UFC President Dana White, "to go out, break bread, maybe go catch a movie and hang out, and get a couple's massage here soon."

At 35 years old, with a career spanning 17 years, Barnett has been around long enough to know how this game works.

"I'm the oldest Zuffa anything," he explained. "I fought pre-Zuffa. So for me, it's not even a consideration. I'm the longest running big guy in this sport, period."

With Barnett now signed to fight Frank Mir at UFC 164, in many ways his career truly has come full circle. When Barnett abandoned the UFC for Japan back in 2003, the world was a very different place. An MMA organization securing the backing of a major network like FOX was a laughable idea, not to mention spearheading the launch of a major FOX vehicle to tune of 1.7 million viewers.

"I fought when there was no money from fighting really," Barnett reflected. "I fought when you couldn't even buy MMA gear at your local sports store or whatever. We had to make it ourselves. I fought when most of the time we didn't even wear gloves. We were under attack from all angles. There wasn't really an audience hardly. There wasn't much fame. The only real reason to do it was because you just had a never-ending desire to get in there and bathe in blood.

"Today there is the opportunity to branch out and to be a part of things that are outside of fighting. It has a broader acceptance from mainstream public. There's a lot more notoriety with this and a much bigger public spotlight that comes with it. As far as making a living, it's a far better opportunity now than it was when I started."

As the old guard slowly dwindles in number, Barnett remains one of the few active veterans to still remember the NHB days. He marvels at the massive leaps forward the sport has made since that era, although he believes it comes with a cost.

"I think that a lot of guys fight not for the reasons that we used to fight for," Barnett said. "There's a lot of guys that get in here and they just want to get in, make a run, think that they're going to be famous, make a lot of money, what have you. They fight for glory, where we fought for blood and for honor.

"There's still great, true fighters coming out of this, but these guys aren't quite as tough as they used to be. There's way better athletes, they're much better prepared, but some of these guys, they don't have that grit."

Barnett's window in this sport may be tightening, but he trusts one more run still remains inside him. And in Mir, Barnett couldn't ask for a more fitting opponent with which to start his campaign.

When Mir entered the UFC at age 22, he twice fought on the undercard of events that saw Barnett blaze his trail to the promotion's championship. Had the pair met back then, both Barnett and Mir agree, Barnett would've won.

Ten years later, Barnett awaits nothing less than the same result, if only with a few subtle tweaks.

"The first time around, I went all the way to the top and won the heavyweight championship of the world," Barnett said. "I don't expect any different, other than to get, probably, paid a lot more money and get a lot more stardom and fandom out of this whole thing because of the explosion of MMA as a whole. Probably a lot more Twitter followers too."