More than a few surprised sighs were heard earlier this month when the UFC released TUF 17 alumnus Luke "Bigslow" Barnatt. Sure, the lanky middleweight had crossed into uncertain waters with his recent three-fight losing skid, but two of those losses were debatable split decisions, and the last of the trio came in nigh-unwinnable circumstances -- a retirement bout against one of the most beloved figures in the sport, Mark Munoz, in Munoz's native Philippines.
Considering that Barnatt had been a trooper throughout the entire slide, and was an articulate Englishman with a decent fanbase too boot, all signs pointed to the 27-year-old likely getting once last opportunity to prove his mettle inside the Octagon. That opportunity, though, never came, and the man in the middle of it all couldn't say he was surprised to see his pink slip.
"I completely expected it after the last three that I had," Barnatt admitted Monday on The MMA Hour. "I had a glimmering hope in the back of my mind that they might take into account the Sean Strickland fight that was not really a loss. But you know, it's the fight business and I've lost three in a row.
"If the UFC aren't interested and they think I need to go away and win some fights, then I'm not going to beg for my job. I understand where they're at. They have 600+ fighters on the roster. You can't be losing fights."
Barnatt's announcement signified the end of a UFC run that started out so promising on The Ultimate Fighter 17, on which the then-undefeated Barnatt was Chael Sonnen's first overall pick. "Bigslow" racked up a pair of wins on the show, then notched three more to officially start his UFC career, highlighted by a spectacular head kick knockout of Mats Nilsson in Barnatt's native England.
Things unraveled quickly, though. Around the time Barnatt suffered his first controversial split decision loss to Strickland, his team in Cambridge -- Tsunami Fight Gym -- began to break apart, forcing Barnatt to relocate to California's Alliance MMA. The transatlantic transition proved hard to recover from, and now that his UFC run is at an end, Barnatt realizes he may have rushed his decision-making in an effort to snap his slump.
"When it comes to just raw talent, skills, and coaching, [Alliance MMA] was a much more professional outlet. But I didn't have the basics," Barnatt said. "I didn't have a home. I've been living out of a suitcase chasing my dream for the last year and a half, moving around, not being centered. I think having that, along with not having my team around me, has had a negative effect on me.
"I just want to get completely settled. Find a home, no matter where it is in the world. It doesn't need to be next to the best gym in the world. I just need to have a tight-knit group around me, get training, and really find that home again. I think that's what I've been missing for the last year."
Now a free agent, Barnatt has elected to move closer to family back in England and take his time in setting up the next chapter of his life. He's getting married to his fiancé in 11 weeks, with an eye on returning to fighting by late-October or early November. His ultimate goal is to pick up enough wins to be invited back into the UFC fold, though if an offer is good enough, he'd be open to crossing into rival waters and joining Bellator's middleweight division.
"Obviously the power is in my hands, so before I even announced I had been dismissed from the UFC, I contacted quite a few [promotions]," Barnatt said.
"I'm just weighing out all my options. I'm getting all of the offers in and I'm going to pick the best one that suits me the best. One of the great things about not being with the UFC is you have a little bit more power, you know? You have more choice. You're the fighter, it's up to you. You're the boss. When you're with the UFC, it doesn't really work like that. You wait for the phone and if it calls, it's great. If it rings, it's great. But when you're outside the UFC, you have a bit more power. So I'm going to negotiate my way through and find the best option for me."
Ultimately, mixed martial arts is a game of second and third chances, especially in the heavier weight divisions. Just look at this past Saturday's UFC Fight Night 68 offering, which was not only long on violence, but also reclamation projects and H-bomb delivered validation. So while this latest hurdle may not have been how Barnatt planned his career out, he knows that he's still young enough in the game to turn it around and make some noise before all is said and done.
"If you look at my career, I started mixed martial arts when I was 21 years old," Barnatt said. "I never did anything else before that. I didn't do boxing, Thai boxing, anything. I just went into MMA. It was only six years ago, so within six years I had some fights, turned pro in 2011 in September, and got to the UFC faster than anyone I know. I got there very, very quickly and had a good little run, and I think, to be honest, it was just a bit too early for me. I did it all very quickly and I took to it quite well.
"I don't regret a thing I've done," Barnatt continued. "I think I've had a fantastic journey. Getting let go by the UFC, a lot of people see it as failure. It's failing in an aspect, but it's not like a negative thing for me. I think it's just part of the journey. It's something I need to do. It's something I need to go through.
"I've been to great places. I've traveled the world, I've fought on three different continents in the UFC, and I feel like I've really been a good ambassador for them across Europe and all over. So I'm very, very proud of it and I wouldn't change it for anything. I've tasted what I want to do. I've tasted my dream. I just need to make sure I get back there."